Four Problems and an Implementation Pathway: Human Rights in the 2030 Agenda
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This policy update outlines four concerns or “problems” in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development from the perspective of human rights defenders, and compares follow-up and review arrangements in the UN human rights system with those that are currently taking shape on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Follow-up and review in the human rights system is seen as a pathway for iterative implementation, in which a mixture of State-led reporting, stakeholder input and expert review provide some level of accountability and help set the direction for governments and business to improve the human rights performance.

This policy update outlines four concerns or “problems” in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development from the perspective of human rights defenders, and compares follow-up and review arrangements in the UN human rights system with those that are currently taking shape on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Follow-up and review in the human rights system is seen as a pathway for iterative implementation, in which a mixture of State-led reporting, stakeholder input and expert review provide some level of accountability and help set the direction for governments and business to improve the human rights performance.

Supporters of a stronger approach to human rights suggest that learning from the existing arrangements could strengthen arrangements for follow-up and review of the SDGs and provide an “implementation pathway” that supports action on the human rights aspects of the SDGs, as well as contributing to stronger performance on human rights through other international forums.

Four Problems of Human Rights in the SDGs

Many specific provisions in the SDGs and targets relate to the rights enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and – to a lesser extent – the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. The SDGs also contain many provisions that are reflected in international agreements relevant to specific vulnerable groups, such as the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) and the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD). The UN Human Rights Office (OHCHR), in its mapping of human rights in the SDGs, found relevant commitments reflected in every one of the 17 Goals (OHCHR, 2015).

Yet, in the lead-up to adoption of the 2030 Agenda, some advocates lamented that the SDGs had missed an opportunity to advance human rights, for four reasons.

Firstly, the term “human rights” does not appear in the SDGs. This has been seen as reflecting a conservative backlash on the part of governments that are regressing from universal human rights standards and asserting national sovereignty over international norms and agreements (Hicks, 2015).

Secondly, not all disadvantaged groups are equally recognized in the SDGs. This unevenness is the result of a long and complex bargaining process among UN Member States. For example, indigenous issues are not as well recognized as many would have hoped, whereas migration issues are accorded relatively strong recognition.

Thirdly, human rights advocates have expressed concern about the level of accountability for the follow-up and review of the 2030 Agenda, with particular skepticism about the effectiveness of State-led monitoring. While the High-Level Political Forum on Sustainable Development (HLPF) will be the global hub for follow-up and review, its commitment is to voluntary national reviews, and countries have discretion to select their own indicators. In recent discussions, some have noted their intention to focus on the indicators most relevant for their own national circumstances, to make the best use of scarce statistical resources. The UN Statistical Commission, at its 47th session in New York in March 2016, agreed to the global indicator framework developed by the Inter-Agency and Expert Group on SDGs as the basis for national monitoring efforts. However, questions about its application remain.

Fourthly, questions remain about the implementation of Goal 16 on peace, justice and institutions. This Goal is an important enabler for the realization of rights embodied in the other SDGs, but was contested during negotiations, due to several concerns. Some feared that implementing this Goal may open the way for bringing conflict and security issues into the development agenda, opening the way for development aid to be used to advance some countries’ national security agendas. Some were concerned that Goal 16 could lead to stricter aid conditionality in countries that already face serious development challenges. Some also believed the Goal was misguided, arguing that it is development that brings peace, not the other way round (UN Chronicle, 2014).

Given the issues around negotiating Goal 16, it is likely there will be particular challenges in implementation. Furthermore, the countries that face the greatest challenges in meeting this Goal may be under violent and autocratic regimes, or have weak bureaucracies – diplomatically speaking, governments that are “not exactly good candidates for ‘implementing partners’” (Lawson-Remer, 2015).

The context of these four problems is a political environment that is not consistently supportive of human rights. Concerns have been raised about shrinking civil society space in many countries, as the harassment, persecution and killing of environmental advocates continues, with the greatest risks in recent years being faced by those active on land issues (Knox, 2015). This context is often cited by those who view the SDGs as nothing more than a wish list, rather than having some real “teeth” for accountability.

Follow-up and Review as a Pathway for Iterative Implementation

Nevertheless, many have suggested that the SDGs offer some potential for strengthening the implementation of existing human rights commitments, through the arrangements for follow-up and review that are currently taking shape. These arrangements can be viewed as a broad ”implementation pathway” that enables an overview of the state of SDG implementation, and also provides peer support for encouragement and mutual learning toward further iterations of action.

In its analysis of the SDGs and targets, the Danish Institute for Human Rights found that 156 of the 169 targets defined under the SDGs in the 2030 Agenda – more than 92% – are linked to international human rights instruments and labor standards. The authors of the report suggest that, while human rights offer some guidance for implementation of the 2030 Agenda, the SDGs in turn will contribute to the realization of human rights (Danish Institute for Human Rights, 2016).

It is useful, therefore, to compare the processes for follow-up and reporting on fulfillment of human rights obligations, with those on SDG implementation.

Follow-up and Review in the Human Rights System

In the UN human rights system, States report on how they are meeting their human rights obligations, accompanied by several types of scrutiny.

The UN human rights architecture provides for national reporting through the Human Rights Council (HRC), which meets three times a year and schedules country reviews, according to a rotating schedule of mandatory reports. Since 2006, the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) process has sought efficiency in reporting, by allowing countries to report on all their human rights obligations at the same time. States’ obligations include those set out in: the UN Charter; the Universal Declaration of Human Rights; all human rights instruments to which the State is a party; voluntary pledges and commitments, such as national human rights policies and programmes; and applicable international humanitarian law.

In addition to the governments’ reports, NGOs in some countries may form a consortium that presents a shadow report in parallel with their national government. In other countries, governments may choose to produce their national reports in cooperation with NGOs.

Reviews take place in an interactive discussion between the Member State under review and other UN Member States, during a meeting of the UPR Working Group, which is composed of the 47 State members of the HRC. Each country is allocated three and a half hours for its review, during which any UN Member State can ask questions or make comments. Each country review is assisted by a ‘troika’ of three other Member States, selected by drawing lots, who serve as rapporteurs and who help organize the review process.

Following the review, an outcome report of the discussion is prepared with assistance from OHCHR, consisting of questions, comments and recommendations made by States to the country under review, as well as the responses from the State in question. The reports are later adopted at a HRC plenary session, where the States concerned may make further comments. Crucially, the review reports contain “Concluding Observations,” which describe areas where States are not in full compliance with their existing commitments. Each State has responsibility to follow up on the recommendations; in cases of persistent non-cooperation, the HRC decides on further measures.

The human rights system provides for external oversight through “Special Procedures,” in which independent human rights report and advise on certain issues. The treaty bodies of the human rights conventions also issue, from time to time, “General Comments” that provide comprehensive interpretation of provisions, thus providing a growing body of expert views and guidance for implementation.

Follow-up and review of human rights in the SDGs

By comparison, it is unclear how much scrutiny there will be of state-led reporting under the HLPF, how to address divergence between government reports and other sources of information, such as NGO reports, and how to address differences of interpretation. It is also not yet clear how follow-up and review will be supported at the regional level, and what role the UN regional commissions will play in this. While the UPR offers a possible model for reviewing achievements, by contrast, there is not yet any expert oversight mechanism associated with the SDGs, and countries have firmly agreed that participation in follow-up and review arrangements in the 2030 Agenda is voluntary.

In this context, there are several challenges for monitoring of human rights in the follow-up and review of SDG implementation.

Many countries lack capacity to monitor achievements, not only in relation to human rights but on socioeconomic status generally; they risk becoming overwhelmed by the global indicator framework developed by the Inter-Agency and Expert Group on SDGs (IAEG-SDGs), which contains 231 separate indicators. (In one collective response to this dilemma, the g7+ grouping of fragile and conflict-affected countries has already identified just 20 targets that they have agreed to jointly monitor, supported by the World Bank.)

Beyond the sheer number of indicators to be monitored, there are also conceptual and practical difficulties in relation to some rights-related indicators. For example, statistics on trafficking can vary considerably depending on how ‘trafficking’ is defined. Accurate data on transnational crime is notoriously difficult to obtain, given the nature of the subject. Monitoring of these indicators will not be a straightforward technical exercise, and will require considerable ability to elicit and interpret relevant information.

Perhaps most relevant to human rights monitoring is the Agenda’s call for data to be disaggregated by sex, age, race, ethnicity, migration status, disability, geographic location and other relevant characteristics. Such information potentially highlights particular areas of need, but the collection of such data in itself presents risks for vulnerable groups, and has potential to strengthen stereotypes. Some States may not wish to make some data available, for fear of being negatively perceived. Inevitably, some issues will not be well addressed by State-centric approaches. The muted acknowledgement of indigenous issues, for example, is not surprising, given that territorial claims may be viewed as a threat to national sovereignty.

Human rights monitoring of some issues, including indigenous issues and labor rights, may be better served by other UN processes, for example, the UN Global Compact, and the negotiation of a legally binding instrument on business and human rights (de Schutter, July 2015): such reports may also prove instructive for the HLPF, in relation to national reviews.

Lessons for Implementing Human Rights Through the SDGs

While the current human rights architecture is far from perfect, there are some lessons for SDG implementation. These include: the importance of the role of stakeholders in building a fair and balanced picture of achievement; the value of independent, expert views; and the potential for considering information from other UN processes as part of follow-up and review.

Just as the UPR process aims for efficiency in allowing countries to address all their human rights obligations at the same time, the HLPF may seek similar kinds of efficiencies, if it can successfully draw on information gathered for other monitoring processes, for example, those associated with the Rio Conventions and science-policy platforms such as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and the Intergovernmental Panel on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES). Special Procedures allow for external oversight of the human rights situation, as independent experts – who are not paid by the UN – are appointed to study particular situations. Possibly, the thematic reviews planned as part of the 2030 Agenda may provide a similar function. Finally, “General Comments” of treaty bodies of the human rights conventions are intended as tools to help governments improve their performance with regard to specific obligations: the HLPF could seek to capture the outcomes of the follow-up and review process in a similar way.

Recent remarks by high-level UN representatives offer some insight into how the UN system is viewing human rights implementation through the SDGs.

In his speech at the 31st session of the Human Rights Council, UN General Assembly President Mogens Lykketoft said that current human rights monitoring arrangements could help promote rigorous reporting under the 2030 Agenda. However, it remains to be seen how traditional human rights advocates will use the SDG targets and indicators – if these will become tools used to gain further leverage on human rights issues, or if the targets and indicators will be sidelined in favor of other, more human rights-friendly approaches.

Addressing the Council for Foreign Relations in New York in June 2015, Thomas Gass, UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UNDESA), suggested that the SDGs should be considered more as a social contract than a strategic framework, in which the true test of success will be whether they have succeeded in strengthening the relationship between duty-bearers and rights-holders, and between governments and their people.

Adopting such a perspective implies a “softly, softly” approach to human rights monitoring under the SDGs, and human rights advocates may not find here the kind of accountability they seek. As a set of aspirations underpinned by review and technical assistance, however, the SDGs still hold promise. Follow-up and review of the SDGs will take a more roundabout route to implementing human rights commitments than many advocates would wish for; nevertheless, a focus on the enabling conditions and relationships for meeting human rights commitments may yet lead, ultimately, to successful implementation.


B. Feirin and A. Hassler, Human Rights in Follow-Up and Review of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, Danish Institute for Human Rights, draft version, February 2016.

Danish Institute for Human Rights, The Human Rights Guide to the Sustainable Development Goals, 2016, accessed on 31 March 2016.

International Institute for Sustainable Development (2016) “g7+ Ministerial Commits to Joint Reporting on SDGs,” Sustainable Development Policy & Practice, 24 March 2016.

N. Hicks (2015) “The SDGs Missed Opportunity on Human Rights,” blog post on Huffpost Impact, 23 September 2015.

OHCHR, ‘Basic Facts About the UPR‘, accessed on 31 March 2016.

T. Lawson-Remer (2015) “How Can We Implement Sustainable Development Goal 16 on Institutions?” blog post on Future Development, Brookings website, 1 October 2015.

Council on Foreign Relations (2015), “Negotiating the Post-2015 Development Agenda,” transcript of speech by Thomas Gass on 10 June, 2015, in New York.

UN Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights (2014), Transcript of statement by John Knox, Independent Expert on Human Rights and the Environment, on “The Development of Environmental Human Rights,” 6 November 2014 in Santiago, Chile.

J. Knox (2015) “Human Rights, Environmental Protection, and the Sustainable Development Goals,” Washington International Law Journal, Vol. 24, No. 3, June 2015.

OHCHR (2015) Summary table on the linkages between the SDGs and relevant international human rights instruments.

UN Chronicle (2014) “Goal 16—Ensuring Peace in the Post-2015 Framework: Adoption, Implementation and Monitoring,” April 2015 issue.

The author wishes to thank Stefan Jungcurt, Elena Kosolapova, Faye Leone, Nathalie Risse, Lynn Wagner and Virginia Wiseman for their valuable comments.

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