2 August 2018
Unanswered Questions: How Civil Society’s Contributions to Sustainable Development are Undermined at the HLPF
Photo by IISD | Lynn Wagner
story highlights

Civil society are often on the frontlines, protecting the most vulnerable in our societies as well as our natural resources– vital work that must be protected and not attacked.

Governments should be mindful of their commitments to civil society partnerships under SDG target 17.17 as they present their Voluntary National Reviews.

Civil society’s role as an implementer makes civic space essential to achieving the 2030 Agenda.

As Colombia joined 45 other countries in New York last month to review progress towards achieving the 2030 Agenda, four grassroots activists were killed as they fought for sustainable development in Colombian communities. A question posed by an Indigenous representative to the government about such killings – of which there were more than 100 last year – went unanswered, illustrating the many layers at which civil society is obstructed from meaningful participation in achieving the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, from the local level to the UN High-level Political Forum on Sustainable Development (HLPF).

Civil society are often on the frontlines, protecting the most vulnerable in our societies as well as our natural resources– vital work that must be protected and not attacked. When activists are killed, kidnapped and locked up because of their defense of the environment and human rights, the 2030 Agenda is set back. These actions undermine the achievement of targets under Goal 16, and they are also a slap in the face for the wider civil society community, which continues to make some of the most important contributions to achieving the 2030 Agenda at national and global levels.

Meanwhile, governments are also restricting civil society’s involvement in monitoring the 2030 Agenda at the annual meeting of the HLPF in New York. This is the forum where governments present their Voluntary National Reviews – reports that account for the progress they have made towards achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). This year’s HLPF, which concluded on 18 July, continued several bad habits that have dogged the body’s five-year existence, and which place crucial limits on civil society engagement.

The Colombian government’s skirting of the question on human rights defenders is just one example of how governments can hide behind the limited time and format of the Voluntary National Review process. In another example, the government of Switzerland prepared its Voluntary National Review with active engagement from civil society, but presented a much shorter version that omitted a number of sections, including text on the impacts of Swiss financial institutions on global economic inequality.

Not content to sit on the sidelines, even when facing the threat of retaliation, civil society is increasingly producing its own reports to complement the Voluntary National Reviews. The UN has yet to provide a mechanism to include civil society reports in the formal review process, and the format of the HLPF continues to undermine any real potential for meaningful engagement from civil society. Governments are only allotted 30 minutes in which to present their report and take questions and statements from other Member States as well as civil society. In this year’s sessions, only one or two representatives from civil society were able to publicly comment on their government’s report during each session. Often civil society collaborates to produce a joint statement that must fit into just two minutes, giving extremely limited space for diverse voices to be heard.

And while some governments include civil society in their official delegations, the limited time allocated still restricts their voices. This proved the case when Canada invited Chief Wilton Littlefoot to join the Canadian delegation on the podium as the government presented its Voluntary National Review, an inclusion that amounted to little more than a token gesture given that there was not enough time for Chief Littlefoot to speak during the proceedings.

At the other end of the spectrum, some civil society representatives were concerned they would face government reprisal if they posed even benign questions in this public setting. The fear of some activists to speak out, even at the UN, is a harsh reminder of the reality of the threats posed by governments towards civil society in many of the countries under review at this year’s HLPF.

As data from the CIVICUS Monitor shows, civic space is rated “closed” in seven of the 46 countries that submitted their reviews to this year’s HLPF: Egypt, Lao People’s Democratic Republic, the United Arab Emirates, Viet Nam, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and Sudan. These countries restrict civil society to the point that few if any non-governmental organizations exist, let alone work to hold leaders accountable, promote human rights or monitor their governments’ progress towards achieving sustainable development.

Repression of civil society in these countries also tells us that their government leaders have failed to recognize the many valuable contributions that civil society can make to sustainable development at the national level. While civil society organisations often play an important role as watchdogs by holding governments accountable, they are also often some of the primary implementing partners working with governments to achieve most of the SDGs, from health to equality to climate change. By contrast, governments and the UN seem intent on increasing the private sector’s involvement in SDGs, without also acknowledging that much greater private sector accountability is required if the Goals are to be achieved. Instead of holding the private sector to account for its contributions to rising inequalities, environmental degradation, unsustainable consumption and more, the UN is inviting private sector organizations to present their “achievements” in New York, with little to no scrutiny.

Civil society’s role as an implementer makes civic space essential to achieving the 2030 Agenda. Civic space is measured under SDG target 16.10, which encompasses fundamental freedoms such as the right to peaceful assembly and freedom of association. One of the indicators for this target is the number of killings of human rights advocates, an issue too many governments are failing to address. Governments should be mindful of this commitment as they implement the Agenda and look for ways to support truly inclusive participation from civil society in their efforts at both the national and international levels.

Governments should also be mindful of their commitments to civil society partnerships under SDG target 17.17 as they present their Voluntary National Reviews. The lack of space for civil society scrutiny meant that several of the VNR sessions during the 2018 HLPF became a space for governments to boast of their achievements with virtually no scrutiny of their claims. In some cases, the presentations included videos that seemed primarily promotional in purpose, taking up precious minutes that could be used for a more interactive presentation.

In 2019, the format of the High-level Political Forum will be under review and CIVICUS urges member states to use this as an opportunity to formalize civil society’s valuable contributions to the 2030 Agenda. This formalization should include providing a way for civil society organisations to present their own reports to complement the Voluntary National Reviews prepared by governments as well as longer review sessions at the HLPF to allow for more meaningful critiques from civil society and other member states.

It is positive that many governments at this year’s HLPF spoke of their partnerships with civil society. In order to achieve the 2030 Agenda, these partnerships need to be meaningful, and most importantly civil society needs to be free to contribute their end of the bargain, without fear of reprisals.

Lyndal Rowlands works in UN Advocacy for CIVICUS, the global alliance for citizen participation, and previously covered the launch of the 2030 Agenda as a member of the UN press corps. Twitter: @lyndalrowlands

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