Katharine Woolrych: Human Rights and the Sustainable Development Goals

Almost three weeks ago, AYLI delegates had - for the first time - the opportunity to attend New Zealand’s third Universal Periodic Review before the United Nations in Geneva.  The Universal Periodic Review (UPR) is the five-yearly process whereby states are reviewed on their compliance with international human rights treaties and norms and given recommendations by other UN Member States, and is unique in its universal recognition by Member States - with even North Korea participating - and thus represents an important mechanism for ensuring state accountability for human rights.

During our time in Geneva we met with various UN agencies to discuss the significance of the UPR for their agency and the role they believe furthering human rights can have in the UN’s stated mission to promote worldwide peace and security.   Perhaps unsurprisingly for those familiar with the UN, one recurrent theme of our meetings was the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), and the often under-utilised relationship between development and human rights. These two agendas naturally converge, and when combined are doubly powerful:  I will thus argue the need for the SDGs to be at the forefront of recommendations made during the current third cycle of the UPR.

Sustainable Development Goals

What are the Sustainable Development Goals?

The 17 goals, which encompass social concerns, such as poverty, hunger and health, environmental concerns, for instance climate change, conservation and sustainable consumption, and economic concerns, such as growth and inequality, seek to pave the way for global development until 2030.   Every UN agency has, since 2015, included in their mandate these goals that commit not only to ‘leaving no one behind’, but reaching those furthest behind first.

How are the SDGs related to human rights?

There exist many obvious synergies between these goals and those of human rights advocates.   To give just a few examples: Goal 5, Gender Inequality, demands fundamental political, social and economic rights for women; Goal 4, Quality Education, effectively corresponds to Article 26 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, demanding free and accessible education for all.   Because the SDGs seek to further a vision of development that aims to expand people’s capabilities and freedoms, human rights are inevitably at their core.

Yet the SDGs themselves seem to strategically avoid clear references to human rights.  This is particularly evident in Goal 16 which highlights human trafficking, detention without sentencing, attacks on human rights defenders, journalists and trade unionists, and the need for national human rights institutions.  It would seem obvious that this goal’s title would reference human rights. Reportedly however, strong opposition from dissent states led to the omission of any reference to human rights, in favour of the more inoffensive title of ‘Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions’.   This pressure from states could also explain why, despite claiming to be grounded in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the goals do not themselves highlight their clear connections with the Declaration - for instance, by never explicitly asserting that access to healthcare is a human right.

Beyond the text of the SDGs however, the convergence between human rights and the SDGs is widely acknowledged.   The United Nations Development Programme for instance pride themselves on taking a human-led, rights-based approach to development.  Yet because the last two cycles of the UPR took place before the advent of the Goals, the SDGs have never been seen as particularly relevant to the UPR process.  

A newfound connection?

This third cycle of the UPR I hope marks the dawn of a newfound relationship between the two, with UPR-Info urging civil society and Recommending States to explicitly link their recommendations to the SDGs.  The week before New Zealand’s review, at the Human Rights Council Intersessional Meeting on the 2030 Agenda, former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson expressed her ambition that the UPR can be a powerful means to bind states to SDG-related commitments.   When states chose to support UPR recommendations, they become obligated to implement those recommendations, and can be held accountable both at their five-yearly review, and by domestic civil society and media.

The beauty of the SDGs is that their goals and targets often provide ready-made recommendations with specific and measurable indicators.  SDG Target 5.3 for instance, aims to:

‘Eliminate all harmful practices, such as child, early and forced marriage and female genital mutilation’

This target is accompanied by clear indicators and definitions that could be effectively recycled to save effort and minimise complexity in the UPR process.  Furthermore, the SDGs and the data collected in relation to them provide a vast resource for civil society groups seeking to highlight human rights shortfalls and communicate their issues to Recommending States.

Panel discussion on strong and meaningful partnerships between human rights and the SDGs, at the Human Rights Council Intersessional Meeting on the 2030 Agenda (16th January 2019).

Panel discussion on strong and meaningful partnerships between human rights and the SDGs, at the Human Rights Council Intersessional Meeting on the 2030 Agenda (16th January 2019).

Hope for the Third Cycle

Both Recommending States and States Under Review must have the SDGs at the forefront of their agendas during the third cycle of the UPR, because the convergence of human rights and development is to the benefit of all.   The SDGs, in spite of their aversion to explicit human rights language, inherently promote fundamental freedoms. Incorporating targets from these goals into UPR recommendations may then represent a means of ensuring real commitments and thus accountability on the part of governments.  

Perhaps most importantly, Incorporating the SDGs into UPR recommendations signifies a acknowledgement that development can only be pursued whilst respecting human rights. When more links are made between these fields, we begin to realise that development relies upon participation, non-discrimination and accountability:  thus, progress for humanity depends upon our ability to promote and protect the rights of all to equality, agency, and justice - the principles embodied by human rights.