The SDGs' Missed Opportunity on Human Rights

09/23/2015 09:37 am ET Updated Sep 23, 2016
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon delivers a speech in the assembly hall of the Human Rights Council's Commemorative session
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon delivers a speech in the assembly hall of the Human Rights Council's Commemorative session marking the 60th anniversary of the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, at the European headquarters of the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, Friday Dec. 12, 2008. (AP Photo/Anja Niedringhaus)

Human-rights experts with long experience in efforts to mainstream human rights within the United Nations development process are expressing misgivings about the new UN Sustainable Development Goals, set to be adopted by world leaders later this month. The SDG process has been described as "problematic" and "a missed opportunity" and critics point to a "profound disconnect" between high-minded declaratory language and the lack of human-rights strategies for implementation.

One obvious objection is that the term "human rights" is not mentioned anywhere at all in the 17 proposed goals. Many of the goals have intrinsic or implicit human-rights content, but the omission of the actual term is notable and is indicative of a global climate where more and more states are assertively pushing back against universal human-rights standards and labeling international pressure to encourage compliance as unacceptable interference in their sovereignty.

Goal 16 of the SDGs speaks most explicitly about human rights when it sets forth the need to "provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels." The values of justice and inclusivity encapsulate the vision of human dignity for "all members of the human family" on which the Universal Declaration of Human Rights rests. Accountability is essential to the effective implementation, not only of human-rights safeguards, but also of the SDGs as a whole. Without accountable institutions, how can poverty, health, education, or nutrition levels be reliably measured and evaluated? How can corruption -- another word notably and regrettably absent from the SDGs -- be combatted?

Bringing accountability -- exposing violations by those in power -- is a first-order activity for many human-rights activists around the world. Over the last 30 years, independent, non-governmental human-rights organizations have mushroomed in almost every country in the world. The activities of these independent human-rights organizations, and the activists within them, make accountability real.

Unfortunately, the growth of independent civil-society activism directed toward exposing information that powerful governments would prefer to keep hidden has produced a backlash. States are increasingly taking steps to restrict the ability of independent civil-society organizations to carry out their vital work. Some of these restrictions are blunt and direct: jailing, assaulting, threatening and even killing activists has an inevitable chilling effect on the activities of such organizations.

States have also developed more sophisticated laws for restricting independent civil society and thereby obstructing accountability. The International Center for Not-for-Profit Law has reported that since 2012, more than 90 countries have passed or proposed new laws restricting freedom of association and assembly. Such laws place diverse obstacles in the path of independent civil-society organizations. These include burdensome registration requirements; broad, intrusive governmental powers that strip NGOs of the capacity for independent action; and limitations on the ability of organizations to raise funds both domestically and internationally. The reliance of many NGOs in less-developed countries on foreign funding is a vulnerability -- often created by authoritarian governments, which are able to deter potential local donors with the threat of reprisals -- exploited by many governments to portray independent human-rights activists as disloyal agents of foreign powers, thereby discrediting them. This negative global trend, referred to as "shrinking civil-society space" will make it more difficult for the lofty aspirations set forth in the SDGs to be implemented. Without the accountability provided by the free operation of independent civil-society organizations, there will be a severe shortage of reliable data about global progress toward implementing the goals.

The Global Summit to be held later this week will adopt an outcome document, "Transforming Our World By 2030: A New Agenda for Global Action." To be more than just aspirational rhetoric, the outcome document should include strong, clear language emphasizing the vital role of independent civil-society organizations in ensuring that the SDGs move from paper to implementation around the world. The vision of accountability set forth in Goal 16 requires safeguards for the free operation of independent civil-society organizations.

This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post, "What's Working: Sustainable Development Goals," in conjunction with the United Nations' Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The proposed set of milestones will be the subject of discussion at the UN General Assembly meeting on Sept. 25-27, 2015 in New York. The goals, which will replace the UN's Millennium Development Goals (2000-2015), cover 17 key areas of development -- including poverty, hunger, health, education, and gender equality, among many others. As part of The Huffington Post's commitment to solutions-oriented journalism, this What's Working SDG blog series will focus on one goal every weekday in September. This post addresses Goal 16.

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