Blog post

Human rights and sustainable development: a mutually-reinforcing connection

Danish Institute for Human RightsFri, 13 July 2018#RebuildingTrust

Seventy years after the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, human rights are under pressure around the world, including Europe.

At this turning point, the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development represents an opportunity to re-energise the drive for a more equal world through the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which address a comprehensive array of issues encompassing the economic, social and environmental dimensions of sustainable development.

The 2030 Agenda: new energy for human rights?

The adoption of the 2030 Agenda represents an international milestone, not only in terms of complexity and comprehensiveness, but also with a view to the degree of transparency and public participation in the process of negotiation. Since then, the human rights community has highlighted how the agenda is anchored in human rights and its transformative potential.

The Agenda is explicitly grounded in international human rights instruments, and the 17 SDGs “seek to realise the human rights of all”. The 2030 Agenda and human rights are therefore mutually-reinforcing: Human rights offer guidance for the implementation of the 2030 Agenda, as it is underpinned by legally-binding human rights instruments. Likewise, the 2030 Agenda and the SDGs can contribute substantially to the realisation of human rights.

The links between human rights and the SDGs

The issues addressed by the 17 goals and their 169 targets reflect a wide range of both civil and political as well as economic, social and cultural rights. The Danish Institute for Human Rights’ Human Rights Guide to the SDGs shows that more than 90% of SDG targets are linked to specific provisions of international and regional human rights instruments, including European human rights instruments.

The proposed mechanisms for monitoring (follow-up and review) of the 2030 Agenda also reflect key fundamental and cross-cutting human rights principles of participation, accountability and non-discrimination. The 2030 Agenda as a whole is intended to be implemented holistically, also reflecting the indivisibility and inter-dependence of human rights.

Leaving no one behind: realizing the human rights of all

In times of increased intolerance ensuring non-discrimination is of paramount importance. The pledge of the 2030 Agenda to leave no one behind reflects fundamental human rights principles of non‐discrimination and equality. The intention of the Agenda to ‘realise the human rights of all’ reflects the need to ensure all parts of society are reached by efforts to achieve the SDGs. This recognises the role that discrimination and inequality play in influencing uneven development outcomes for different sectors of society.

If non-discrimination is ensured in its implementation and monitoring, the 2030 Agenda can become a powerful means of fighting inequality and realising the rights of marginalised groups or those who lag behind in development due to discrimination or structural barriers.

The existence of data for monitoring is key for measuring the progress of different groups to ensure that no one is being left behind.The SDGs come with a set of 232 global indicators to monitor progress.

To enable the measurement of progress towards the SDGs for specific groups or sector of society, the 2030 Agenda specifies that its follow‐up and review will be informed by data, which is “disaggregated by income, sex, age, race, ethnicity, migration status, disability and geographic location and other characteristics relevant in national contexts”. These characteristics reflect many of the ‘prohibited grounds of discrimination’ in human rights law.

The data requirements for measuring progress are significant. To identify and fill data gaps, new approaches are needed including partnerships between states, representatives of rights holders, civil society and other partners.

To this end, in Denmark, the National Statistical Office, Statistics Denmark, established a national ‘SDG Data Partnership’, which involves civil society organisations, private enterprises, academia, as well as the Danish Institute for Human Rights. National human rights institutions can also play a key role in these partnerships, such as in Kenya where the Kenyan National Commission on Human Rights has signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the National Bureau of Statistics, with a view to ensuring that indicators and data adopt a human rights-based approach.

Using human rights to guide and monitor implementation

Given the extensive synergies between human rights standards and principles and the 2030 Agenda, it follows that the recommendations of bodies responsible for supervising the realisation of States’ human rights obligations can be of great value in guiding implementation and support for the monitoring of the SDGs. Indeed, building strategies and plans that are based on the recommendations of human rights supervisory bodies, is a key first step in the development of a human rights-based approach to development.

Human rights recommendations can also help to identify concrete actions – such as, for example, legislative change, gathering of adequate data and ensuring participation of rights-holders – needed to improve the situation for specific rights holders.

Take, for example, the Universal Periodic Review (UPR). Our analysis of more than 55,000 UPR recommendations shows that more than half of them are substantially connected to specific targets of the 17 SDGs, and can inform their implementation from a human rights perspective.

If we look at the relevance of these recommendations for a specific group of rights-holders – people with disabilities – we can see that during the Second UPR Cycle, just over 1,500 recommendations addressed this group. Of these recommendations, 43% were of direct relevance for specific SDG targets. The majority addressed the issue of equal access to education and inclusive schools, with access to public spaces and public transportation featuring as another key issue for this rights-holder group.


(Articles posted on this blog represent the views and opinions of the authors)

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