Human Rights and the Sustainable Development Goals: A Complex Relationship

By Ilaria Ravazzolo, GLOBUS Correspondent

Most people are familiar with the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals (also known by its acronym SDGs) or have at least heard of them. Similarly, I assume that most people have heard of human rights – also a concept supported and ratified by the UN. Even if you don’t know much about the SDGs and you can’t name all of the human rights, you would probably assume that human rights play an important role in sustainable development and are thus also an integral part of the SDGs. You’re not wrong, the protection of human rights is inherent in sustainable development. In fact, it has been claimed that the Sustainable Development Goals are a ‘transformative development framework’ because they are based on human rights. However, none of the goals or their targets actually include a direct reference to human rights. That strikes me as quite peculiar, which is why I decided to dedicate this article to it.

First, let me give you some context so that we’re all on the same page. The UN adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) in 1948. This is a ‘milestone document’ that was drafted by a group led by Eleanor Roosevelt. At the time, she was US representative in the UN and Chairman of the Commission on Human Rights. She referred to the declaration as the ‘international Magna Carta for all mankind’. The motivation for the UDHR came from the wish to never allow the atrocities that had taken place during the Second World War to happen again. It was meant to be a document which all member countries could sign and agree on, which was especially important at a time when the Cold War divided the world into two blocks. Indeed, over 50 member states participated in the final drafting of the declaration. However, the final document is not legally binding and therefore has no force of law. Similarly, the Sustainable Development Goals are also not legally binding, although they were adopted by all member states of the United Nations in 2015. They are part of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, which ‘provides a shared blueprint for peace and prosperity for people and the planet, now and into the future’. The SDGs are a set of goals divided into 17 areas that each have specific targets to achieve sustainability by 2030. These are designed to show the interconnectedness of policies to end poverty with policies to improve health and education, reduce inequality and increase economic growth, while at the same time preserving biodiversity and reducing climate change. The 2030 Agenda emphasises that it will only be possible for everyone to enjoy all human rights if the SDGs and their targets are implemented worldwide. Therefore, human rights ‘lie at the core’ of the Sustainable Development Goals.

Somewhat ironically though, none of the goals or their targets specify the focus on human rights. Instead, many goals have a strong link to one or more articles in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Take for example SDG2 which aims to ‘end hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture’. Looking specifically at Target 2.1 – ending hunger and ensuring universal access to a sufficient amount of safe and nutritious food – it becomes apparent that there is a direct link to Article 11.1 in the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. This article recognises the right of all people to have an ‘adequate standard of living’ this includes ‘adequate food’. Article 25 of the UDHR also recognises the right to a ‘standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family’ which also includes ‘food, clothing, housing and medical care’. Interestingly, this also shows how Article 25 directly links to SDG3 (good health and well-being) and to SDG11 (sustainable cities and communities) as well. SDG3 focuses, amongst other things, on providing adequate medical care while SDG11 aims to provide housing that is sustainable and safe for everyone. From this it is more than obvious that a direct reference in the Sustainable Development Goals to the individual articles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights – or even to the document as a whole – would be adequate. This is especially true given that the success of the Sustainable Development Agenda and the SDGs, if not supported by the international human rights system, will be limited. Indeed it has been argued that without the human rights system, it will be impossible to ‘fulfil the promise of the SDGs to “leave no one behind”’

Perhaps the reason why human rights aren’t explicitly mentioned in the wording of the SDGs and their targets relates to the fact that human rights as a concept have been much disputed internationally. There has been much international disagreement over which rights to protect as human rights. Over time, there were six major human rights treaties that specified new additions to human rights. These treaties were ratified by over 150 countries. Yet, many of these countries are still hostile to the concept of human rights and it’s questionable to what extent they are serious about protecting them. There is also another dimension to this debate. Even if all governments seriously protected all 30 human rights, they would face the question of which human rights to prioritise. In some cases, ‘protecting one human right might prevent a government from protecting another’. Take the right to religious freedom, for example, which in some cases conflicts with the rights encouraging the emancipation of women and gender equality. Governments have to decide which right to prioritise and protect, which adds ambiguity and potential for conflict and international disagreement to the debate. As a result, when drafting the Sustainable Development Goals, the UN might have seen it as more important to receive the approval of all its member states and thus may have avoided directly referring to human rights. It may be that more countries are now seriously pursuing the goals and targets in the 2030 Agenda because the question of human rights was not part of the discussion. 

Nevertheless, human rights clearly are an essential component of sustainable development. Sustainability cannot be achieved without ensuring the protection of universal human rights. The fact that there is no direct reference to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights or human rights as a concept in the Sustainable Development Goals is problematic and, in my opinion, weakens the effectiveness of the goals. The ambiguity in the wording may achieve international agreement on the 2030 Agenda but it remains unclear how far it will be successful. Additionally, this issue triggers some important questions: Which human rights should we prioritise? Is it even possible to protect all 30 human rights to the same extent in every country? What is more important, international agreement or holistic sustainability? Is it necessary to achieve the same level of sustainability in all countries? Can true sustainability even be achieved worldwide?

Header image by nerdsane via Flickr

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