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The SDGs at the Human Rights Council, March 2017

The SDGs at the Human Rights Council, March 2017

SNAPSHOT – the SDGs at the Human Rights Council, March 2017


The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) continued to be prominent in resolutions and debates on economic, social and cultural (ESC) rights at the 34th session of the Human Rights Council. At least six ESC rights resolutions adopted at this session, referred to the SDGs and the annual full Day Meeting on the rights of the child addressed the theme ‘Protection of the rights of the child in the implementation of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development’ lead by Uruguay and the EU. This was also the theme of a report of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (A/HRC/34/27) and a resolution adopted by the Council (A/HRC/RES/34/16) which contained some interesting paragraphs such as this one noting the human rights foundations of the 2030 Agenda:

‘Recalling further that the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development is guided by the purposes and principles of the Charter of the United Nations, grounded in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, international human rights treaties, including the Convention on the Rights of the Child and its Optional Protocols, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women and the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities ……and that the Agenda is to be implemented, followed-up and reviewed in a manner that is consistent with the obligations of States under international law.’[1]

And this paragraph linking climate change and the 2030 Agenda:

‘Welcoming the entry into force of the Paris Agreement, adopted under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, noting that climate change exacerbates risks to those in the most vulnerable situations, including children, and underlining that the effective implementation of the Agreement reinforces the 2030 Agenda.’[2]

The resolution also called for a child-rights based approach to the SDGs:

‘Encourages States to promote a child rights-based approach in the implementation of the 2030 Agenda, in accordance with their obligations under international law and underpinned by the principles of, inter alia, human rights and fundamental freedoms for all, equality and non-discrimination, the best interests of the child, the child’s right to life, survival and development and participation, sustainability, transparency, international cooperation and accountability.’[3]

Echoing some concepts in the ESC rights omnibus resolution (see below), the Council:

‘encourages States to take into account in the national reviews of progress on the Sustainable Development Goals the reports and recommendations from the existing human rights review processes in which States already participate.’[4]

The resolution specifically requested the High Commissioner for Human Rights to engage in the SDGs follow-up processes:

‘contribute to the work of the high-level political forum on sustainable development, in consultation with relevant stakeholders, … particularly by providing inputs from a child rights perspective to the yearly thematic reviews of progress at the forum, focusing on achievements and challenges…’[5]

Finally, the Council requested the Special Rapporteur on the sale and sexual exploitation of children to participate in international forums and to advise on effective practices to realise the rights of child victims of sale and sexual exploitation in the implementation of the 2030 Agenda and to undertake thematic research on the effective implementation of Goals 5, 8 and 16.[6]

Portugal’s annual omnibus resolution on ESC rights (A/HRC/RES/34/4) also focused on the SDGs, recognising the strong links between ESC rights and the 2030 Agenda:

‘the commitments made by States in the 2030 Agenda to leave no one behind, and to reach the furthest behind first, founded on the dignity of the human person, and reflecting the principles of equality and non-discrimination ... .’[7]

Another important element of this resolution was its recognition of the important role of the human rights mechanisms in the implementation and monitoring of the SDGs:

‘Notes with appreciation the contributions of international human rights mechanisms, including the Human Rights Council and its subsidiary bodies, international human rights treaty bodies, the special procedures and the universal periodic review in promoting the implementation of the 2030 Agenda in accordance with States’ human rights obligations, encourages States to give due consideration to information, observations and recommendations from human rights mechanisms when implementing and monitoring progress of the 2030 Agenda, and to promote the cooperation of all stakeholders towards the full integration of human rights into the said processes.’[8]

Finally, the resolution requests the Secretary-General to submit to the Human Rights Council a report on ‘the role of economic, social and cultural rights in the transformation towards sustainable and resilient societies’. The topic was chosen to align with the theme for the 2018 High Level Political Forum of the Sustainable Development Agenda ‘transformation towards sustainable and resilient societies.’[9]

The report of the Secretary General on ESC rights (A/HRC/34/25) also provided a comprehensive discussion of the linkages between economic, social and cultural rights and the SDGs framework, highlighting that the two agendas are converging and that many of the SDGs targets mirror the human rights framework, the concept of indivisibility of rights and the normative content of ESC rights, such as the concepts of availability, accessibility, affordability, and quality. Further, it highlights that the central principles of the 2030 Agenda, such as leaving no one behind and reaching the furthest behind, reflect the human rights principles of equality and non-discrimination which cut across all of the SDGs[10] and that reducing inequality within and between countries is targeted in Goal 10 and is also crucial for achieving many of the other Goals.[11]

On accountability, the report calls for the 2030 Agenda accountability framework to be strengthened and linked with established human rights accountability mechanisms. It underlines the importance of international co-operation in this context and the need to address global inequalities and identifies participation of rights-holders in decisions that affect the enjoyment of their rights and accountability of multi-stakeholder partnerships, including business and private sector partners, as essential elements of effective accountability.[12]

One of the very interesting aspects of the report is the discussion of the contributions of international human rights mechanisms. The report notes that more than half of the SDGs targets are already being monitored by UN human rights mechanisms and that recommendations and concluding observations of those mechanisms can ‘play an important role in identifying key human rights issues at the country level and in prioritizing the most excluded and marginalized individuals and groups that will be relevant to the implementation of the Goals.[13] A number of the human rights treaty bodies and many of the Special Procedures mandate holders are already engaged in work to highlight and exploit the linkages between the SDGs and human rights. The Human Rights Council has also explored this topic through resolutions, panel discussions and the UPR and inputs to the HLPF. The report urges that this engagement be deepened and become the norm.

Overall, in negotiations and discussions throughout the session, States continued to be interested in highlighting the 2030 Agenda and some were keen to underline the links with human rights (seen in the Child rights and ESC rights resolutions), but most remained reluctant to identify specific ways in which the human rights mechanisms could engage in the SDGs process. In addition, many States continued to insist on only referring to the SDGs by quoting the language of the Agenda or relevant GA resolutions and to insist that Geneva based mechanisms should not be discussing the SDGs as it was a matter for New York.

In an interesting and positive development, Chile, Denmark, Ecuador Luxembourg, Portugal, Rwanda and Uruguay made a Joint Statement on this topic under Item 8. The Statement announces a new initiative on Human Rights and the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. It begins by noting that ‘many people have been left behind by globalization and excluded from the benefits of socio-economic development’ and highlighting acute and rising inequalities both within and between countries. It describes human rights and the 2030 Agenda as interdependent and mutually reinforcing and says that if the SDGs are to ‘leave no one behind’, ‘then human rights obligations and commitments must be applied, realised and protected by all UN member States’ and conversely, human rights can only be realised if the SDGs are implemented and poverty eradicated.

The sponsors of the Joint Statement therefore ‘believe that it is imperative for the Council to give careful consideration to the nature of our role: how can the UN’s human rights pillar – including this Council, the UN human rights mechanisms, OHCHR, NHRIs and civil society - best support and contribute to the realisation of the SDGs, leaving no one behind.’ The State sponsors eschew an abstract theoretical debate or more report writing, and instead call for an action-oriented and inclusive conversation on topics such as ‘how can the UN human rights system support States to realise the SDGs at country-level, including by delivering effective human rights capacity-building and technical support, and sharing best practice.’

Specifically, the new initiative proposes an informal open-ended meeting later in 2017, to discuss how the human rights pillar can best contribute to the realisation of, and follow-up to, the SDGs, with the ultimate aim of pursing ‘a practical programme of work premised on seizing every available opportunity provided to the UN Human Rights system to support States as they work to implement the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, leaving no one behind.

This is a very welcome initiative, and whilst we might have hoped the Statement would attract a greater number of State sponsors, including more African and Asian States, it is an important first step which opens the space for a more focused dialogue on this important topic. The leadership of the State sponsors will be crucial in bringing together a broader cross-regional group of States to champion a rights-based approach to the SDGs, as will the continuing work of the OHCHR, Special Procedures and treaty bodies in producing research, analysis, recommendations and proactive initiatives that assist States to see concrete ways to embed human rights in their SDGs plans. As States are finalising and activating those plans, now is the time to reinforce the message that effective and sustainable achievement of the aims of the 2030 Agenda will not be possible without embracing human rights in the implementation, follow-up and review processes.

31 March 2017

Lucy McKernan Geneva Representative, Global Initiative for Economic, Social and Cultural Rights

[1] A/HRC/RES/34/16, preambular paragraph 8.

[2] A/HRC/RES/34/16, preambular paragraph 9.

[3] A/HRC/RES/34/16, operative paragraph 6.

[4] A/HRC/RES/34/16, operative paragraph 17.

[5] A/HRC/RES/34/16, operative paragraph 27.

[6] A/HRC/RES/34/16, operative paragraph 31.

[7] Human Rights Council resolution on economic, social and cultural rights, March 2017, A/HRC/RES/34/4, paragraph 7.

[8] A/HRC/RES/34/4, paragraph 8.

[9] See General Assembly resolution A/RES/70/299 on ‘Follow-up and review of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development at the global level’, paragraph 3.

[10] Report of the Secretary-General to the Human Rights Council, ‘Question of the realisation in all countries of economic, social and cultural rights’, 14 December 2016, A/HRC/34/25, paragraph 15.

[11] A/HRC/34/25, paragraph 17.

[12] A/HRC/34/25, paragraphs 22-25.

[13] A/HRC/34/25, paragraph 41.

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