This Friday begins the three-day summit at which United Nations member states will adopt 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and 169 targets to replace the Millennium Development Goals which expire at the end of the year. The SDGs will come into force on 1 January 2016 to frame development agendas and policies over the next 15 years.
For a long time, development was the domain of pure economic indicators; however, this year’s SDGs are a significant step towards a more holistic understanding of development as encompassing human development and governance. For example, Paragraphs 18-20 of the SDGs’ draft refer to human rights standards, including that “the Agenda will be implemented in a manner that is consistent with the rights and obligations of states under international law.”
Looking back on the global financial crisis and recent Greek debt crisis, where neoliberal and capitalist policies such as non-intervention, minimal regulation, and free-market reign with disregard for people brought about disastrous results for people as well as the global economy, 2015 is the right time for the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights to identify a set of priorities to ensure that the implementation of the SDGs and their targets will be in line with international human rights standards that integrate fundamental “people” concerns at the core of development programs and projects.
Why human rights are relevant to the post-2015 development agenda
At first sight, human rights might be seen as a burdensome interference on the invisible hand of the free market and as issues that have little to do with economic performance and more to do with do-good wishful thinking. However, human rights are complementary to economics in many ways, and there is a utilitarian argument to be made for their integration in economic and financial analysis, away from a zero-sum game model.
Universal ownership theory concludes that the workforce’s decreasing standards of living and wellbeing, as a result of economic actors violating human rights by trying to externalize health and social costs, result in decreasing productivity, which slows down economic growth and development as a whole. While the harmful actions of an economic actor with regard to human rights would prove beneficial to that company, for universal owners with a large and varied investment portfolio, the profit from that one company would be lost in the context of overall economic slow-down. Universal ownership theory, therefore, predicts that large institutional investors, whose profit margins are tightly linked to economic growth as a whole, would put pressure on individual economic actors to respect human rights.
From a different perspective, human rights such as freedom of speech, opinion, information, and association are the cornerstones of innovative, vibrant, and entrepreneurial cultures. It is difficult to imagine Silicon Valley blossoming if it were in an authoritarian state that represses basic freedoms, or to imagine the next Facebook or Twitter inventor being educated in a system that discourages free thought, economic independence, and freedom. Big economic and business ideas traditionally come from contexts and societies characterized by respect for human rights. It is this type of business culture of innovation which has the potential to improve lives exponentially and lift the developing world out of poverty, without natural resource or forced labor exploitation.
Increased participation of women in the workforce can also unlock untapped economic potential, as espoused in Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s “Abenomics.” By excluding women, societies exclude roughly half of their ideas, work, and potential. Women’s economic participation is also a human rights issue, which correlates with performance. A study by Credit Suisse revealed that companies with female board members do better in terms of stock market performance. The research compared the share performance of companies with market capitalization of more than $10 billion over the past six years, and established that those with female board members outperformed their counterparts with all-male boards by 26 percent.
Priorities for the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights
Equality, non-discrimination, and economic and social inclusion—in line with human rights obligations under Articles 2 and 26 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and Articles 2 and 3 of the International Covenant on Economic, Cultural, and Social Rights (ICESCR)— should be the cornerstone of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Right’s (OHCHR) engagement in order to ensure that no one is left behind, as per the SDGs’ promise. Special attention should be paid to migrant treatment in engagement with national authorities and international institutions in order to ensure that development financing will have a migrant component to address the mounting migration crisis taking many lives. OHCHR should encourage partners to undertake an economic study on the benefits that migrants bring to economies and create active communication campaigns in this regard.
As per Goal 5 of the SDGs on improving gender equality, OHCHR should remain committed to advising member states on integrating gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls in economic and social programs, and use its experts’ experience in relation to the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women to help member states identify the gaps in law and practice.
OHCHR should have a role in the implementation of target 16.9, which calls on states to ensure legal identity for all, including birth registration, and is in line with Articles 16 and 24 of the ICCPR on the right to be registered upon birth and the right to be recognized as a person before the law. OHCHR should advise governments on how to best address these issues, including by training hospital staff and managers to the sensitivities of minority and migrant group children birth registrations.
Importantly, the Office should engage with international financial institutions such as the IMF, the World Bank, and its financing arm, the IFC. Efforts will be geared towards technical advice and capacity building for officers in charge of financing and planning development projects.
OHCHR is in a position to advise governments and the SDGs Secretariat on establishing a mechanism which monitors the implementation of the SDGs. Existing human rights mechanisms such as the Universal Periodic Review and the Human Rights Treaty Bodies may provide a blueprint, as per suggestions included in the draft zero. Similarly, human rights expert committees’ experience in applying human rights standards related to economic and social development may offer useful insights in the domain of monitoring development progress. The ICESCR calls for progressive realization in accordance with the maximum available resources, and a progress review should take into account duties of international cooperation, as well as countries’ different starting points.
Finally, the SDGs refer for the first time to the role of transnational corporations in development and in sustainable production. This provides an opportunity for the OHCHR to engage a number of private sector actors and governments on these topics in the implementation of the 2011 UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights and in the Annual Forum on Business and Human Rights.
The new UN development goals come at a time of an acute migration crisis. Human rights will continue to be tested and there is hardly an area more relevant to basic human survival than economic development. It is up to the UN human rights office to ensure that the human rights concerns are heard at the highest policy-making levels as well as at the granular technical level. At the end of the day, economies function for people and thanks to people.