Thursday, February 25, 2016

Sustainable Development Goals and Human Rights: How SDGs differ to MDGs on Human Rights, Health and Development


In September 2000, 189 nation leaders signed the Millennium Declaration (UN 2000) as the basis of the Millennium Declaration Goals (MDGs) which consist of 8 goals and 21 targets ranging from halving extreme hunger and poverty, reduce child mortality, maternal health to global partnership. The goals and targets were expected to be met by the end of 2015 (UN 2000; Unicef 2014).

Since the implementation of the MDGs, there have been marvellous achievements and progress made by developing countries although the progress was highly variable across the targets, regions, and countries (Sachs 2012: 2206). According to the MDGs Report 2015, extreme poverty has declined significantly from 47% in 1990 to 14% in 2015, in developing regions the primary basic school enrolment rate has increased to 91% in 2015 from only 83% in 2000, and the maternal mortality ratio has declined significantly by 45% worldwide and most reduction happened after the implementation of the MDGs (UN 2015: 4-8). 
Despite many successes made by the MDGs, there are also several critiques on the MDGs. Nelson (2007: 2042) and Ramcharan (2015: 1) state that MDGs ignore human rights principles in their implementation strategies. Moreover, the MDGs Report 2015 states that the vulnerable and poorest people are still being left behind, growing gaps between the richest and the poorest households, environmental degradation, and wars and conflicts become threat to development (UN 2015: 8).

After numerous researches, meetings and consultations, the UN Summits for the adoption of the post-2015 development agenda entitled “Transforming Our World: The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development” was held in New York from 25-27 September 2015 (UN 2015). MDGs are over and we are now entering the new international development framework, with some new goals, learning from the mistakes, correction of their shortcomings and answering to the critics of the MDGs (Sachs 2012: 2206). The agenda, which called the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and signed by more than 150 countries aimed at accomplishing what the MDGs did not achieve, realising human rights, and also achieving gender equality with three dimensions of sustainable development: the economic, social and environmental (UN 2015: 1).

This article is aimed at particularly looking at the comparison between the MDGs and SDGs on human rights and also discuss the human rights instruments that can be used to monitor the SDGs. In my opinion, as the SDGs are the results of multi-stakeholder approaches, learning from strengths and weaknesses of the MDGs, and give more attention to human rights, the SDGs are potentially have better results with no (or less) discrimination and violation of human rights principles. 

Human Rights, Health and Development in the MDGs

Human Rights
Although the MDGs did not cover all the health issues that matter for poor countries and people, health was at the heart of the MDGs and is central to the international agenda on eradicating poverty and improve human well-being (WHO 2005: 3-7). From eight goals of the MDGs, there were at least three goals directly related to health issues; goal 4 Reduce Child Mortality, goal 5 Improve Maternal Health, and goal 6 Combat HIV/AIDS, Malaria, and other diseases (UN 2000; WHO 2005: 7).

Human rights were actually stated in the Millennium Declaration and even became stand-alone section under the title “Human Rights, Democracy and Good Governance” and it covered the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), respect minority rights, and against violence against women, but they disappeared in the MDGs (UN 2000). Therefore, some experts say that the MDGs are minimalist interpretation of the spirit and ambition of the declaration (Harris and Provost 2013).

The MDGs face many criticisms when it comes to the human rights issues. Nelson (2007: 2051) states that the MDGs and human rights are divided in theory, policy approaches, and social actors they mobilize. The MDGs address the symptoms of extreme poverty and donors are challenged to meet the goals and indicators, whereas human rights are not indicators, they are ethical norms, legally binding statements (Fukuda-Parr et al 2014: 3), state obligations (Tarantula et al 2008: 2) and provide support to social movements to claim the rights (Nelson 2007: 2051). On the other hand, United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) states that there were many similarities between human rights and the MDGs as the targets were inline with international human rights frameworks (OHCHR 2008: 7-8).

According to OHCHR (2008: 9), the differing nature of the MDGs and human rights can be a source of strength. Human rights can reinforce the MDGs by many ways such as: the human rights approach would ensure that equal rights for all individuals be prioritised in the MDGs, all individuals have the right to be involved in policy decision-making of policy or program implementation, and addressing discrimination and power as the root causes of poverty. In addition, the MDGs can also reinforce the human rights such as: provide opportunity to raise awareness globally, political commitment, and also benchmark for measuring progress of human rights as well as political commitment. 

If we look at the achievement of the MDGs, it can be seen that human rights approaches were not comprehensively applied in the implementation of the MDGs. The poorest and most vulnerable people are left behind, discrimination and gender inequality also persist as women remain at higher rates of unemployment, big gaps exist between rural and urban areas, and between the poor and the rich, and about 800 million people still live in extreme poverty (UN 2015: 8-9).

Ruger and Kim (2006: 928) found a huge gap on the issue of global health especially mortality of adults and children on their research in 2005. Countries in sub Saharan African were likely more prone to the problems and they directly related to the poverty, rural areas, access to healthcare, and female illiteracy. Moreover, looking at the gini ratio data around the world, it can be seen that even though there has been positive economic growth, inequality gaps have been increasing in the past 20 years and there is an extraordinary development in many countries that national incomes taken only by the top 1% (World Bank 2015; Economist 2012).

SDGs: Efforts to Bring Human Rights, Health and Development Together

Bringing human rights, health and development together is important. Tarantola et al (2008: 9) argue that the interaction between human rights, health, and development are reciprocal to achieve the highest realisation of rights, health and development and amplification of synergy between them. Bringing them together can also minimise potential harms and also maximise overall benefits (Tarantola et al 2008: 9). 

The SDGs, which adopted by the UN General Assembly on 25th September 2015 (A/RES/70/1) states that the new framework contains 17 goals and 169 targets. The goals and targets seek to complete what the MDGs did not achieve and also to realise the human rights of all and also to achieve gender equality (UN 2015: 1). Moreover, the new agenda reaffirms the importance of human rights by acknowledging the UDHR and other international human rights instruments. It also emphasises the states’ responsibilities to respect, protect, and promote human rights for all (UN 2015: 6). Comparing to their predecessor, the SDGs have more complex goals and targets (UN 2015) and have more complex forms of financing for development to adjust with a fast-changing development (OECD 2015).

Human rights are now becoming important part of the SDGs. It can be seen in the resolution, that human rights are stated frequently (14 times) in the preambule, introduction, vision, shared principles and commitments, and also in the agenda (UN 2015). Even though the new agenda acknowledges and adopts human rights and is said to be grounded in the UDHR and other human rights international instruments, the words “human rights” are not mentioned everywhere in their goals and only mentioned once in goal 4 in target 4.7 on inclusive education (see the goals and targets of the SDGs). However, there are lots of different words which can be referred to human rights such as: end poverty in all its forms everywhere, enhance human dignity and rights, empower all women and girls, and reduce inequality within and among countries (Ramcharan 2015: 2, with emphasize).    

With regards to health issues, the SDGs have three stand-alone goals they are Goal 2: End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture, Goal 3: Ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all ages, and Goal 6: Ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all (UN 2015: 14-19). Some targets are continuity from the MDGs such as end hunger and all forms of malnutrition, end the epidemics of AIDS and malaria, and safe drinking water. In addition, the SDGs also contain many new targets in health issues such as:  ensuring access of food to all people, reducing number of stunting, resilient agriculture practices, prevention of narcotic and drug abuses, halve the number of road traffic accidents, equitable access to safe and affordable drinking water, sanitation for all, and ending open defecation (UN 2015: 15-18).

Most of the targets are aimed at “ending” instead of “halving” and most of the targets are also followed by the words “all people”, “for all”, “equitable”, “affordable”, “inclusive”, “participation”, and “universal access”. These words are keys for the implementation of human rights principles which were not mentioned in the MDG targets and indicators (Millennium Project 2006). There are also some differences between the MDGs and the SDGs such as: the SDGs have zero goal target whereas the MDGs had “half way” target, the SDGs have inclusive and universal goals and targeting inequality which applied to rich and poor countries, whereas the MDGs were only applied to poor countries, and while the MDGs relied on international donors, the SDGs put inclusive growth as core of the strategy (Coonrod 2014; OHCHR 2015).  

Human Rights Guide on SDGs: How to Monitor and Evaluate the Implementation?

In order to monitor the enactment of human rights principles in the implementation and evaluation of the SDGs, the human rights instrument is needed to test, evaluate and monitor whether the targets and means of implementation are inline with international human rights treaties (OHCHR 2015: 2). If the MDGs had no specific means of implementation, the SDGs resolution provides means of implementation as key to realising the agenda such as: the recognition of national sustainable development strategies and national financing frameworks, respect national laws and policies, and international trade (WTO) as engine for inclusive growth and poverty reduction (Bhattacharya and Ali 2014: 1-3; UN 2015: 28-31).

There are at least seven international human rights treaties that can be used to monitor the health-related goals. The Danish Institute for Human Rights (DIHR) for example, is currently developing the human rights-based approach (HRBA) guidance for the SDGs. The guidance is aimed at helping international communities and governments to choose the right indicator for the SDGs targets and building capacity of government, private sectors, and major groups to use a HRBA to the realisation of SDGs (DIHR 2015: 1-2).

In health-related goals and targets (Goal 2, 3 and 6), several human rights treaties can be used such as: ICESCR article 11(1) on adequate food and improvement of living conditions, ICESCR 11(2) right to be free from hunger, ICESCR 12(1) enjoyment of physical and mental health, CRPD  28(1) on adequate food, UNDRIP 29(1) protection and non-discrimination for indigenous people, UDHR 25(1) right to medical care, CEDAW 12(1) access to health care for women and men, CEDAW 14(2) enjoy sanitation, electricity and water supply, CRPD 25(a) affordable health care for people with disability, and ICRMW 28 medical care for migrant workers (DIHR 2015: 5-49).

Conclusion and recommendation

The SDGs are the example of the interaction between human rights, health and development. As a concept, they are better from their predecessor as they produced from more inclusive process and put the MDGs as a lesson learned. The challenge is to incorporate HRBA in the implementation of the SDGs especially in national and local level as not all countries have adopted international human rights treaties in their national laws. Moreover, different countries also have different practice to respect, protect, and fulfil the human rights for their citizen.

It is also important for each country who has adopted the SDGs to develop a national guidance for the implementation of the SDGs which respect, protect, and fulfil human rights principles based on international treaties they adopted and national laws they have (including laws on health and development issues). It is also the time for all countries to evaluate wether their national policies and practices in line with the international human rights framework.

Written by: Agung Wasono (January 2016)


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