EU says SDGs relevant for human rights, despite scepticism

A Pakistani Hindu breaks down as others shout slogans during a protest against alleged human rights violations in Pakistan, outside the United Nation office in New Delhi. [Dawn, Pakistan]

This article is part of our special report Towards sustainable development goals.

SPECIAL REPORT / The EU says it is very committed to promoting civil liberties and self-determination through the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which are expected to be adopted globally, in September.

But recent criticisms of national human right bodies leaves many doubtful that much is going to change.

Lotte Knudsen, Director for Human Development and Migration at the European Commission, who chaired a panel on SDGs and human rights at the European Development Days conference on 3 June, said that the EU was dedicated to furthering human rights and democracy.

This is part of the EU’s foundation, as spelled out in the Treaty, which reaffirms that the Union’s external action is grounded in democracy and the rule of law, she explained.

The EU’s development policy framework, enshrined in the Agenda for Change, is based on two pillars, human rights, democracy and other aspects of good governance on the one hand, and inclusive and sustainable growth on the other, Knudsen said.

She added that 15 member states were in the ‘A’ category of National human right institutions (NHRIs), meaning that they fully comply with the so-called Paris Principles, the accreditation being made by the International Coordinating Committee of National Human Rights Institutions (ICC).

The ICC is a global network of national human rights institutions (NHRIs) – administrative bodies set up to promote, protect and monitor human rights in a given country.

Knudsen reitareted that the Commission has recently proposed a new Action plan on human rights and democracy covering the period 2015-2019 which is now being discussed in the Council. The proposal lists as its first priority the capacity to support the NHRIs, with the aim at strengthening them.

The Commission official also said that in the EU budget, an instrument called The European instrument for democracy and human rights, was designed to support national human right institutions in the period ahead.

Knudsen said that in this context, it was timely to launch a debate on the role of NHRIs, who she said are, in their independent capacity, a key partner for the EU, and have a major stake in the implementation and monitoring of the future SDGs. The EU was equally determined to bring forward the issue of gender equality, she added.

However, Knudsen was put on the spot by the audience. Irabiha Abdel Wedoud of Mauritania’s National Human Rights Commission said that her institution’s attempts to enter in contact with the European Commission’s services had been consistently rejected for several years now.

Wedoud added that colleagues from other African countries with whom she had spoken reported having the same bad experience.

“We face a total rejection on the part of the European Commission Delegation to work with us,” she said, explaining that the reason was that either it was because her organisation wasn’t playing its role decisively vis-à-vis the authorities, or it was seen as aggressive. In this sense, she spoke of “incomprehension of the role of NRHIs” on the part of Commission services.

Indeed, this is not the first report of the executive’s services avoiding human rights issues, which they consider the business of the host country. The EU’s former Ambassador to Morocco, Eneko Landaburu, said that the Commission stayed away from such subjects in order to avoid irritating foreign governments.

>>Read: ‘EU’s support for Morocco not conditional on human rights’, ambassador says

Other representatives of countries where human rights are violated were doubtful about the potential of the SDGs to bring any change. One of them also criticised his country’s NHRI for not being independent, and carefully avoiding issues such as foreign foundations being banned.

Ignacio Saiz, Executive Director, Centre for Economic and Social Rights (CESR), said that the SDGs like the MDGs before them will have “more political currency” than the human right treaties the states have ratified.

The reason, he explained is that SDGs he said will dictate financial flows at regional, national and global level.

“It’s sad, but that’s the case, it’s a political reality. Frankly, governments have taken their MDG commitments more seriously than their obligations under the international covenants on human rights”, he said.

“That why some of us in the NGO human rights community have advocated for several years now that the new goals need to be aligned with human right standards. And that’s important, because these new development goals must serve to reinforce states’ accountability to their existing human rights commitments”, Saiz said.

He also said that SDGs, unlike the MDGs, are much more directly relevant to human rights. This in his words goes much beyond goal 16, on accountable institutions and access of justice, which is sometimes called “the human rights goal”.

The SDGs are of even broader relevance to economic, social and cultural rights. Most of the goals address key economic, social and cultural rights issues such as water, education, sanitation, food and nutrition, decent work, social protection. The difference from the MDGs is that whereas the MDGs undercut economic, social and cultural rights standards, the SDGs and their targets are much more aligned with the provisions of economic, social and cultural rights.

Another reason why SDGs matter is their universal applicability, Saiz said. NHRIs have a unique role to play as independent bodies with an official mandate to ensure that all branches of government uphold their international commitments, he argued.

In a briefing CESR co-authored with the Danish Institute for Human Rights, several proposals on the role of NHRIs in the implementation of SDGs are outlined, Saiz said.

Mabedle Lawrence Mushwana, chairperson of ICC, said that NHRIs, in comparison to states and NGOs, are relative newcomers in the human rights arena, but were getting increased recognition for their capacity to ensure and promote human rights. MDGs failed to incorporate a human rights-based approach, but very soon, when they would be replaced by the SDGs, this would firmly incorporate such an approach, he argued. He said that one particular task for NHRIs would be to monitor the implementation of SDGs on the domestic level, ensuring also that the poor and the needy become beneficiaries of development aid.

Another role he saw for NHRIs with regard to SDGs was advocacy .

Michel Forst, UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, said often an artificial opposition between development and human rights was used to discredit the rights’ defenders. Often this concerned those who opposed mining projects, big sports projects or large-scale urban construction building. Such rights defenders were often attacked, jailed, sometimes murdered, and those crimes remained unpunished in countries where a culture of impunity prevailed and where economic and political actors were united against the human rights defenders.

Such people he said were often described by the authorities as harmful to the development of their country. Similarly, NRHIs could be the target of attacks, pressures and threats during their work in enforcing human rights. States must do everything to make sure that NRHIs work in full independence, he argued.

Forst also said that that NHRIs were neither governmental, nor intergovernmental organisations, and called them “the guardians of human rights inside the country”.

Vladlen Stefanov, Head of National Institutions and Regional Mechanisms Section, Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), said that in the context of SDGs, NRHIs could facilitate the dialogue and interactions between the state, the private sector, civil society actors, and the people at large. The aim he said is to ensure that recommendations from international human rights mechanisms are duly reflected in the identification of national commitments to the SDGs targets. They should be also reflected in the formulation of policies to implement the SDGs and in monitoring progress that leaves no one behind, he said.

The proposed Sustainable Development Goals consist of 17 goals and 169 underlying targets to guide international development priorities and collaboration up to 2030.

An analysis of the SDGs shows that the new post-2015 sustainable development agenda is relevant for human rights -and therefore for NHRIs - in several aspects:

  • Goals related to economic, social and cultural rights;
  • Goals related to civil and political rights;
  • Emphasizing the principles of equality, non-discrimination and access for all.

NHRIs play unique bridging roles—between international and national spheres; between different government institutions; between government and civil society; and across rights.

Under the Paris Principles, NHRIs should be mandated to perform a broad range of functions. These can be generally categorised as: research and advice; education and promotion; monitoring; investigating; conciliating and providing remedies; cooperating with other national and international organisations; and interacting with the judiciary.

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