Over the course of the past several decades, the primary focus of both development theory and practice has centered around human development. This culmination was seen in the form of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which were adopted in the year 2000 with the intention of bolstering both international and national development agendas. Fast-forward to the 25th of September, 2015, when the United Nations (UN) General Assembly (UNGA) took the step of approving the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. This comprehensive agenda introduced 17 fresh objectives known as the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which encompass the three fundamental pillars of sustainability: economic, social, and environmental development.
At the time, Ban-Ki Moon, the Secretary-General of the UN, hailed this Agenda as “a to-do list for people and planet, and a blueprint for success.” The 17 distinct goals were categorized into five groups: (a) people; (b) planet; (c) prosperity; (d) peace; and (e) partnership. The initial seven goals were designed to address the gaps that were left by the MDGs and focused on fulfilling basic human development needs. In contrast, Goals 8 through 10 concentrated on overarching drivers and essential crosscutting concerns critical for advancing sustainable development across all dimensions. Additionally, Goals 11 to 15 were directed at enhancing environmental sustainability, while Goals 16 and 17 aimed to foster global collaboration for development and the actualization of the outlined objectives.
Having come into effect in January 2016, the primary aim of the SDGs was to tackle emerging development priorities and challenges, as well as to bridge the gaps that persisted from the MDGs. Like their predecessor, the framework of the SDGs sought to eradicate poverty by the year 2030 and to guide both national and international development strategies.
Furthermore, this framework aspired to promote a new perspective on global progress and achieve sustainable development that could cater to present needs without jeopardizing the prospects of future generations to meet their own requirements.
The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) highlighted a key distinction: the SDGs aspire not just to lessen, but to eliminate poverty—an ambition surpassing that of the MDGs. These goals extend beyond their forerunners by tackling the fundamental causes of poverty and striving for comprehensive development that benefits all individuals. The SDGs aim to pick up where the MDGs left off, ensuring that no one is left behind.
However, despite the establishment of the SDGs, the degree of advancement in their execution has remained modest. Several factors persist in obstructing progress, and numerous developmental obstacles continue unaddressed, including substantial inequalities and poverty in various parts of the globe. Issues such as stillbirth rates, infant mortality, racial and gender-based discrimination, and systemic infringements on child rights persist in multiple countries. Access to quality education and clean water remains an aspiration for millions, particularly within developing nations. The world’s inclusivity remains limited.
As was the case with the MDGs, the role of human rights in implementing and monitoring the SDGs has been limited. While the SDGs encompass various human rights, their practical alignment with human rights law and mechanisms is not consistently strong.
However, many of the hindrances to SDG implementation and progress could be surmounted through the integration of these goals with human rights law.
Incorporating international human rights law and principles into the execution and oversight of the SDGs would offer a robust moral and legal foundation for the gradual attainment of sustainable development.
Both the SDGs and human rights law share the goal of mitigating human suffering and elevating human development. Nevertheless, they differ significantly in their scope. The SDGs target a select set of issues with implications for certain socio-economic rights, whereas human rights law embraces the universality and indivisibility of all human rights—ranging from economic, social, and cultural rights to civil and political rights.
A human rights-based approach to realizing and monitoring the SDGs would not only encompass the complete range of developmental capabilities but also address the underlying causes of poverty and stagnation.
While the SDGs offer a valuable framework for addressing global poverty, their effectiveness hinges on harmonizing their implementation and monitoring with international human rights law.
Incorporating human rights law could empower people—especially youth and vulnerable socio-economic groups—to engage in decision-making, voice their concerns, and even challenge their governments in courts for the non-implementation of SDGs.
The potential for achieving gender equality and equal rights for women and girls is more promising when the implementation and oversight of SDGs are fully aligned with human rights law and mechanisms.
Consistently and coherently aligning SDG implementation and monitoring with human rights law would comprehensively combat discrimination, set global and national targets for fulfilling both civil and political rights and essential levels of economic, social, and cultural rights, and establish enforceable human rights.
This alignment would also ensure effective domestic and international accountability mechanisms to track progress toward addressing poverty and exclusion and to provide remedies for human rights failures.
Harmonizing SDG implementation and monitoring with human rights law and principles would uphold human rights principles such as universality, transparency, participation, equality, non-discrimination, and accountability.
Unlike the SDGs, human rights law confronts the root causes of poverty and places specific obligations on states. States that are parties to human rights treaties, such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, have legal obligations to uphold, protect, promote, and fulfill these rights.
Comparably, regional human rights treaties like the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, the American Convention on Human Rights, the European Convention on Human Rights, and the Arab Charter on Human Rights guarantee these rights to varying extents.
These treaties not only oblige states to meet these standards but also grant victims of rights violations access to justice and effective remedies at national, regional, and international human rights institutions.
It is imperative that poverty be explicitly recognized as a human rights violation, holding states accountable and providing victims access to justice and remedies.
States should enact legal reforms empowering individuals and groups to hold governments accountable for SDG implementation in alignment with their human rights commitments.
Furthermore, states should extend their international cooperation and assistance to SDG implementation and monitoring.
Concurrently, human rights bodies, courts, and institutions should incorporate the SDGs into their mandates, interpreting human rights treaties and holding states accountable for breaches.
Human rights practitioners should acquaint themselves with the SDGs and actively integrate them into public interest litigation to advance human rights, justice, and remedies.
Youth organizations and women’s groups should collaborate closely with the human rights and development communities to harness the potential of a human rights approach to the SDGs.
These groups can engage with human rights treaty bodies, submitting petitions to seek redress and accountability for non-implementation of the SDGs in specific nations.
They can also offer insights to UN special rapporteurs, treaty bodies, and national human rights commissions regarding goal non-implementation.
These recommendations hold the potential to raise awareness about the goals, enhance state accountability, and facilitate victim access to justice and remedies.
Additionally, they can help maintain pressure on governments and empower youth organizations, women’s groups, and civil society to better contribute to effective SDG realization worldwide.
In conclusion, the United Nations, its member states, international organizations, NGOs, civil society, human rights advocates, and development practitioners must actively advocate for the consistent and coherent integration of the SDGs with international human rights law and principles. This alignment is essential for global SDG implementation and overcoming obstacles that hinder progress.