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Human Rights and the UN’s SDGs: A Sidelined Priority?


Syrian refugees
The new Sustainable Development Goals have missed a critical chance to reinforce human rights. Syrian refugees, above, in a camp in Turkey, April 2015. ARIEL RUBIN/UNDP 

This month, a summit of world leaders at the United Nations is to adopt a set of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to take the relay from the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which have yielded mixed results when it comes to making the world a better place for peace, development and the universal realization of human rights. On June 2, 2015, the president of the General Assembly circulated a zero draft of the September 2015 summit outcome document.

This briefing discusses the forthcoming SDGs from the perspective of human rights, focusing on the content of the SDGs, strategies of implementation and the role of monitoring in the implementation of the SDGs.

It is worth recalling that the General Assembly has a rich but uneven record when it comes to integrating human rights in development efforts. This rich tradition of integrating human rights in the development process should be kept in mind in finalizing the SDGs. It is important to place them under the human rights spotlight for a number of reasons.

First, whatever progress has been made in, for example, alleviating poverty since the adoption of the MDGs, the state of human rights worldwide has not improved in the past 15 years. It is impossible to speak of ameliorating the human condition when gross violations of human rights remain pervasive worldwide.

Second, enhanced governance grounded in the rule of law and respect for human rights is essential if the SDGs are to be more than aspirational.

Third, human rights in and of themselves are an essential component in any meaningful implementation and monitoring.

From the perspective of a longtime proponent of human rights, the zero draft is disappointing and problematic in numerous ways — a missed opportunity. To continue reading this briefing, published by FUNDS, or Future United Nations Development System, click here.

We welcome your comments on this article.  What are your thoughts?

Bertrand G. Ramcharan is a senior fellow at the Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies at the City University of New York’s Graduate Center. His three decades of UN service included five years as deputy UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and acting High Commissioner. He was a professor of human rights at the Geneva Graduate Institute and a chancellor of the University of Guyana. He is the author, among other books, of “Contemporary Human Rights Ideas”; “The UN Human Rights Council”; “Preventive Human Rights Strategies”; and “Preventive Diplomacy at the UN.” His latest book, “The Law, Policy and Politics of the UN Human Rights Council,” was published in 2017.

Ramcharan, who is Guyanan, is a lawyer with a Ph.D. from the London School of Economics and the Diploma of the Hague Academy of International Law. He lives in Geneva and in Scotland.

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