Human Rights and Gender Equality in the Sustainable Development Goals

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) have come a long way in integrating human rights and elevating gender equality and inclusion. Responding to criticisms that the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) were not aligned with human rights standards, the SDGs commit to fully respecting international law, including international human rights law, and trace their roots to the Charter of the United Nations, Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and other international instruments. As such, the SDGs reaffirm the indivisible nature of economic, social, and cultural rights, on the one hand, and civil and political rights, on the other, and the mutually reinforcing nature of these rights on sustainable development and peace.

The SDGs put inclusion at the heart of the development agenda and commit to redoubling efforts to address widespread inequality. By not paying sufficient attention to growing disparities within and between countries, it is widely held that the MDGs exacerbated the neglect of the most marginalized and vulnerable communities. The recently-released “zero draft” of the outcome document for the United Nations Summit to adopt the SDGs in September 2015 attempts to right this wrong by committing to promote the dignity of all human beings and working to “ensure that fundamental rights and freedoms are enjoyed by all without discrimination.” The result is an emerging universal development agenda that seeks to not only eradicate freedom from want, but also freedom from fear – for all.

In particular, the SDGs offer a more holistic treatment of gender equality and empowerment. While the MDGs led to parity in girls’ access to primary education, discrimination persists in access to secondary and tertiary education, work and economic assets, and participation in decision-making. Stocktaking of the MDGs found that women’s heightened vulnerability to economic shocks, violence, and extreme poverty undermined progress overall. In addition, the MDGs’ adoption of partial or “half-way” targets and use of national averages masked uneven outcomes. As a consequence, women and girls, as well as other historically marginalized communities, were often left behind or excluded from the agenda altogether.

The SDGs attempt to address these weaknesses by pledging to combat all forms of gender inequality, gender-based discrimination, and violence against women and children. Specifically, goal 5 recognizes the value of unpaid care and domestic work, calls for women’s full participation at all levels of decision-making, requires reforms to give women equal access to economic resources such as property and land, and highlights the importance of enhancing access to information and communications technology. The current draft also includes a target on ensuring universal access to sexual and reproductive health and reproductive rights – a major win for the global women’s movement and human rights community.

Likewise, the SDGs have made significant headway in tackling some of the governance challenges that hindered the full realization of the MDGs. A principal critique of the MDGs is that insufficient attention was paid to the need for effective, accountable, democratic institutions to deliver on the agenda, and rule of law and legal systems that uphold human rights and provide access to justice. In some cases, the fragility or weakness of institutions limited the state’s ability to achieve its national targets. In the worst cases, institutional failures resulted in conflict or violence that set development back by decades.

Goal 16 is groundbreaking in its acknowledgement of these factors, committing to “promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable institutions at all levels.” Yet, it falls short by leaving out important references to fundamental freedoms like freedom of association, expression, and peaceful assembly – rights that are instrumental to the fulfillment of this goal, as well as to the entire sustainable development agenda, but are under assault all over the world. The phenomenon of closing civic space and rising attacks against journalists, bloggers, and independent media will need to be addressed if civil society is to play a central role in fulfilling the ambitious agenda set out by the SDGs. In addition, many of the targets as currently constructed are vague, likely owing to the difficulty of negotiations over this goal, which will complicate efforts to track progress and hold governments, international institutions, and the private sector accountable. Some governments, including the United States, are interested in improving upon the agenda by making targets more specific and actionable – the tactical question is whether that can be done without putting current gains at risk.

Despite the positive momentum, it is not a foregone conclusion that the 17 goals and 169 targets will remain intact through the final, complicated push of intergovernmental negotiations this summer. Current indications are that capitals do not want to reopen the debate on thorny issues related to gender, peace, or governance. However, watch the negotiations that begin next week to see whether governments attempt to roll back or dilute human rights- or gender-related provisions.

Regardless, financing this wide-ranging set of goals remains a significant challenge. The Third International Conference on Financing for Development, to be held in Addis Ababa in July, is a crucial test of whether sufficient private and public capital, at the international and national levels, can be mobilized to fulfill the ambition of the new sustainable development agenda. Negotiations on the outcome document – to conclude today – will likely be inconclusive, creating an uncertain environment going into Addis and ultimately into the final weeks of official negotiations on the SDGs, which follow immediately after. Finally, the comprehensive nature of the SDGs, while positive from a human rights perspective, could end up being a liability. Only time will tell if the international community and national authorities have the political will and capacity to deliver on such a broad, and potentially unwieldy, set of goals and targets.

Shannon N. Green is a senior fellow and codirector of the Human Rights Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington D.C.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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