Organisation Internationale de Droit du Développement

Silos and synergies: Human rights and the SDGs

29 mai 2019

Human rights and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) go hand in hand. While they run on parallel tracks, both communities tend to operate within two separate silos.

Different institutions as well as a difference in methods, approaches and reporting systems used, are at the heart of the problem, according to several panelists speaking at a session on promoting equality and protecting fundamental rights, during the Global Conference on SDG 16.

The Conference, co-organized by IDLO and UN DESA with the Government of Italy, is preparing for the official review of SDG 16 at the High-Level Political Forum in New York in July, taking stock of the global progress towards peaceful, just and inclusive societies.

“Human rights have been called the normative backbone of the SDGs,” said session chair Christof Heyns, Director at the Centre for Human Rights at the University of Pretoria, during his opening remarks.

However, he continued: “There is a danger that human rights mechanisms may be sidelined if the focus is solely on the implementation of the SDGs. If one focuses on growth and economic indicators there may be a temptation to engage in tradeoffs when it comes to human rights.”

Chiara Adamo, Head of Equality at the Human Rights and Democratic Governance Team at the European Commission pressed the importance of the need to develop SDG indicators that are grounded in human rights principles.

“How we bring together these two different worlds is sometimes just a matter of terminology. A human rights-based approach is not just theoretical,” she said, referring to a methodology based on the core principles of an applied rights-based approach: non-discrimination, participation, transparency and accountability. 

Beyond SDG monitoring, the increase of rights violations around the world illustrates how human rights and the SDGs should work together to protect the most vulnerable.

“We increasingly see rules and laws in countries said to be implemented to protect traditional family values, and we have also seen an increase in reprisals against vulnerable groups and against human rights defenders,” said Hilary Gbedemah, Chair of OHCHR’s Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW).

Along with several of the panelists Heyns urged for those working on implementing the SDGs, and particularly SDG 16, to focus not solely on criminal law but to also look at civil, socio-economic, environmental and individual rights and not forget aspects of human rights that may not be mentioned within the framework of the SDGs.

“In summary, the human rights approach brings to the SDGs the idea of human dignity as a starting point for human rights, and the idea that there are rights that cannot be sacrificed for the common good.”