By Kate Donald and Mahlatse Ramoroka
The annual High Level Political Forum on Sustainable Development (HLPF) plays a central role in the follow-up and review of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development at the global level. CESR participated actively in the 2018 HLPF, which took place at the UN in New York from 9 to 19 July. Below are five key takeaways from this year’s convening.
1. Most States still treat the HLPF as an opportunity to burnish their image
The Voluntary National Reviews (VNRs)—where States share their progress and supposedly their challenges in progressing towards the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)—are the centerpiece of the HLPF. Enthusiasm has been high, with 47 countries presenting VNRs this year. Unfortunately, the majority of VNRs still seem more like public relations exercises rather than honest monitoring efforts. This was symbolized perfectly by the short films which have unfortunately become an almost ubiquitous part of government presentations, and whose (attempted) tone veers far more towards the inspirational—and occasionally propagandistic—rather than the informative. Although the “dialogue” segments were marginally more interactive this year, and civil society did have more consistent opportunities to intervene, very limited space exists for thorough questioning and meaningful engagement. Many VNR presentations were markedly disconnected from on-the-ground realities, reflected a highly siloed approach to SDG implementation and failed to aptly document major policy challenges or failures. Instead, most countries made vague references to financing gaps and data shortfalls, culminating in barely-disguised pleas for investment and increased private sector participation.
2. Civil society is still pushed to the margins and the UN should do more to combat this
Civil society participation this year was more robust, largely because of the strenuous, behind-the-scenes efforts of civil society itself, but is still ad hoc and conditional rather than institutionalized. It remains easy for a VNR State to avoid civil society commentary by running out the clock with innocuous questions or congratulatory statements posed by friendly States. In many cases, States simply chose to totally ignore the civil society responses (for example, when civil society from Colombia raised the assassinations of indigenous leaders, human rights and environmental defenders). More disturbingly, there were also cases of threats against civil society representatives who did speak up.
Frankly, the UN has at times been an obstacle to, rather than an advocate for, dynamic civil society participation at the HLPF. This year, only around 20% of all official side-event slots were granted by UN DESA to civil society (around 50% were government-led, with the remaining 30% going to others, including the private sector, UN agencies and multilateral organizations like the OECD). Given civil society’s crucial role as watchdogs, experts and community representatives at the UN, this imbalance only further skews the HLPF debates towards the interests of the powerful, keeping discussions very much in the middle of the road. Civil society groups that were granted slots managed to push some boundaries—for example the Major Group on Children & Youth held an event arguing for degrowth. Meanwhile, major collaborative civil society initiatives like the Spotlight Report were forced to scramble for (paid) space outside UN premises, limiting reach and impact. Despite repeated calls from civil society coalitions, their “shadow” reports, filled with rigorous data, analysis and experience, still have no official status and are not even posted on the HLPF website, unlike in the human rights system. The parallel civil society reports from Lebanon, Switzerland, Spain, Ireland and Brazil for example, were all notable for their quality and clarity, and for the critical gaps they filled on issues missing from the government reports.
3. “Transformation,” “policy coherence” and “integration” are still just buzzwords
Policy, sectoral and goal silos are as strong as ever, despite the oft-repeated imperative for the 2030 Agenda to be implemented in an integrated and holistic way. The week of thematic discussions of the Goals under review (Goals 6, 7, 11, 12, 15 and 17) served only to reinforce these sectoral bubbles. Meanwhile, most governments continue to studiously avoid mention of systemic obstacles to sustainable development—for example austerity, regressive taxation, corporate tax abuses, or repressive crackdowns on civil society and human rights defenders. Business-as-usual and pandering to the interests of investors and large multinational corporations continues to be the order of the day in most quarters. Bolivia’s enshrinement of the right to water in its constitution and the wave of de-privatization and public investment which resulted was one example of a refreshing counter-example, although discussed in a side-event off UN premises.
4. Human rights are making inroads in some quarters—but facing strong resistance in others
Human rights were noticeably more front-and-center in advocacy from large swathes of civil society and other non-State actors this year. Many advocacy messages and VNR responses from “Major Groups and Other Stakeholders” explicitly referenced human rights obligations and the findings of international mechanisms. The thematic segment devoted to “Leave No One Behind” was a marked step up from the discussions last year, partly because the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights opened the segment and set the tone. Nearly all the interventions in this session showed real engagement with human rights and urged States to define and operationalize “Leave No One Behind” in ways that move us beyond a focus on the extreme income poor to laser in on discrimination, marginalization and intersecting inequalities. Unfortunately, the approach to human rights and inequalities in the VNRs themselves was minimal and largely rhetorical. The low point came when the delegate of Bahrain lashed out after a civil society response to their VNR rightly raised the government’s brutal repression of dissent. “We should not tackle or mention human rights in political fora,” he blithely asserted, attacking the factual statement as politically motivated and a sign of “foreign interference.” Although this was an extreme case, it has to be said that the continued sidelining of human rights in the HLPF and other UN development processes continues to suit most States very well, and many beyond Bahrain do work behind the scenes to stymie efforts to bridge the gap.
5. The HLPF review in 2019 will provide a slim but crucial window of opportunity to address these deficiencies
The modalities and functioning of the HLPF will be up for review next year, and thus there may be space to redress these weaknesses. Indeed, the HLPF must improve on these fronts, if it is to retain any credibility at all. However, significant forces are pushing the tide away from the civil society demands for more accountability, inclusivity and transparency. For example, profit-hungry investors and cash-strapped governments are asking how the VNRs can better serve as investment showcases, while parts of the UN seem stuck in measuring the HLPF merely by the number of States that volunteer, rather than the rigor, honesty and substance of their reviews. The ongoing and existential threats to multilateralism provided by the Trump administration and other actors also cannot be ignored. For the first time this year, the HLPF Ministerial Declaration was not adopted by consensus, with the United States and Israel voting against. The circumstances are not exactly propitious for an overhaul of the HLPF into a more robust and participatory accountability mechanism, but civil society is sure to muster its collective forces for a worthy battle regardless.
Kate Donald is Director of Human Rights in Sustainable Development at CESR. Mahlatse Ramoroka is a graduate research intern with CESR.