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Human rights 'non-negotiable' on post-2015 agenda, says global civil society

Human rights continue to take centre stage at UN discussions over the future of global development. Thousands of civil society organizations from all over the world gathered for a major conference at the UN headquarters in New York have issued a strong call for human rights to be at the heart of the sustainable development agenda to be agreed next year.

The NGO Conference hosted from 27 to 29 August by the UN Department of Public Information (DPI) and CIVICUS is a major civil society gathering aimed at contributing to the ongoing process to agree the new goals. The conference Outcome Declaration outlines the expectations of civil society worldwide for a truly transformative agenda that ensures that sustainable human development aspirations are set in the context of existing human rights standards and norms.

In light of the tense debates around human rights at the July session of the Open Working Group, which produced a draft of the Sustainable Development Goals for negotiation over the coming year, the NGO Declaration reaffirms that human rights cannot be compromised nor considered up for negotiation. "Our rights cannot be questioned, traded, or violated. Along with economic, social, cultural and environmental rights, any successor framework must include commitments to protect freedom of association, expression, assembly and political participation if it is to ensure an enabling environment for an empowered civil society."

Reflecting inputs by CESR and other members of the Post-2015 Human Righs Caucus, the Declaration includes strong language on the need for rigorous monitoring and accountability arrangements, firmly rooted in human rights standards and mechanisms. Echoing the recommendations in a recent briefing by CESR and Christian Aid on the Post-2015 Fiscal Revolution, the Declaration stresses that these arrangements must address accountability for fiscal policy, including taxation, so as to ensure that sufficiency and equitable distribution of resources for development. In light of the SDG's emphasis on development partnerships with the private sector, the Declaration calls for greater commitments to hold business more accountable through legislative, regulatory and mandatory impact assessments.

At the conference, CESR's Executive Director, Ignacio Saiz, moderated a roundtable on 'Human Rights: (Really) Leaving No One Behind', which assessed progress and challenges in integrating human rights and equality perspectives in the SDG process so far.  Speakers from the Kenyan grassroots women's rights movement, the International Disability Alliance, the International Labor Organization, Lawyers with Borders, the UN Secretary General's Envoy on Youth and the Netherlands mission highlighted the need to ensure explicit inclusion and meaningful participation of groups facing poverty and discrimination in the SDG content and process, the importance of a holistic approach to human rights embracing social, economic, civil, political and environmental dimensions, and the need for advocates working on different dimensions of human rights to work in closer coordination. 

To this end, CESR has led the creation of a Human Rights Post-2015 Caucus as a space to share strategies, coordinate joint interventions and amplify the human rights voice in post-2015 debates.  Co-convened by CESR with Amnesty International and the Association for Women's Rights in Development  (AWID), the Caucus has issued a 'Human Rights Litmus Test' to assess whether proposals for the SDGs meet the essential requirements of human rights standards and principles.

As the NGO conference declaration highlights, continued civil society engagement in the ongoing SDG negotiations and related processes is critical. Yet there are well-founded concerns that this will be contested and increasingly restricted at both the national and global levels. The strong affirmation at the DPI conference that human rights must be made central to the sustainable development agenda, and the increasingly coordinated efforts of human rights groups to bring about this goal, are important steps forward in ensuring that the gains made in the process so far are not compromised but built on in negotiations over the coming months.