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Putting the spotlight on inequality at SDG review summit

July 18, 2016

Inequality has been center stage at the United Nations headquarters in recent days, as government officials, development experts and civil society representatives gathered for the first meeting of the High-Level Political Forum on Sustainable Development (HLPF) since the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) were agreed.

The HLPF is the main platform for the follow-up and review of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. The theme of this year’s HLPF – and one of the most potentially transformative elements of the Agenda – is the critical commitment to “leave no one behind.”   

Leaving no-one behind: a human rights approach

On the occasion of the HLPF and the President of the General Assembly’s High Level Thematic Debate on Human Rights, CESR co-organized a panel event at the UN on July 12 entitled, "Leaving No-One Behind, A Human Rights Approach to Ending Inequality and Discrimination".  Hosted by the Missions of Chile and Finland to the UN, and organized by CESR, the Center for Reproductive Rights (CRR), International Disability Alliance (IDA), Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), the event explored the role human rights can play in ensuring that the SDG commitments to address inequalities of all kinds are honored in practice.

Introducing the discussion, CESR’s Executive Director Ignacio Saiz outlined how human rights standards on equality, non-discrimination, participation and accountability provide a normative framework for making these commitments a reality, while human rights mechanisms offer avenues for holding governments to account for them.  Finnish Ambassador for Human Rights, Rauno Merisaari and Counsellor at the Chilean Mission, René Ruidíaz, spoke of their countries’ commitment to a human rights approach to leaving no one behind, and outlined measures already being undertaken domestically to implement this commitment under the SDGs.

Craig Mokhiber, Chief of Development at OHCHR, stressed the significance of the SDGs as an agenda for equality adopted in a context of rising economic and social disparities, and pointed to the critical role of civil society in ensuring that inequality was included in Agenda 2030. Yetnerbesh Nigussie, Senior Inclusion Advisor at the International Disability Alliance, spoke of the widespread and systemic discrimination faced by people with disabilities, particularly women who experienced multiple forms of discrimination, and highlighted the importance of inclusion in SDG decision-making: “nothing about us without us”.

CRR’s Vice-President Lilian Sepúlveda also spoke, illustrating how human rights mechanisms at the national, regional and global levels can play a role in challenging inequalities in women’s sexual and reproductive health and rights, while Sherine Tadros, Head of Amnesty International’s UN Office, spoke of the role these mechanisms can play in bolstering accountability to the 2030 Agenda. Iain Levine, Deputy Executive Director of Human Rights Watch, gave examples from the organization’s work on inequalities fuelled by unjust development policies, including the impact of climate change on the rights of indigenous peoples.

Discussion focused on how to strengthen accountability to the SDG commitments on inequality, and opportunities and threats to civil society participation in the follow up and review process. In closing, Ignacio cited the Spotlight on Sustainable Development Report as a groundbreaking example of a global civil society initiative to ensure accountability and inequality are not left behind in the 2030 Agenda.

Inequality in the 'Spotlight'

Launched last week at the HLPF, the Spotlight Report is a new annual report being produced by the Reflection Group on the 2030 Agenda, with contributions from a broad coalition of civil society organizations, to monitor progress and structural obstacles to implementation of Agenda 2030. CESR contributed to this inaugural edition with a chapter on the issue of socioeconomic inequality, authored by Kate Donald, Director of CESR’s Human Rights and Development program.

Building on CESR’s work on the human rights issues at stake in addressing inequalities, the chapter explains why robust measures at both the national and international levels are needed to tackle the soaring levels of socioeconomic disparity that have come to characterize our times, and that are perhaps the most damning indictment of the Millennium Development Goals which preceded the SDGs.

Given that extreme inequality hampers progress in everything from economic growth and poverty reduction to social cohesion and political stability, the objectives set out in SDG10 – which promises to confront inequality both within and among countries – will also be crucial to the achievement of many of the other goals. Its targets pledge action on income inequality and various forms of exclusion and discrimination, along with the key policy determinants of inequality (such as fiscal policy) and reform of global governance.

SDG10 remains particularly vulnerable to strategic neglect or even political backlash, however. As explained in the Spotlight report, success will require not only a reversal of the ongoing austerity trend, which is fuelling inequality worldwide, but a significant redistribution of wealth, resources and power, which in turn means addressing the financial and political privileges of wealthy elites and transnational corporations.

There are also serious concerns over the targets and indicators chosen for this goal, as they are not conducive to a strong and specific action agenda for reducing inequality. The target on income inequality, for example, focuses solely on the bottom 40 percent of national populations, thereby neglecting one of the key drivers of inequality – runaway accumulation at the top.

In the months and years ahead, concerted efforts will be required in order to bring about a profound paradigm shift in the way the urgent problem of economic inequality, and the human rights crisis it represents, is addressed at both the national and international levels. SDG10 has the potential to help bring about that shift, but it will be down to civil society to ensure inequality is kept under the spotlight of accountability.