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Secretary-General's Synthesis Report: moving the post-2015 debate forward?


Kate Donald, director of the Human Rights in Development program at CESR, reflects on the strengths and weaknesses of a recent milestone report on the post-2015 process.

Last month, the UN Secretary-General released his long-awaited post-2015 'Synthesis Report' - so called because it was expected to bring together and harmonize the many disparate strands of the post-2015 process. Arguably, expectations were too high. The Secretary-General's report was always going to be one among many inputs, and not even the most important (that honor goes to the Open Working Group outcome document, which has been confirmed as the basis for the intergovernmental negotiations that start next week). Many people were hopeful that Ban Ki-moon would make a pitch for a tighter, shorter list of goals than the 17 produced by the OWG; at least as many groups were concerned that he give conclusive, definitive backing to the full array. (In the end, he did both and neither simultaneously, applauding the OWG outcome document but noting the possibility of grouping or 'rearranging' the goals more concisely.) What everyone wanted was a powerful narrative and clear vision from the SG about the SDGs and their purpose; a catchy, inspirational way of framing and communicating the goals; and more fleshed-out proposals for how the post-2015 commitments would be implemented and monitored in practice.

On all these fronts, the report was a mixed bag. There was plenty of inspirational and ambitious language about the need for a 'transformational' and universal post-2015 agenda, which will remind Member States of the pressure on them to agree on something far-reaching and decidedly not 'business-as-usual' in 2015.

In many ways, the language and content on human rights is very good. Far more so than the OWG outcome, Ban explicitly acknowledges that human rights must be one of the foundations on which post-2015 efforts are built ('Human development is also the respect of human rights'). The report is uncompromising in its assertion that these must abide by and not fall below existing obligations under international law (which of course includes human rights law). However, in other ways the report felt like a missed opportunity to showcase concrete examples of how human rights should play out in sustainable development. After many years of the human rights-based approach to development being a core policy of the UN system, this shouldn't be too much to ask from the Secretary-General. Instead, the human rights content remains at the level of normative framing and baselines.

The centerpiece of the report is the 'six essential elements for delivering on the SDGs': dignity, prosperity, justice, partnership, planet and people:

Ban insisted when presenting the report that this was not an attempt to 'cluster' the OWG's 17 goals, but it was hard to understand what it added instead. In fact, the six elements arguably somewhat detract from from  the three 'dimensions' of sustainable development - environmental, economic and social - as well as from the human rights framework, which could have itself provided a stronger and preexisting framing device. The report makes an attempt to include all the OWG target areas in this SDG 'wheel', but the divisions feel somewhat arbitrary and in fact many priorities were missed or underplayed. Gender equality and women's rights, for example, is reduced to a sub-headline of 'inclusion of women and children', and there is no real acknowledgement of the urgency of women's full political, social and economic equality as a pre-requisite for sustainable development and as a human rights imperative in and of itself. In some cases the language on women's rights is weaker than in the OWG outcome document - for example on violence against women and key issues such as unpaid care work don't even merit a mention. (It's interesting to note that the advance version published in December was missing a reference even to sexual health, but the final version hews exactly to the language of the OWG, calling for realization of women's sexual and reproductive health and reproductive rights.)

Tackling inequality has been repeatedly expressed as a huge post-2015 priority of civil society, and had enough buy-in from States to merit its own goal and targets in the OWG outcome document. However, inequality gets somewhat lost in the framing of the Synthesis report (subsumed under the 'dignity' element) - and therefore emerges with its place in the hierarchy of priorities somewhat weakened moving into the negotiations. Strong political commitments from both developed and developing countries to meaningfully tackle inequality could be a truly transformational legacy of the post-2015 agenda, but this is by no means a safe bet, and therefore the Secretary-General's failure to trumpet its importance more forcefully may well turn out to be a strategic error. On the other hand, it is heartening to see 'Justice' given prominence as one of the six elements; underlining that good governance, accountable institutions and freedoms of expression and assembly are a core element of sustainable development (mirroring the indivisibility of civil & political and economic, social & cultural rights), making it harder for States to back away from including commitments in these areas.

The report places a welcome emphasis on two areas which are crucial for the success and integrity of the post-2015 agenda; accountability and financing. The Secretary-General should be applauded for dedicating a whole section of the report to 'Monitoring, evaluation and reporting', making a strong case for embedding monitoring and accountability mechanisms in the new framework. However, the report frequently falls back on watered down ideas about voluntary reporting and 'knowledge-sharing', which may have value in themselves but should not be conflated with real accountability (which, as we argued in Who Will be Accountable, encompasses responsibility, answerability and enforceability). This is particularly the case with the proposals for the regional and global mechanisms. Some more concrete ideas about how to operationalize accountability at these levels, in particular how to make the mechanisms meaningful, mandatory and capable of monitoring cross-border impacts of policies -  would have been a valuable contribution, especially given the report's acknowledgement of the importance of global governance, policy coherence and international cooperation in achieving the SDGs.  While Ban's vision of national accountability processes is far more robust, it presupposes a conducive environment for such national reviews "with broad, multi-stakeholder participation" when in reality we know that in many countries civil society organizations are faced with diminishing resources and restricted political freedom.

On the financing front, it is encouraging to see repeated reference to the importance of tackling tax evasion and illicit financial flows "effectively addressing illicit flows is urgent"), and reforming tax systems to raise public revenue more equitably. Unsurprisingly given the current enthusiasm for partnerships among UN agencies and Member States, the Secretary-General does grant a major role to the private sector; but happily he does also include some reasonably strong language on regulation, mandatory reporting, safeguards and accountability for private finance in sustainable development and cites the Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights as a key standard.  While this falls short of the ex ante human rights assessments of potential private sector partners called for by the Human Rights Caucus and others, it at least flags the potential risks and the need for vigilance and protections.

In conclusion, the Synthesis Report offers plenty of positives to build on. The integration of human rights is certainly more meaningful than in other official SDG inputs, and it presents a robust survey of where we are in the process and what proposals are on the table, with some subtle nudges in more progressive directions.  However, the achievement is somewhat overshadowed by a couple of regrettable missteps, where it feels like Ban missed his chance to really throw his weight behind certain overarching but politically vulnerable priorities and to frame the discussion in a more human rights-based way. Ultimately, however, the definition of the post-2015 agenda is down to Member States, with the intergovernmental negotiations kicking off next week the first real test of their commitment to a truly transformative paradigm shift. The challenge for civil society is to continue pushing forcefully for a high level of ambition, participation and accountability in all aspects of the new sustainable development framework.