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Two years on, can human rights rescue the 2030 Agenda?

February 15, 2018

Two years since the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development came into force, a “business as usual” approach to implementation risks betraying its lofty ambition to “transform our world.” CESR has been working hard to ensure that the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) agreed on at the UN in 2015 advance “universal respect for human rights,” as their preamble sets out to do.

Unlike their predecessor, the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), the SDGs are a comprehensive agenda spanning critical economic and social rights issues as well as civil and political freedoms. And they are more equality-sensitive, with commitments to “leave no one behind” on grounds such as gender, disability or indigenous status.

However, serious shortcomings thwart the 2030 Agenda’s transformative potential. The Agenda’s accountability system is toothless, with cursory and voluntary national reviews and diluted targets and progress indicators. These weaknesses let many countries drag their feet in getting National Development Plans off the ground, particularly high-income countries where economic nationalism has undermined multilateral commitments.

More fundamentally, the SDGs have done little to change the broader policy ecosystem that perpetuates poverty and increases inequality. Austerity measures—including drastic public spending cuts and regressive labor, tax and social security reforms—are being pushed by governments and international institutions in two-thirds of the world’s countries. CESR and its partners have shown that in Brazil, for example, constitutionalized austerity threatens a major reverse in the country’s progress in reducing poverty and inequality. Such policies are difficult to square with the SDG commitments to implement universal social protection floors or make health coverage accessible to all.  

Similarly, little has been done to tackle tax abuse. Despite the Panama and Paradise Papers scandals of the last two years, tax havens and other channels of tax abuse continue to rob poorer countries of trillions of dollars in potential development financing each year. CESR has shown that recent tax cuts in the US threaten a new global race to the bottom on corporate taxation. And the uncritical embrace by governments and UN agencies of private-sector partnerships to implement Agenda 2030, without regard to public financing alternatives, has lead to legitimate fears of a “corporate capture” of the Agenda.

In the annual Spotlight on Sustainable Development report published by the 2030 Reflection Group, CESR focuses on SDG10, which aims to reduce economic inequality within and between countries. We document how fiscal austerity and corporate tax abuse fuel inequality in specific contexts and as an antidote, propose rights-based policy pathways to reduce economic inequality and the gender discrimination it reinforces. We have taken this analysis before the UN High Level Political Forum, which oversees SDG implementation globally, as well as regional development forums and key international development institutions such as the IMF. We have also applied this critique to influential publications like the World Bank’s World Development Report.

CESR also strengthens the accountability architecture by encouraging human rights oversight bodies to play a complementary role in SDG implementation and review. We have engaged with national human rights institutions (NHRIs) in Asia, Africa and Europe to equip them with more effective tools for economic and social rights monitoring in the SDG context.  We have also prompted regional bodies such as the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights to call on states to implement rights-based fiscal policies as part of their efforts to reduce poverty and inequality. CESR’s advocacy has also led UN treaty bodies to call on tax havens such as Switzerland to align their tax and financial secrecy policies with their international human rights and development commitments.

As long as the SDGs hold such sway over government priorities and budgets, the serious shortcomings seen over the last two years warrant ever more critical engagement by the human rights community. At a time when official discourses increasingly blame those living in poverty for their own situation, we must boldly assert that poverty and inequality are the result of human rights violations. The remedy for these deprivations requires the redistribution of resources within and between countries and the ultimate goal of development must be to realize all human rights for all people.

Image: UN Photo/Marco Dormino