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Will accountability be left behind at SDG review forum?

As the global follow up and review mechanism for the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development adopted at the UN nine months ago, the HLPF is where world leaders will take stock of countries’ SDG performance and address challenges in implementation. Yet serious doubts remain as to whether it will deliver on its mandate to “provide political leadership, guidance and recommendations on the Agenda's implementation and follow-up” as well as ensure accountability for the goals.

It was clear already from the 2030 Agenda outcome document that the HLPF was unlikely to be the robust oversight and accountability mechanism called for by civil society and human rights groups.  The voluntary structure of the national reviews and uncertain channels for civil society involvement make it hard to see how the HLPF can play the crucial role of a participatory, global accountability mechanism complementing national and regional efforts. The structure for this year’s HLPF, with merely one and a half days set aside for 22 national reviews including an unclear Q&A session following each review, makes it difficult to see how the HLPF can really make states answerable to their commitments.

What is more, a resolution outlining in further detail the operational aspects of the HLPF has been blocked due to disputes over the inclusion of language concerning “peoples living under foreign occupation”. While the resolution text never seemed groundbreaking, some interesting elements were included (e.g. suggested themes for the next three rounds of HLPF), which could help all stakeholders prepare for future Forums. It is discouraging to witness the first substantial follow up to the 2030 Agenda turning into a battlefield for unrelated issues. Should the resolution not pass, it would seriously question states’ commitment to be held accountable to the 2030 Agenda, as well as undermining the functioning of intergovernmental negotiations at the UN in general.

Really leaving no one behind: the imperative of tackling economic inequality

Member States decided on the theme “Ensuring no one is left behind” to guide this year’s HLPF.  “Leaving no one behind” is a laudable objective, which helped to keep a focus on disadvantaged groups throughout the process of adopting the SDGs. However, it is also at risk of becoming vague, rhetorical and depoliticized. Very little recognition has been made of the links between this concept and the more precise and binding human rights obligations of equality and non-discrimination. The lack of meaningful channels for those most at risk of being left behind to participate and express their views during the HLPF is another sign of the lack of will to make this rhetoric a reality.

In order to make the commitment to “leave no one behind” more concrete and actionable, CESR has called for robust and rights-centered steps to tackle the rising economic inequality, which is creating a widening gulf in rights enjoyment between the richest and the rest. In the chapter Will Inequality Be Left Behind in Agenda 2030? published today as part of the Spotlight Report of the civil society Reflection Group on the 2030 Agenda, CESR outlines the critical significance for human rights of the commitments to reducing economic inequality made in SDG10 and argues that the prevailing rates of economic inequality will slow down countries’ achievements in relation to other SDGs, such as health (SDG4) and education (SDG3). As women hold less wealth than their male counterparts across the world, achievements on SDG5 (gender equality) are also under threat from rising economic inequality. The publication outlines a policy action agenda for tackling inequality from a human rights perspective for which CESR will be advocating around the HLPF.

Civil society: key to making the HLPF an effective mechanism for accountability

Despite the vague and voluntary characteristics of the HLPF, the potential role of this global oversight mechanism should not be discounted. In a global economic environment where all countries (especially the wealthiest and most powerful) could do far more to promote inclusive development and tackle global inequalities, the HLPF could play a unique role as the forum for monitoring transnational dimensions of the SDGs.

The global level is the natural place to assess policies, institutions and systems that transcend national borders and global problems which require collective solutions. This should include addressing global governance issues, the international spillover effects and impacts of countries’ existing policies such as trade and tax policies, and transnational phenomena which affect development, such as illicit financial flows.

The HLPF can complement national and regional follow-up and review mechanisms on cross-cutting priority issues such as economic inequality, macro-economic policy, or climate change which require global policy coherence and transnational solutions on top of robust domestic efforts. Only by collective action and coherent policies at the global level can 2030 Agenda become the catalyst needed to ensure truly human rights-centered sustainable development.

Considering that the SDG implementation period has only recently begun, the 2016 HLPF cannot be expected to meaningfully review any progress or impacts so far, but will focus on strategies planned by states to facilitate SDG implementation. Input from civil society and other stakeholders will be paramount to ensure qualified and evidence-based policies for SDG implementation, and to address biases and blind spots in governments’ assessments of their progress. As the UN Secretary General has stated “only by hearing multiple perspectives, ideas and evidence can the HLPF break new ground”. Internationally coordinated civil society initiatives such as the periodic Spotlight Report on Sustainable Development to which CESR has contributed will be crucial in bolstering the effectiveness of Agenda 2030’s fragile accountability mechanisms.

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