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.

The Secretary General briefs journalists on his synthesis report
at the United Nations headquarters last week
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 Secretary General’s ‘Six Essential Elements’ of the
post-2015 agenda, as set out in his synthesis report

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.

Posted by Kate Donald on January 13th, 2015

The ‘data revolution’: of the people, for the people?

Subjected to scrutiny, the data ‘revolution’ has always seemed more like savvy branding than an accurate description of any actual phenomenon. As one commentator has wryly observed, “the data revolution may be the first revolution in history not to feature any people”. Nevertheless, since being heralded in the report of the High-Level Panel on the Post-2015 Sustainable Development Agenda, the idea of the data ‘revolution’ has been taken up with great enthusiasm. Recently, it was further enshrined and elucidated in the report of the UN Secretary General’s Independent Expert Advisory Group (IEAG) on the Data Revolution, ‘A World That Counts’.

If the ‘data revolution’ is to bring real social transformation
it must be empowering and accessible to all
CESR engaged with the IEAG’s report because we know that data -and the processes of collecting and using it - can have a wide range of human rights impacts; and that high-quality data can illuminate human rights problems (not least socio-economic inequalities) and help to identify potential policy solutions. Our interest as human rights advocates is that this so-called ‘revolution’ lives up to its name in terms of being empowering, bottom-up and accessible rather than yet another top-down technocratic development exercise – no matter how many colorful infographics and interactive crowd-sourced maps are produced.  Although data may seem by its very nature to be inhuman, in fact development data should be deeply human and humanizing. Not only does it provide and aggregate information about people, it should also be used for and by people to help them shift power imbalances, claim their rights and procure the services to which they are entitled to realize those rights.

Our experience of human rights monitoring has underlined the difficulties in assessing progress or backsliding in human rights enjoyment without the right kinds of data and information being collected and made available. This is a pressing challenge across many different contexts. In our work on tax and human rights for example, we share the frustration of many economists and tax justice campaigners at the dearth of accurate information on illicit financial flows, tax evasion, beneficial ownership and corporate tax incentives. We know that economic inequality is growing worldwide, but in fact the scale of this inequality is still underestimated, because much of the wealth of the top 1% is hidden. Similarly, although it is easy to observe that gender inequality is rife, we still lack good data illuminating how resources are shared within households, or how a nation’s tax burden is shared between women and men. Meanwhile, millions of people worldwide are absent from official records and from official accounts of progress (because they are marginalized or hard to reach), and are therefore denied their rights. This might not only lead us to underestimate these inequalities and their root causes, but also blind us to some potentially important policy solutions.

More positively, we felt it was important to share insights derived from our work on monitoring public policies from a rights perspective (for example in Guatemala).  Despite the challenges outlined above, in recent years CESR and other human rights advocates have developed creative methods for using available socio-economic data and applying it to human rights questions, while experiences of human rights monitoring show that it is possible to analyze progress in many areas of development traditionally thought of as unquantifiable, such as accountable governance.  

Despite the woefully inadequate time window for civil society consultation on the IEAG’s report, the exercise did demonstrate the importance of seeking this feedback, as the final report was a significant improvement on the draft. In particular, the final report addressed some of the concerns CESR and others expressed by exhibiting a greater sensitivity to and more nuanced understanding of human rights.  It acknowledges that “human rights cut across many issues relevant to the data revolution”. This was in contrast to the draft, which had a narrow vision of the relationship between rights and the data revolution in which the latter could negatively threaten the former - understood mostly as privacy rights. It also states that any institutions, mechanisms or partnerships set up to mobilize or regulate the data revolution must respect, protect and fulfill human rights.  In addition, the authors introduced the importance of supporting and investing in civil society’s ability to collect, use and analyze data; the need to prioritize gathering data on especially vulnerable and marginalized populations and on various grounds of discrimination and inequality; and the need for national statistical offices to be more transparent and establish more links with the public.

The report still has considerable weaknesses (see here for one analysis). From our perspective, the most pressing of these is the report’s complacent assumption that data will improve accountability (“data are… the raw material for accountability”), without exploring the necessary stepping stones. How will ordinary citizens use this data to seek progress, justice and redress? For example, accessible accountability mechanisms will need to be in place, and these mechanisms - such as courts and human rights bodies - need capacity-building to be able to use and analyze data more effectively. In addition, more robust language overall on government transparency – the State’s duty to actively provide all relevant information to its people, including on budgets, financial and tax policies – would have been welcome. Right to information laws don’t even get a mention.

The experience of the MDGs has taught us that what can be measured and quantified gets more political attention - and more funding.  High-quality accessible data – combined with important shifts in how we collect and use it - could certainly play a role in improving human rights enjoyment, empowerment and accountability. For instance, a meaningful commitment in the post-2015 sustainable development goals to tackle inequalities and leave no one behind, combined with data systems that can really pinpoint who is being excluded, and the extent and nature of their deprivation, could be a major step towards tackling these unacceptable disparities within and between countries . However, transformative change is still ultimately a question of political will and power. We must not be seduced by the idea that data is a quick fix to solve global poverty and inequality. This misconception may partly explain the enthusiasm for the ‘data revolution’ in policy and development circles – it gives us the false comfort that perhaps it is all about stats and numbers after all, rather than messy politics and real human beings in all their complexity. Data does not equal empowerment, and it does not inevitably result in accountability, as the report seems to suggest. No amount of data is going to overcome the thorny and very contextual development challenges we face, and it can certainly never be a substitute for really engaging with communities and ensuring they have the means to challenge development injustices.

Posted by Kate Donald on November 24th, 2014

SDGs merely dead letters without fiscal justice and human rights

We are at a crossroads in defining the future of sustainable development. Over the summer, UN member states hashed out some agreement on a proposed set of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and targets, and simultaneously devised a ‘menu of options’ for financing these universal goals. The UN Secretary General’s office is at the grind now to synthesize these proposals and many more into a workable set of recommendations for what the post-2015 sustainable development framework could and should look like.

A sustainable development framework for the post-2015 era
will be agreed at the 69th Session of the UN General Assembly
As the post-2015 process now starts to harden and faultlines become more pronounced, experts and activists from the development, environmental and human rights communities are converging around a fairly straightforward argument. (The short list of recommended reading starts here: the UN Millennium Campaign Africa, Oxfam, Save the Children, Global Financial Integrity, Action Aid, the UN Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights, Christian Aid and my organization the Center for Economic and Social Rights, alongside a wide array of academics and other experts).

Unless governments agree to concrete tax and budgetary commitments which ensure robust, equitable and accountable fiscal foundations for sustainable development, the SDGs will end up merely dead letters.

Why is fiscal justice—that is, ensuring the sufficiency, equality and accountability of financing—so central to delivering sustainable development? Much more money will need to be mobilized for sustainable development—on the order of a trillion dollars a year. According to our recent findings, a range of complementary domestic and global fiscal commitments—from ending harmful corporate income tax exemptions, to boosting financial transparency to taxing illicit financial flows and carbon emissions to name just a few—can unleash at least US$1.5 trillion per year in additional, stable and predictable public funding to end poverty, inequality and environmental destruction.

Equality in the burdens and benefits of sustainable development financing within and between countries meanwhile is as important as the total amount raised. “Collecting taxes is not enough,” as the Head of the Uruguayan Tax Collection Agency recently said, “what matters is how and from whom.” Concrete post-2015 commitments to reduce economic inequality within countries through enhanced use of progressive taxation on income and wealth, while simultaneously augmenting investments in marginalized regions and amongst disadvantaged groups would provide a needed boost to reducing corrosive levels of socio-economic inequality in all countries.

Lastly, robust and truly equitable fiscal policy—as any government official or budget analyst would say—is inherently vulnerable to being undermined by politics. At the heart of many development financing challenges lie stark imbalances of (public and private) power in domestic and trans-national decision-making over how resources are raised and spent. Good intentions are not enough to push back against this potent driver of political and economic inequality. Ensuring poor and disadvantaged communities have the right to access timely, accessible and relevant fiscal information, enabling effective and meaningful participation in the design, implementation and monitoring of budget, tax and fiscal policy and ensuring effective remedy for fiscal harms is thus a third essential pre-condition for an effective sustainable development financing strategy.

The struggle for fiscal justice post-2015 won’t be easy, and will need all the help it can get. So, how might existing human rights standards and accountability mechanisms help overcome some of the obstacles to ensure robust, equitable and accountable fiscal foundations for sustainable development?

First, ensuring adequate public funding for sustainable development will require a step-change in international cooperation. While some of the proposed targets (say boosting the capacity of public revenue authorities) could be acted on by states individually, the grand majority of the actions needed to ensure sufficient resources for sustainable development will require concerted action by many governments North and South. Poor countries could commit to a universal domestic resource floor of 20% tax/GDP by 2020, for example, but this would be unachievable in most cases while the finances flowing in and out of their countries remain illicit, and the countries benefitting from the current system refuse to propose collective sanctions for private and public actors refusing to cooperate cross-border tax abuses, let alone conduct spillover analyses of the impact of their tax practices on sustainable development.

Despite varied attempts to obfuscate the facts, several human rights treaties do indeed require by law that governments cooperate internationally, commensurate with their capacities, resources and influence. These legal duties—founded in the UN Charter and other key sources of international law—imply that governments must collaborate with, and not undermine, other governments’ efforts to mobilize the maximum of available resources for human rights and sustainable development. Government laws and policies which have the effect of preventing other countries from resourcing rights in equitable ways (e.g. supporting cross-border tax evasion, improper regulation of abusive private financial actors, private creditors or other business enterprises, aid or trade conditionalities, and unjustifiable constraints on deficit financing) clearly work against the achievement of human rights and sustainable development goals. In this way, human rights can help recast the basic principles of the global tax regime away from tax competition and systemic regulatory arbitrage towards international cooperation and equality before the law.

A second key obstacle to ensuring the SDGs actually deliver fiscal justice, pointed out most recently by Alex Cobham, is the resistance from some quarters to including specific fiscal policy measures and national responsibilities as targets or indicators in themselves. National ownership of sustainable development is essential for legitimate and lasting progress. Yet, tackling global fiscal challenges will be impossible without making clear who should do what, and who will be ultimately accountable if global fiscal commitments (such as on “reducing illicit financial flows by x%’) are not achieved. Without including specific needed policy efforts (on beneficial ownership of companies, trusts and foundations; automatic tax information exchange; mandatory fiscal policy spillover analyses, to name a few), the outcome-oriented targets will remain nebulous, elusive and ultimately un-delivered. Human rights standards, in this context, impose obligations of conduct as well as of result. Governments in other words are accountable not only for the outcomes they achieve but for the policy efforts they make, supporting the case that the targets and indicators used to measure sustainable development, especially on fiscal policy—should be policy-sensitive as well as outcome-oriented.

Effective fiscal accountability remains another challenge which can be more fully addressed through recourse to human rights. While on the surface it might seem that the struggle over whether or not to include SDG targets on political participation, freedom of assembly, right to information and access to justice are far afield from financing development, these fundamental human rights lay at the very foundation of fair fiscal policy. Fiscal accountability—characterized by the right to access timely, accessible and relevant fiscal information, meaningful and organized participation in the design, implementation and monitoring of fiscal policy, and the provision of effective remedies for fiscal harms—is a key determinant in strengthening tax compliance and tax morale and essential to ultimately carrying through on promised development commitments. What’s more, it is a human rights imperative. As such, an array of human rights mechanisms—from constitutional courts to national human rights commissions to UN treaty bodies—are being increasingly invoked , particularly in the context of the economic crisis and austerity. These human rights bodies have a still-untapped potential to protect peoples’ fundamental rights to transparency, information, participation and accountability in fiscal policy decisions at all levels.

Lastly, framing fiscal justice as a human rights issue takes it beyond the elite technocratic sphere into the arena of legitimate public scrutiny, debate and mobilization around fundamental values of equality, solidarity and justice. This can help not only check the near-hegemonic influence of private interests over tax policy, but also broaden the platform to a broader range of social actors not yet engaged in tax advocacy, such as budget analysts, corporate accountability campaigners, social movements, litigators and academics. Sustained alliance-building will be required in the coming years to turn human rights principles into a coherent, universal and enforceable body of fiscal policy standards, respected in practice by governments, international institutions, multinational businesses and their advisers/financiers.

Financing sustainable development adequately, equitably and accountably remains a significant challenge which the UN post-2015 agenda and next year’s Financing for Development conference in Addis Ababa is well-placed to address. Far from a political lightning rod, human rights standards and mechanisms can be dynamic tools in this struggle.

This article, originally written for the Righting Finance Initiative, was adapted from the author’s presentation at the event, “Human rights and tax policies in the post-2015 development agenda: Towards a transformative partnership?” on June 16th 2014 at UN Headquarters.

Posted by Niko Lusiani on September 10th, 2014

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.

Violet Shivutse of Groots, the Kenyan Grassroots Women's Movement,
addresses the event 'Human Rights: (Really) Leaving Noone Behind'
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.

Anne Poorta (left) of the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs
shares a lighter moment with CESR's Ignacio Saiz
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.

Posted by Luke Holland on August 31st, 2014

Will High-Level Forum rise to accountability challenge?

As the High-Level Political Forum on Sustainable Development (HLPF) meets at the UN’s New York headquarters, CESR has weighed in on one of the most critical and contentious issues on its agenda; accountability.

Malians vote in Presidential Elections. Meaningful participation
will be crucial to the success of the SDGs. Photo: Blagoje Grujic, UN

The HLPF, a new body established under the Rio+20 outcome document, has been set up to monitor and review implementation of the new sustainable development commitments to be agreed in 2015. While the question of accountability is just one of a number of difficult challenges it must address between now and July 9, when its second round of meetings draws to a close, past experience has shown that development commitments mean little if they are not backed up with effective accountability mechanisms.

CESR’s Luke Holland, speaking at a morning session with civil society hosted by the President of the Economic and Social Council, outlined five essential characteristics of an effective post-2015 monitoring and accountability framework.

The success or failure of future development efforts hinges on whether all development actors are held accountable to their human rights obligations under a truly universal framework. Governments must be held accountable to the commitments they make, both to their own citizens and to each other, as part of a new Global Partnership for Development. And with the private sector playing an ever-increasing role in development processes, it is likewise essential that corporations be held to their human rights responsibilities, as set out in the Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights.

Moreover, if the HLPF is to become an effective catalyst for just and transformative development, it should be at the center of a multi-layered ecosystem of accountability in which a broad spectrum of mechanisms, spanning the global, regional, national and local levels, work in synergy. New mechanisms specific to the sustainable development goals should work in complementarity with existing accountability systems, including parliamentary, judicial and administrative bodies.

Real accountability must also be people-centered, which means creating enabling conditions of citizens’ participation, both around the HLPF itself and in other monitoring and accountability processes set up at the national and regional levels. These voices must be heard and acted upon. The HLPF can also support meaningful participation by promoting participatory processes at the national level, and spurring access to data and information, At a time when freedom of expression, association and information are under attack in many countries, these issues are more pressing than ever.

Similarly, the HLPF must deliver transformative accountability. Given that reporting to the Forum will be voluntary, it is all the more important that review processes are rigorous, interrogating policy efforts, resource allocations and international commitments, and ensuring corrective action where necessary.

Taken together, these elements represent the difference between an accountability system that is merely ceremonial, and one that is genuinely rights-based. Human rights offer a universal, multi-layered, people-centred framework for transformative accountability. By anchoring the SDG accountability framework in human rights, the HLPF can powerfully incentivise the achievement of the goals, and thereby ensure they do not go down in history as another set of unfulfilled promises.

Posted by Luke Holland on July 7th, 2014

Accountability moves to the fore of the Post-2015 debate

CESR Executive Director Ignacio Saiz addresses the Inter-Active
Dialogue on Monitoring and Accountability for a Post-2015 Agenda
As negotiations on the Sustainable Development Goals intensify at the UN, attention is increasingly turning to the question of accountability, and the monitoring and review systems needed to ensure the new goals are met.

CESR's Executive Director, Ignacio Saiz, spoke at the Inter-Active Dialogue on Elements for a Monitoring and Accountability Framework for a Post-2015 Agenda convened by the President of the General Assembly on 1 May at the UN headquarters in New York. Contributing to the opening panel on "Concepts for a new accountability framework", chaired by the Secretary General´s Special Adviser on Post-2015, Amina Mohammed, Ignacio argued that the post-2015 accountability architecture should be grounded in human rights principles, and buttressed by human rights accountability mechanisms.

Speaking to the findings of CESR's in-depth study, Who Will Be Accountable? Human Rights and the Post-2015 Development Agenda, published with the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in 2013, he spelled out how human rights could reinforce the three constituent elements of accountability: responsibility, answerability and enforceability. Human rights standards can help clarify the differentiated responsibilities of states and other actors on the development stage. They set out the freedoms and capabilities that must be safeguarded if those in power are to answer to those facing poverty and deprivation. And a range of human rights enforcement mechanisms at the national, regional and international levels can act as avenues for accountability in the development sphere.

While highlighting the role that existing administrative, legislative and judicial mechanisms can play as part of a new ecosystem of accountability, Ignacio highlighted the need for more effective instruments to hold wealthier states, international institutions and the private sector answerable for the human rights and environmental impacts of their policies and practices, as these had proven the biggest accountability gaps under the MDGs.

Here Ignacio (right) is seen with the rest of the panel.
in the UN's Economic and Social Council Chamber
The event was addressed by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon, who called for an inclusive, robust yet flexible framework whereby all actors could be accountable for honouring their commitments. Speaking on a second panel on "Learning from existing review mechanisms", the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, spoke of the need to ensure an enabling environment for accountability, and of the positive lessons that could be learnt from the Universal Periodic Review of the UN Human Rights Council.  The meeting heard from other civil society advocates, including Roberto Bissio from Social Watch, who said that accountability is only meaningful if the powerful countries, intergovernmental institutions and transnational corporations can be brought to account. 

These points were echoed in the interventions of some of the member states present. For example, Bolivia, speaking on behalf of the G77 (the largest grouping at the UN) said that a central feature of the accountability framework should be to ensure developing countries are enabled to achieve their objectives, through capacity building, technology transfer and more effective development cooperation. Accountability and mechanisms for delivering can be expected to remain a controversial issue in negotiations going forward, however.  These issues will continue to be debated via a new thematic consultation convened by UNICEF and UN Women, with the support of Peru, South Korea and Canada.
  • Ignacio's statement to the Inter-Active Dialogue is available here.
  • The video of the meeting is available here, with Ignacio's presentation beginning at 1 hour 6 minutes.
  • A recent joint civil society statement on human rights and the post-2015 development agenda can be found here.
  • For more on CESR´s work on human rights and accountability in the SDGs, see here. 

Posted by Luke Holland on May 7th, 2014

Civil society rallies to prevent privatization of post-2015 process

After a lengthy process of consultation and deliberation, talks over the post-2015 sustainable development agenda are now moving into the cut and thrust of practical negotiation. As the process enters this more overtly political phase, there is a very real threat that the voice of powerful actors, especially those from the private sector, may drown out global civil society’s demands for a human rights-based framework, and with it the possibility of a genuinely transformative agenda.

At key UN meetings last week in Helsinki and this week in New York, debates intensified on the role of public-private partnerships in the future sustainable development framework. Many governments, along with leading figures from the corporate sphere, are pushing hard for the private sector to be placed in the driving seat. In an age of deepening political and economic inequality worldwide, shifting the already-skewed balance of power even further towards such private actors would dramatically undermine the chances of a just and sustainable development agenda with human rights at its core, however.

Debate on the role of partnerships in post-2015 development
gets underway in the UN Trusteeship Council Chamber
Proponents of  such partnerships argue that in a world of increasing resource scarcity it is precisely because of the immense capital they control that private companies should be enabled to drive the development process. Yet this standpoint fails to recognize the role that widespread corporate abuses have played in undermining efforts to meet development and human rights commitments. It also fails to take into account the game-changing potential of funding sustainable development through public resources that are currently untapped, in large part thanks to tax evasion, avoidance and competition driven by the very same profit-seeking institutions seeking to finance the sustainable development goals (SDGs).

The experience of the last few decades suggests that the types of legal or policy incentives in the playbook for boosting an investor-friendly environment--tax holidays and exemptions, weakened labor and environmental protections, abusive stability and investment clauses, risk guarantees, increased lobbying influence on public policy, biased market liberalization and deregulation, especially in the financial sector– are precisely some of the same policy instruments which have undercut the foundations for sustainable development, driven deeper inequality and undermined human rights and the environment.

Without a clear-eyed assessment of the real risks of privatizing post-2015 and strong regulatory provisions to prevent them, corporate capture of the post-2015 process threatens the key human rights principle of accountability, which will be crucial to any development framework that is truly inclusive. In years gone by, transnational corporate power has all too often used its influence to avoid accountability rather than bolster it. What’s more, rather than furthering the cause of just development and human rights, multinational corporations have frequently been involved in human rights abuses themselves. This has taken place both directly, through the activities of the extractive sector for example, and indirectly, through tax avoidance and policy manipulation.

With only months leftbefore the new sustainable development framework is agreed, civil society is rallying to wrest control of the post-2015 process from the hands of corporations and return it to where it belongs – under the purview of capable and legitimate governments acting in transparent and democratic multilateral forums and in close partnership with civil society.

Throughout the past week, organizations from around the world urged UN member states to reaffirm their role as primary protectors and guarantors of human rights rather than mere enablers of private sector development. At both official sessions and civil society side events this week, advocates from Brazil, India, and Uruguay exposed the realities of power imbalances and conflicts of interests inherent in private sector-led development partnerships. In a statement to the Helsinki meeting issued by the Righting Finance Initiative, CESR and allies proposed a clear set of ex ante criteria to guarantee primacy of a public post-2015 process and to determine under what conditions private sector actors are fit to be post-2015 partners. These criteria should examine, at the least:
  1. whether the private actor has a history or current status of serious allegations of abusing human rights or the environment, including in their cross-border activities;
  2. whether the private actor has a proven track record (or the potential to) deliver on sustainable development commitments emerging from the post-2015 process;
  3. whether the private actor has previous involvement in acts of corruption with government officials;
  4. whether the private actor is fully transparent in its financial reporting and fully respecting existing tax responsibilities in all countries it operates, and not undermining sustainable development through tax avoidance;
  5. any conflicts of interest in order to eliminate potential private donors whose activities are antithetical or contradictory to the UN Charter, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and the SDG framework.
Governments moreover should commit to take immediate measures at all levels to ensure that businesses, at the very least, respect human rights and the environment, including by mandating independent, rigorous and periodic human rights and environmental impact assessments of large businesses.

Some governments are beginning to speak out against the growing corporate capture of the sustainable development agenda. Speaking at the civil society side-event, “Privatization of the post-2015 Development Agenda”, co-sponsored by CESR in New York earlier this week, Sergio Rodrigues from Brazil´s Permanent Mission to the UN warned that corporate influence over the post-2015 process could determine the future of the development agenda for years to come. He cautioned that this debate was at its core a battle over the future of the UN itself, and confirmed that his government would be among those pushing for stronger mechanisms of accountability and guidelines to regulate corporate engagement in development partnerships.

There is no doubt that the private sector does have an important role to play in driving economic dynamism and a healthy job market, but it is only when such profit-seeking activity is balanced by a strong and stable regulatory and accountability frameworks, on a level playing field and in equal partnership with the other actors involved, that we can realistically expect it to contribute to the world we all need.

Indeed, as many advocates reflect on the week past, it’s an open question whether the UN as an institution could ever recover from the reputational shock of its new chief private financiers being simultaneously the chief violators of its most cherished principles.

Posted by on

Human Rights after Rio+20: failure is not an option

The Rio+20 conference on Sustainable Development was originally intended to achieve consensus on a framework for sustainable and just global development. As the conference draws to a conclusion in the eponymous Brazilian city, the only consensus in evidence is that the international community has once again failed to reach a meaningful agreement, despite the critical importance of the event for current and future generations.

‘The Future We Want’ was the slogan on banners promoting the meeting, but the resulting outcome document is unlikely to deliver anything on this worthy promise. The agreement appears to have sacrificed a swathe of key human rights and social justice concerns, prompting former High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson to brand it a ‘failure of leadership’. While commitments to certain economic and social rights, including food, water, education and health were ‘reaffirmed’ in the document, language on the critical issues of transparency and accountability is far too weak to ensure these affirmations translate into meaningful change. References to freedom of speech and association have meanwhile been omitted altogether.

Disagreement between various countries over how the costs of sustainable development should be borne, and by whom, has effectively blocked agreement on a more ambitious plan that could provide for the needs of the current generation, without undermining the ability of future generations to provide for their needs too. Against a backdrop of multiple crises, widening inequality and potentially catastrophic environmental degradation, the international community faces a moral and political imperative to find a way past this deadlock. Indeed, as UN Secretary General Ban-Ki Moon recently warned, the world runs the risk of sabotaging its future if it does not rise to this challenge.

The agreement hammered out in Rio does not mark the end of the road, however. As the dust settles on what has been a largely disappointing event from the point of view of social justice advocates, governments at the meeting have at least committed to creating a set of sustainable development goals (SDGs). If this new framework is to succeed in shifting the world onto a fairer and more sustainable development path, it is of fundamental importance that it be grounded in human rights.

Past experience has made it abundantly clear that the failure to include human rights norms and principles into international development frameworks can lead to the most fundamental rights of vulnerable groups being undermined rather than promoted. Development-induced pollution of air, soil and water resources all too often leads to people’s rights to health, housing, food, water and even life being put at risk. CESR’s work in countries such as Ecuador has illustrated the devastating impact irresponsible business activities can have on both human rights and the environment. Indigenous peoples’ land rights are often trampled on in the rush to exploit resources, while forced evictions are carried out to clear the ground for infrastructure projects and biofuel production displaces traditional agriculture, thereby threatening the right to food.

The integration of human rights norms and standards into development plans can not only avert such lamentable outcomes, but also ensure that the fruits of development are more fairly distributed while also protecting the environment. Proper participation mechanisms, in accordance with the provisions of international human rights law, can be incorporated into both the design and implementation of development plans and policies so as to ensure these efforts serve to protect and fulfill the rights of ordinary people.

In an age when economic crisis is being used as a pretext in many countries to cut the types of social spending and development cooperation needed to meet the Millennium Development Goals, decision-makers should remember that international human rights law mandates them to deploy the maximum of available resources for the fulfillment of economic and social rights. This includes the generation of resources, through progressive taxation and whatever other means may be available, and the fullest possible international cooperation by both donor and recipient states. It is likewise imperative that existing aid promises be fulfilled.

Operationalizing the principles of equality and non-discrimination in development policy can likewise guarantee that economic progress serves to protect vulnerable sectors and diminish the disparities in our society, rather than exacerbate them. Given that rising inequality both within and between countries was one of the key contributory factors to the global economic crisis, the importance of tackling this issue cannot be understated. Entrenched inequality is not only a moral question - it is also represents an economic blight as it manifests in a dearth of opportunities which in turn translates into the wasting of our most valuable resource: people.

Moreover, the standards that form the human rights framework apply to states not only in their domestic policy-making, but also through their international interactions and their membership of international governance institutions.

It is to be hoped that the weakness of the document that has emerged from last week’s negotiations in Rio will be compensated by a more meaningful set of “SDGs”. The process of designing these goals, that will get underway at the UN General Assembly in September, may have determinative influence on the future course of global development, and thereby on the lives and wellbeing of people everywhere. With the deadline for the MDGs just a few years away, and dialogue on a new set of objectives already in full swing, the SDGs will also serve as a crucial precursor to further development negotiations at a pivotal moment in our collective evolution. Amidst warnings from a panel of Nobel laureates, ministers and scientists that a business-as-usual approach may “trigger abrupt and irreversible changes with catastrophic outcomes for human societies and life as we know it,” our leaders should be fully aware of the magnitude of the responsibility they shoulder. It is not only our future, but also that of coming generations, that is at stake.

Images: First photo shows Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan at the opening ceremony of the Rio+20 conference. Second photo shows pollution from an industrial plant flooding a fishing harbour in Washington State. Both images courtesy of UN Photo.

Posted by on June 21st, 2012

A millennium promise, 10 years later

It was hailed as the "most important promise ever made to the world's most vulnerable people." But a decade on, the Millennium Declaration and the eight development goals that flowed from it risk going down in history as the most important promise never kept.

Undeniably, some progress has been made. For every child who would otherwise have died from preventable diseases, and for every woman who would not otherwise have survived pregnancy or childbirth, the efforts galvanized by the MDGs have been literally lifesaving.  But the stark reality-highlighted in our focus on the MDGs for this e-newsletter-is that most of the goals are way off the targets set for 2015.

World leaders meeting at next week's UN Review Summit will no doubt give this sorry state of incompliance the best possible spin. The sluggish progress, stagnation and even deterioration in many indicators will be blamed on a lack of resources in times of economic crisis rather than any lack of political will.

But what CESR's review lays bare are the consequences of leaving human rights accountability out of the development process. The MDGs have been viewed as aspirational goals rather than politically-binding commitments. Although the UN refers to them as a "quantitative time-bound framework of accountability," the MDGs do not include effective mechanisms for holding governments to account should they fail to meet the targets.

The MDG framework has been criticized from the start as undercutting countries' human rights obligations, particularly those on economic and social rights. These obligations must take precedence, for they flow from another visionary UN declaration adopted more than 60 years ago: the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Human rights may not dictate detailed policy prescriptions for achieving specific development goals. But they do provide a binding ethical framework sorely missing in current efforts to implement the MDGs.

Principles such as the duty to use maximum available resources to progressively fulfill economic and social rights, to prioritize core obligations, and to ensure non-discrimination, participation and accountability, should guide governments' choice and prioritization of policies. The absence of such considerations in MDG implementation to date has had fatal consequences, and has meant that progress has tended to bypass the poorest and most marginalized sectors of the population, fueling inequality within and between countries.

The next five years offer an opportunity to place human rights squarely at the center of efforts to accelerate and monitor progress on the MDGs, so that these commitments, however flawed, can be used as a benchmark for assessing compliance by countries, donors and international actors with their more comprehensive human rights obligations. CESR is also working with others in the human rights and development communities to bring about a shift in the development paradigm beyond 2015, so that any new framework of development commitments that emerges following the MDGs has the fulfilment of human rights and human dignity at its core.

Posted by Ignacio Saiz, Executive Director on September 20th, 2010