The SDGs and the urgency of human rights in times of crisis

International human rights treaties are notably absent from the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Although human rights and SDGs could in theory reinforce each other, Chiara Macchi (Wageningen University & Research) argues that the politically reassuring language of ‘goals’ and ‘commitments’ may fail to prioritize human rights and diffuse accountability of states and corporations.

If attuned to the normative framework of International Human Rights Law (IHRL), the SDGs have the potential of contributing to the realization of human rights in both developing and developed countries. This, however, requires recognizing the primacy of the obligations that states have under IHRL over their own political objectives and taking an approach informed by systems thinking – to the SDGs. In this respect, the global framework elaborated in the Agenda 2030 presents some gaps and contradictions.

The tension between goals and rights is not necessarily destructive: the pursuit of legitimate political goals can coexist with the promotion of human rights, provided the former is firmly kept within the normative framework constituted by IHRL. If this condition is respected, then political commitments such as those enshrined in the Agenda 2030 can help shape the governmental action and the international cooperation needed for the full realization of human rights. 

However, the very limited integration of human rights norms in the Agenda leaves room for states to use the SDGs instrumentally to sideline more politically sensitive human rights issues.

Diluting results and diffusing duties

International human rights treaties are notably absent from the text of the Goals, with only some of them being passingly mentioned in the Agenda 2030. Whereas the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is referenced, the two main binding covenants deriving from it (the one on civil and political rights and the one on economic, social and cultural rights) are not explicitly mentioned. The Agenda 2030 Declaration adopts the language of ‘principles and commitments’ with only cursory references to the states’ international obligations. 

The fact that the SDGs are framed as political commitments and not as obligations is not problematic per se. Goals and rights, as stated above, can coexist and even reinforce each other. However, it is impossible not to detect, in the way in which the SDGs sideline the relevant normative language, the reluctance of states to look at some of today’s most compelling issues through the lenses of their human rights obligations. 

In the face of catastrophies such as those linked to climate change or the current COVID-19 pandemic, the human rights normative framework calls for urgent action, assigns specific responsibilities and requires the mobilisation of resources. 

The politically reassuring language of ‘goals’ and ‘commitments’, instead, dilutes in time the achievement of the desired results and diffuses individual duties in the collective responsibility of the ‘international community’. This, in turn, can lead to at least two problems: (1) failing to prioritize urgent human rights relief against gradual and marginal improvements that do not fundamentally alter the existing inequalities, and (2) failing to hold states and corporations accountable.

Recognizing the primacy of human rights and the urgency of their realization

The notion of ‘progressive realization’ inherent to the SDGs is not extraneous to IHRL. Indeed, it is enshrined in the International Covenant on Economic Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), whose precepts are of particular relevance for a framework on sustainable development. However, there are crucial differences. ICESCR assigns specific obligations to states parties, requiring them to take deliberate, concrete and targeted steps towards the progressive realization of the Covenant’s rights. Progressive realization entails an obligation to exert due diligence whose results, in the words of the ILA Study Group on Due Diligence, ‘will be key to the determination of a violation’. 

In the case of the SDGs, as highlighted by Pogge and Sengupta, the ‘complete exclusion of specific responsibilities from the agreement made it easy for governments to sign on, because they were committing themselves to nothing in particular’.  The two authors maintain that the lack of a clear division of labour for the achievement of the SDGs will allow states to blame any failures on other countries. 

Even more importantly, IHRL entails criteria for prioritization of state action that arguably the SDGs do not capture. IHRL contains some immediate obligations, in particular in relation to rights that are considered absolute (e.g. the right not to be arbitrarily deprived of one’s life, freedom from torture, freedom from slavery), to the imperative of non discrimination and to the minimum core obligations deriving from ICESCR. 

Relieving people from hunger, ensuring access to primary healthcare or ensuring the right to shelter are not ‘goals’ that can be progressively achieved, but rather human rights obligations whose respect cannot be delayed. The concept of minimum core developed by the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR) partly reflects customary international law (i.e. international norms that bind all states regardless of whether they have ratified a specific human rights instrument), at least when it overlaps with rights that have achieved this status.

In contrast, the lack of normativity of the sustainable development framework and the lack of a true accountability mechanism made it easy to support the SDGs even for those states, like the US, that have historically opposed the recognition of economic, social and cultural rights as justiciable entitlements. 

This must also be read in light of the fact that developed states have consistently resisted interpreting the principle of international cooperation as binding under international law. In the meantime, half of the world population lack access to essential health services, while, according to FAO, ‘the number of undernourished people in the world has been on the rise since 2015, and is back to levels seen in 2010–2011’. The economic crisis that will unavoidably result from the current COVID-19 pandemic will compound existing problems. 

The point is, if we decouple the SDGs from the normativity of human rights, crisis-affected governments will have an easy life justifying any inaction on the ‘goals’ they have committed to. On the contrary, even in times of crisis and austerity, IHRL requires the state to continue the progressive realization of economic and social rights, to strictly justify any retrogressive steps taken in that respect and to immediately ensure minimum essential levels of basic rights. The normativity of human rights imposes spending priorities that the SDGs largely leave within the governments’ discretion.

Over-reliance on economic growth, scarce emphasis on accountability

The SDGs are premised on ‘sustained and inclusive economic growth’, presented as the ‘prerequisite for sustainable development’ (Goal 8). In contrast with this unflinching reliance on growth and on international trade as its engine – premises severely shaken by the current crisis, but already weak before that (see here, p. 2) – the states only ‘endeavour’ to decouple economic growth from environmental degradation (Target 8.4). While ‘clean technologies’ are encouraged (Target 9.4), the emphasis is on promoting industrialization (SDG 9).

The World Economic Situation and Prospects report (WESP 2020) highlights how progress to reverse climate change is insufficient, with investors still underestimating the risks and ‘making short-sighted decisions to expand investment into carbon-intensive asset’. The need for ‘ambitious government policy, including at the multilateral level’, which is key to trigger the needed paradigm shift (WESP 2020), is not sufficiently emphasized in the SDGs. 

In a closed system with limited resources, it is crucial to prioritize interventions and to make sure that the resources invested in one SDG or in one Target do not sabotage the others. A silo-approach to SDGs like number 8 and 9, for instance, risks undermining the realization of other SDGs, especially if failing to firmly address the drivers of climate change, ‘the’ sustainability challenge par excellence.

Similarly, free trade and its possible adverse development and social outcomes are not questioned in the SDGs. Yet, the current COVID-19 crisis has exposed once more the unsustainability of global supply chains in which workers are forced to go to work when sick and enjoy no contractual security. In the same way as they elude the issue of states’ human rights obligations, the SDGs pay only passing reference to the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights and to corporate accountability in general. 

Moreover, while the Agenda 2030 purports to respect every country’s ‘policy space’ to adopt measures for poverty eradication and sustainable development, there is no mention of the need to reform investment law so that it ceases providing, as argued by Van Ho, ‘a shield to bad corporate activity’ while allowing corporations to sue governments in order ‘to defeat progressive legislation aimed at protecting human rights’. 

The Agenda 2030 insists on public-private partnerships as a key strategy for sustainable development, but, as mistakes of the past have shown, these can only work for society if the public interest is not trumped by commercial priorities in their implementation.

Positive contributions

The weak integration of human rights imperatives into the Agenda risks depriving it of a necessary policy prioritization device that would be key to a systemic reading of the SDGs and to overcoming their potential internal contradictions. As the Urgenda climate change litigation has shown, voluntary state commitments such as those undertaken under the Paris Agreement, while not providing a basis for liability per se, can be used in the courts to interpret the due diligence obligations of states under domestic and international statutes, including human rights treaties. 

In this respect, a positive contribution is coming from the UN treaty bodies, which are voluntarily taking on the monitoring of the SDGs in light of the human rights framework. Treaty bodies like CEDAWCESCR or CRC regularly call on states to integrate human rights compliance into their processes of implementation of the 2030 Agenda, also stressing the importance of a participatory approach. Civil society organizations, too, are increasingly linking SDGs implementation to human rights in their advocay work, in an effort to ensure that the states’ international obligations are not sidelined in the pursuit of politically determined ‘goals’.

Chiara Macchi (PhD) is a postdoctoral Marie Skłodowska-Curie Researcher at Wageningen University & Research. She researches and teaches on business and human rights.

The Dutch version of this blog is published on MO*Magazine.