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‘A Matter of Justice’: human rights must be at core of the post-2015 development agenda

The months ahead will prove critical for the future of global development. The High-Level Panel on the Post-2015 Development Agenda will deliver its recommendations to the UN Secretary General in May, the Open Working Group of the General Assembly on Sustainable Development Goals is up and running, and the General Assembly Special Event on the MDGs, which is set to hammer out the basic parameters of the post-2015 framework, is due to take place in September. Given that many of the targets agreed in the current MDGs will not be met, it is imperative that a more effective sustainable development narrative and infrastructure be agreed - one that avoids the pitfalls of the existing process.

A new CESR briefing argues that the new development framework should reinforce existing human rights commitments, rather than sidelining or undercutting them, as the current MDGs have done. The human rights framework has the potential to make sure the new development plan delivers on its promises and avoids the shortcomings of the current MDGs; By specifying what governments and other duty-bearers are already responsible for under international law, while also evaluating their actions and making provisions for ongoing participation and reassessment, a human rights approach can make sure the new framework translates into real progress on the ground. ‘A Matter of Justice’ explains that the post-2015 agenda should be firmly rooted in nine key principles of the human rights framework: universality, interdependence, equality, participation, transparency, accountability, meeting minimum essential floors, using maximum available resources, and international cooperation. It spells out how these principles should be reflected in practice in any new set of development goals and targets.

Anchoring the post-2015 sustainable development agenda in the universality of human rights implies that the new commitments must apply in rich and poor countries alike, while the interdependence of rights requires that civil and political freedoms, such as freedom of expression, association and information, be included as inseparable from the economic and social rights dimensions of development. In a context of widening inequality, it is likewise essential that the new framework promote equality and non-discrimination in practice as well as in law, through monitorable commitments to reduce disparities and tackle the inequitable policies often underpinning them. The new goals should also spur urgent action to ensure universal access to at least a basic set of social goods and services, so as to guarantee a minimum essential floor of rights protection for all.

Due attention to the principles of participation and empowerment would meanwhile ensure ordinary people’s ownership of the development process, while also reflecting the fact that people living in poverty generally view lack of voice and power as the most stigmatizing elements of their deprivation. To this end, the post-2015 commitments should address transparency and access to information as essential preconditions for meaningful participation. And given that the absence of real incentives has been a key factor impeding progress towards the current MDGs, they should be buttressed by effective accountability systems at the local, national and international levels, including mechanisms to address accountability gaps in the realm of global governance.

The human rights framework also sets parameters for how commitments should be financed, through equitable tax and budget policies aimed at generating and deploying  the  ‘maximum available resources’.  The duty of international cooperation and assistance meanwhile requires collective action to address the multiple interrelated crises - food, fuel, financial, economic, employment and ecological - which have afflicted the globe since the MDGs were adopted, while also ensuring coherence between international development assistance policies and other bilateral and multilateral policies in areas such as trade, investment, debt and financial secrecy.

The plenary session on Day 1 of the UN thematic consultation
on governance and the post-2015 development agenda

The need for human rights and accountability to be properly integrated into the new framework came to the fore at a post-2015 consultation on governance at the end of February in Johannesburg. Organized by the United Nations Development Program and the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, the Global Consultation on Governance Post-2015 was one of a series of international thematic consultations that will feed into the design of the new development plan.

Addressing one of the plenary sessions, CESR Executive Director Ignacio Saiz highlighted key dimensions of just governance which had emerged from civil society consultations co-facilitated by CESR and the Global Call to Action Against Poverty as part of the Beyond-2015 campaign. "A new vision of governance, grounded in principles of human rights, equality, participation, transparency, access to justice and accountability, should be a cornerstone of the post-2105 sustainable development agenda", he said. The Beyond 2015 paper, Just Governance for the World We Need, sets out the campaign´s recommendations on governance emerging from the worldwide consultation.

And global civil society's demand for human rights to placed the heart of the post-2015 agenda again took center stage at a major conference in Bonn at the end of March. Over 250 organizations from all over the world gathered in the German city for the three-day meeting, where it became clear that human rights and environmental issues are considered fundamental priorities among non-governmental organizations everywhere.

Ultimately, it will be up to the international community to decide the parameters of the successor framework when it gathers in New York next September. But this time around, governments cannot ignore the resounding call for a human rights-centered development agenda which is emerging from the global conversation. If properly deployed, human rights principles and standards can help ensure the sustainable development commitments agreed in 2015 do not go down in history as yet another set of unfulfilled promises.