Strong commitments to human rights survive in final SDG text, despite sordid final compromises

At around 6:30pm on Sunday, after frantic negotiations all weekend, the final version of ‘The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development’ was agreed by UN member states in New York, including the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and targets themselves. The negotiations were intended to close on Friday, but by 4:30am on Saturday morning, it was clear that consensus was still out of reach. The contentious issues were frustratingly familiar: the scope that should be given to the principle of Common But Differentiated Responsibilities (CBDR); language on climate change and human rights; and developing countries’ ‘policy space’ particularly vis-à-vis international financial institutions (IFIs).

The Permanent Representatives of Kenya and Ireland (center left
and center right) announce the adoption of the document at a
press conference in UN headquarters on Sunday. Photo: UN Photo
By Sunday, compromise language had been found (or imposed) for all of these issues, but adoption was delayed by several hours due to wrangling over that familiar UN lightning rod, ‘colonial and foreign occupation’. There were also justified rumblings of discontent over eleventh-hour ‘tweaks’ to two SDG targets on genetic resources at the behest of the US,  when the target language was supposed to be sacrosanct. In the end, no one was perfectly happy – but such is diplomacy. With a mixture of exhaustion and elation, the delegations moved towards adoption – much to the relief of most civil society representatives in the room, who feared that further delay would only water down the text further.

For CESR it was particularly disappointing to see human rights language become a bargaining chip at the eleventh hour, given that we have been striving since 2010 to see human rights principles and obligations meaningfully reflected in the post-2015 agenda. Moving into Friday, the draft Declaration text included a very strong recognition that the realization of all human rights is a principal aim of sustainable development, and an explicit commitment to non-discrimination for all:
"This is an Agenda which seeks to respect, protect and fulfil all human rights. It will work to ensure that human rights and fundamental freedoms are enjoyed by all without discrimination on grounds of race, ethnicity, color, sex, age, language, religion, culture, migration status, political or other opinion, national or social origin, economic situation, birth, disability or other status."
On Friday night, two negotiating blocs of member states – the African Group and the Arab Group – raised fierce (and legally incoherent) objections to this language and demanded several caveats, including the removal of ‘other status’ at the end of the list of protected grounds (used in human rights treaties ever since the Universal Declaration). Sadly, it seems clear from statements made by certain member states that this was motivated by the desire to avoid recognizing the rights of LGBT people (they also objected to the phrase ‘all social and economic groups’ elsewhere in the document for similar reasons, and insisted that every use of the phrase ‘gender equality’ be followed by language about the empowerment of women and girls). This became a redline issue, with the African and Arab Groups refusing to countenance the language provided while others (including many Latin American countries, the EU and the US) held firm against dilution. In the end, the compromise the drafters found was to replace the text with a verbatim cut-and-paste of language from the Rio+20 outcome document, The Future We Want.
"We reaffirm the importance of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, as well as other international instruments relating to human rights and international law. We emphasize the responsibilities of all States, in conformity with the Charter of the United Nations, to respect, protect and promote human rights and fundamental freedoms for all, without distinction of any kind as to race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth, disability or other status."
It was a savvy political strategy, as the Rio language still includes the all-important phrase ‘or other status’ (recognizing that discrimination on any ground is unacceptable) but would have been nigh impossible for the African and Arab Groups to object to, given its status as agreed language in a political declaration which is a foundation text for post-2015.

However, the compromise was profoundly disappointing as the Rio language manifests a number of weaknesses and gaps in relation to the previous language, including by failing to specifically mention age, ethnicity or migration status as prohibited grounds of discrimination. It is also a shame to see a statement which made important, explicit links between the post-2015 agenda itself and respecting, protecting and fulfilling human rights replaced with a general reaffirmation of ‘importance’ and ‘responsibilities’. (It is also worth noting that language on the right to water and sanitation – which many civil society organizations fought tirelessly for – in the end also reverted to the formulation agreed to at Rio+20, after the US objected to more concrete formulations around ‘realizing’ the right.)

To be sure, it is deeply frustrating and disconcerting that we are still fighting these battles in the halls of the UN. It is now more than two decades since the UN reaffirmed the interdependence of human rights and development at the Vienna World Conference on Human Rights; and more than twenty years since the UN human rights system first recognized sexual orientation and gender identity as prohibited grounds of discrimination. 

However, there is other powerful human rights language in the outcome document to take solace in, including a recognition in the preamble that the SDGs ‘seek to realize the human rights of all’. Indeed, overall there is cause for both frustration and celebration when reviewing the final outcome document. Lining it up against the ‘Human Rights Litmus Test’ that the Post-2015 Human Rights Caucus developed last year, we can declare partial success in every category – which in some ways is more than we might have dared hope for back in 2010 under the ‘reign’ of the deeply inadequate Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). 

There is precious little in the document to allay civil society fears about corporate ‘capture’ of development or reassure them about meaningful private sector regulation and accountability – but a welcome reference to labor, environmental and human rights standards (including the Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights) did finally make the cut. The agenda includes potentially transformative commitments for women’s rights (especially when compared to the MDGs), but it was clear from the negotiations and textual compromises that sexual and reproductive health and rights are still disputed and violated by many governments – and the SDGs are unlikely to spur a wholesale shift in this regard. 

Despite some important references to State-citizen accountability, participation and respecting human rights, the framework for monitoring and review of the agenda’s implementation is vague and voluntary. In terms of financing and resources, the already-weak Financing for Development ‘commitments’ agreed in Addis in June were selectively interpreted further in favour of developed countries (for example on debt and policy space), fomenting further fear about the real intentions of developed countries to enable the profound systemic changes necessary to finance and implement this agenda. However, we shouldn’t forget the important resource-related commitments enshrined in the SDG targets, especially around debt, progressive taxation, illicit financial flows and enhancing the representation of developing countries in global economic governance. 

Indeed, despite its compromises and shortfalls, this 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development gives the human rights movement much to work with over the next 15 years. In its universality, in its focus on tackling inequalities and insistence on ‘leaving no one behind’, and in its declaratory anchoring in international human rights commitments, it has the potential to be truly transformative for human rights enjoyment. The real litmus test will of course be implementation, in particular whether we will see meaningful reforms that remove the systemic obstacles to equitable, sufficient and accountable financing for sustainable development, and whether the monitoring and accountability infrastructure put in place at the national, regional and global levels ensures that all states and other power-holders are answerable to the people whose lives and rights they affect.

There is a lot of hard work to be done to unleash the potential of the SDGs as a vehicle of human rights realization and accountability. But the space has been opened, and a comprehensive framework of hard-won commitments is about to be put in place in all countries across the globe. For the human rights movement and its allies in development, efforts must begin in earnest now to ensure this historic opportunity is not lost.

  • To learn more about CESR's work on Human Rights in Sustainable Development, click here.

Posted by Kate Donald on August 5th, 2015

Breaking the accountability taboo in sustainable development negotiations

Kate Donald, Director of CESR's Human Rights in Development program, reflects on recent dynamics in the post-2015 talks.

Member states gathered at the UN from 18-22 May to discuss how they would ’follow-up and review’ progress once implementation of the post-2015 sustainable development agenda begins. For CESR and many others, accountability for the post-2015 commitments has become a core priority, given the stark failures of accountability in the context of the MDGs. As a result, civil society was out in force at the negotiations, keeping pressure on states to agree a monitoring and review architecture that can contribute to more effective, empowering and rights-realizing implementation.

The context is a challenging one, where even the word ‘accountability’ has become controversial.  After the co-facilitators queried which terminology to use during the negotiations, the G77 + China group declared that there was no place for ‘monitoring and accountability’ in the post-2015 context, preferring the more anodyne ‘follow-up and review’. However, this does not seem to be a uniform position; some  G77 countries did in fact use the taboo ‘A word’ in their public and private remarks.  For many, the fear of ‘accountability’ stems not from dislike of the concept of people-state accountability per se, but rather state-to-state accountability; the idea that the new goals could provide an excuse for new avenues of conditionality and paternalistic finger-wagging from rich countries. (For CESR, real accountability should mean nothing of the sort, and indeed we see the post-2015 goals as an opportunity for greater accountability for the role of the developed countries in constraining or enabling sustainable development internationally.) For the EU countries and their allies, ‘monitoring and accountability’ seems to roll off the tongue more comfortably, but their stance is, likewise, far from consistent. In the negotiations building up to the Financing for Development conference in Addis Ababa in July, the EU and other rich countries are firmly resisting moves to create an autonomous body to strengthen follow-up to the FFD measures.

Much of the discussion focused on what kind of process or mechanism would be put in place at the High Level Political Forum to monitor progress at the global level. Various civil society voices (including CESR, Save the Children and the Women’s Major Group) and a number of states urged consideration of a robust peer review process, but on the whole the appetite for anything more than rudimentary was lacking.  Instead, states spent a lot of time warning against anything ‘punitive’ or ‘finger-pointing’, and urging a ‘lean not mean’ approach.

Certainly, we need a constructive review process based on collaboration, rather than conditionality or naming-and-shaming; but a process which simply allows states to present reports and little more – without sharing setbacks or allowing for alternative or ‘shadow’ reports – will fall woefully short.  To ensure the credibility, ownership and effectiveness of the post-2015 sustainable development agenda, it would be much more worthwhile to commit a little more time and resources - and a lot more political will - to an honest and holistic global monitoring and review process.

The need to use existing monitoring platforms and mechanisms was also a common refrain, and to this end the UN Secretariat put together an overview (which rightly includes the human rights mechanisms, albeit not consistently across all the goals where their recommendations and findings would apply). Making good use of existing thematic mechanisms such as the human rights treaty bodies and the Committee on World Food Security makes good sense in weaving a web of accountability for post-2015 development. However, these entities will need to be strengthened and given the requisite capacity, and in order to avoid MDG-style silos it will  be essential to ensure integration and coherence, including through a systematic flow of information between these bodies and the SDG-specific processes.

At the national level, it will also be important to find institutions and mechanisms that can play a ‘bridging role’ between different goal areas, policy spheres, departments and ministries – as well as people and governments. In this regard, the potential value of National Human Rights Institutions was highlighted, including at a side-event co-hosted by CESR, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Amnesty International, Center for Reproductive Rights and Human Rights Watch.

Another key gap is the question of corporate accountability. The post-2015 and FFD negotiations are awash with uncritical assumptions about the benefits of private financing for sustainable development, without any reflection on how corporate activity – from resource extraction to tax evasion – can have severely detrimental human rights and environmental impacts. Many civil society groups are speaking up to challenge this misguided consensus, insisting that while the private sector may have an important role to play in sustainable development, there must be safeguards in place.

Speakers at a side-event on this topic discussed the dangers of privatizing public service delivery, drawing on examples from developed and developing countries in the water, health and education sectors, and presented some proposals to regulate corporate activity and increase accountability in the post-2015 context. These included excluding public-private partnerships (PPPs) from the delivery of essential public services, conducting spillover assessments and developing ex-ante criteria to determine the suitability of any specific private sector actor for partnership in pursuit of post-2015 goals. The Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights were also mentioned as an important normative source to be cited in the respective outcome documents, and to guide financing and implementation decisions at the national level. However, it remains to be seen how willing states are to explicitly put people’s rights before corporate profits, and to put meaningful regulation and safeguards in place to this end, especially given the proliferation of free-trade agreements and investor-state dispute settlement mechanisms.

More positively, during the debates all states did accept  - at least in principle - that the review processes and mechanisms at all levels must be participatory and inclusive of civil society and the most disadvantaged, marginalized people. The question is how far they will go in implementing these ideals. For an agenda with the imperative to ‘leave no one behind’ at its heart, it is unthinkable that the voices and experiences of the poorest and the most disadvantaged people might be excluded from monitoring and review platforms – which is exactly what will happen if proactive steps (including providing financial resources) are not taken to include them.

The fatal flaw running through development over the last few decades (and one of the main reasons we’ve seen many so-called development projects violating rather than realizing rights) has been the failure to prioritize and enable true participation, or to ensure that those who hold the power and purse-strings are held accountable. It would be a tragic waste if the SDGs were to repeat the same mistakes.

Posted by Kate Donald on June 2nd, 2015

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

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

Niñas y niños en un mundo urbano: Derechos negados, oportunidades desperdiciadas

Se avecina rápidamente el día en que la mayoría de los niños y niñas del mundo crecerán en zonas urbanas, tal como ya lo hacen más de 1.000 millones de ellos. Muchos de estos lugares se ven divididos por las desigualdades en el disfrute de los derechos, la distribución del poder y recursos y en lo más profundo, las posibilidades de los niños y niñas de seguir vivos y salir adelante.

Como señala UNICEF en el Estado Mundial de la Infancia 2012: Niñas y niños en un mundo urbano, la desigualdad urbana nos enfrenta a diario. Cientos de millones de niños, niñas y jóvenes padecen privaciones y vulnerabilidades en los mismos centros urbanos que albergan las élites comerciales, políticas y culturales. Son demasiados los niños y niñas que pasan sus días buscando algo que vender entre las basuras o fabricando ladrillos para los hogares de otras personas. Sus noches las pasan en viviendas improvisadas bajo la amenaza del desalojo forzado o en la calle.

En teoría, los niños y niñas que viven en la pobreza en zonas urbanas cuentan con todos los derechos económicos, sociales, civiles, políticos y culturales que reconocen los instrumentos internacionales. De ellos, el que ha sido ratificado más rápida y ampliamente es la Convención sobre los Derechos del Niño. En realidad, estos niños y niñas padecen las peores condiciones y son los habitantes de ciudades más necesitados. Es decir, se afrontan a las mayores violaciones de sus derechos.

Y las violaciones empiezan desde el primer día.

En teoría, cada niño tiene el derecho a ser inscrito al nacer y tener un nombre, y el derecho a adquirir una nacionalidad y a conservar su identidad. En realidad, más de uno de cada tres nacimientos en las grandes y pequeñas ciudades del mundo quedan sin ser inscritos. En las zonas urbanas de África subsahariana y  Asia meridional, no se inscribe casi uno de cada dos. Los niños y niñas carentes de una identidad oficial resultan invisibles, por lo tanto, están mucho más expuestos a la explotación y maltrato, por ejemplo, al verse obligados a participar en un grupo armado, trabajar en condiciones peligrosas o a contraer matrimonio a temprana edad. Aun para los niños y niñas que evitan estas dificultades puede resultar imposible tener acceso a servicios vitales como la educación.

Contar con un certificado de nacimiento no garantiza el acceso a los servicios ni a la protección contra los abusos. Pero las obligaciones que encierra la Convención fácilmente pueden pasarse por alto cuando se considera, a todos los efectos, que asentamientos enteros no existen y las personas pueden ser despojadas de sus derechos como ciudadanos por falta de documentos oficiales.

En teoría, cada niño y niña tiene el derecho a sobrevivir y desarrollar hasta alcanzar todo su potencial. En realidad, casi 8 millones de niños murieron en 2010 antes de llegar a la edad de 5 años a causa de la neumonía, la diarrea y las complicaciones durante el parto. Los niños que viven en asentamientos urbanos improvisados, hacinados e insalubres, como son los barrios marginales, son especialmente vulnerables. En Bangladesh, datos de 2009 arrojan que la tasa de mortalidad de niños menores de 5 años en los barrios de tugurios es un 79% más alta que la tasa urbana nacional.

Según establece la Convención, cada niño y niña tiene el derecho a una educación. En realidad, los niños y niñas provenientes de zonas urbanas pobres están en desventaja y es así desde muy pequeños. Aunque el 25% de los niños y niñas en las zonas urbanas de Egipto asistieron a centros de enseñanza preescolar en 2005-2006, apenas el 4% de los niños en los hogares más pobres disfrutaron de acceso a este servicio.

Entre las violaciones más generalizadas a los derechos de la infancia se encuentran las condiciones de vida inadecuadas. Carecer de una vivienda decente y segura, así como de la infraestructura para sistemas de abastecimiento de agua y saneamiento condena a millones de niños y niñas en zonas urbanas a deficiencias de salud, un desarrollo físico o mental caracterizado por la desnutrición crónica o a la muerte. Incluso a las personas con documentos de identidad se les niegan acuerdos de alquiler apropiados u otros medios de protegerse a sí mismos y a sus hijos contra el desalojo arbitrario. Como observan colaboradoras en el presente informe, las mujeres y los niños y niñas a menudo han de trabajar cerca de sus viviendas para estar a la mano en caso de que el propietario o las autoridades locales aparezcan con excavadoras o matones a sueldo. Cuando se elimina la amenaza constante del desalojo forzado, los niños y niñas comienzan a ir a la escuela y los padres se sienten más seguros para realizar inversiones en viviendas adecuadas.

Evidentemente, otorgar una tenencia segura a familias que viven en asentamientos improvisados debe ser una prioridad. La inscripción de nacimientos se debe ofrecer a todos, al igual que los servicios deben alcanzar a todos los niños y niñas, sin importar si tienen o no alguna hoja de papel u otra. Los niños no deben ser sacrificados en el altar de la burocracia,  ni ha de usarse esta como ardid con la cual privar a los niños de sus derechos.

En teoría, entre los derechos de los niños y niñas está el de participar en la formulación de decisiones que les afectan a ellos y a sus comunidades. En realidad, se les niega este derecho, sobre todo si da la casualidad de que son pobres o vienen del barrio o la comunidad étnica equivocados.

La representación y la participación son derechos, pero si con esto no basta, el informe proporciona ejemplos de varias ciudades que demuestran que cuando se han incluido a los excluidos en los procesos de planificación urbana y toma de decisiones, esto ha dado paso a avances, por ejemplo, en el alfabetismo, la infraestructura y la seguridad. En el informe, se recomiendan formas en que los gobiernos, donantes y organizaciones internacionales pueden promover una gobernanza y vivencias inclusivas para provecho de todos, empezando por los niños y niñas.

Este punto no debe dejar de hacer eco en aquellos predispuestos a los argumentos instrumentales, puesto que la negación del derecho a participar excluye a quienes más tienen en juego, y a menudo los que más pueden ofrecer, del proceso de hallar soluciones que mejoren sus vidas y las de tantos otros.

El autor de este blog, Abid Aslam, es director del informe principal del Unicef, ‘Estado Mundial de la Infancia’. Foto: Una niña en Kirkuk, Iraq, arrastra la chatarra que su familia va a utilizar para reforzar su hogar: un pequeño espacio con cortinas en lugar de paredes, situado en el piso superior de un antiguo estadio de fútbol. © UNICEF/NYHQ2007-2316/Michael Kamber

Las opiniones expresadas en este blog son del autor, no reflejan necesariamente la posición oficial de CESR.

Posted by Abid Aslam on February 29th, 2012

Children in an urban world: Rights denied, opportunities squandered

The day is rapidly approaching when the majority of the world’s children will grow up in urban areas, as more than one billion already do. Many of these places are riven by inequalities – in the enjoyment of rights, the distribution of power and resources and, most profoundly, children’s chances of staying alive and getting ahead.

As UNICEF notes in The State of the World’s Children 2012: Children in an Urban World, urban inequality confronts us daily. Hundreds of millions of children and young people endure deprivation and vulnerability in the very urban centres that are home to commercial, political and cultural elites. Too many spend their days picking through rubbish for something to sell or making bricks for other people’s homes. They spend their nights in makeshift dwellings under threat of eviction or on the street.

On paper, children living in urban poverty have the full range of economic, social, civil, political and cultural rights recognized by international instruments. The most rapidly and widely ratified of these is the Convention on the Rights of the Child. In reality, these children endure the worst conditions and have the greatest needs of any urban dweller. In other words, they face the greatest violations of their rights.

The violations begin on day one

On paper, every child has the right to be registered at birth and to have a name, the right to acquire a nationality and to preserve her or his identity. In reality, more than one in three children in the world’s cities and towns go unregistered at birth. In the urban areas of sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, almost every other child is unregistered. Rendered invisible by the lack of an official identity, they are at vastly greater risk of exploitation and abuse: being forced into an armed group, hazardous work or child marriage, for example. Even those who avoid these perils may be unable to access such vital services as schooling.

Registration alone is no guarantee of access to services or protection from abuse. But the obligations of the Convention on the Rights of the Child can be easily disregarded when, in effect, entire settlements can be deemed not to exist and people can be stripped of their citizenship rights for want of papers.

On paper, every child has the right to survive and develop to her or his fullest potential, as well as the right to the highest attainable standard of living. In reality, nearly eight million children died in 2010 before reaching the age of five due to pneumonia, diarrhoea and birth complications. Those living in cramped and unsanitary informal urban settlements – slums – are particularly vulnerable. In Bangladesh, 2009 data show that the under-five mortality rate in slums was 79 per cent higher than the overall urban rate.

Under the Convention, every child has the right to an education. In reality, the odds are stacked against children from impoverished urban backgrounds – and from early on. While 25 per cent of children in Egypt’s urban areas attended kindergarten in 2005-2006, only four per cent of those from the poorest urban households enjoyed access to this service.

Inadequate living conditions are among the most pervasive violations of children’s rights. The lack of decent and secure housing and such infrastructure as water and sanitation systems condemns millions of children in urban areas to poor health, stunted physical or mental development, or death. Even people with identity papers may be denied proper rental agreements or other means of shielding themselves and their children against arbitrary eviction. As contributors to the report observe, women and children often must work near their dwellings so they are close at hand in case the local landlord or authorities appear with bulldozers or hired goons. When the constant threat of eviction is removed, children start going to school and parents feel more confident about investing in proper shelter.

Clearly, granting secure tenure to families living in informal settlements must be a priority. Registration must be extended to all – and services must be extended to all children regardless of whether they have this piece of paper or that. Children must not be sacrificed at the altar of bureaucracy, nor bureaucracy used as a ruse with which to deprive them of their rights.

On paper, children’s entitlements include the right to take part in making decisions that affect them and their communities. In reality, they are denied this right – especially if they happen to be poor or come from the wrong neighbourhood or ethnic community.

Representation and participation are rights, but if this were not enough in itself, the report provides examples from numerous cities that show that where the excluded have been included in urban planning and decision-making, advancements have followed – in literacy, infrastructure and safety, for example. It recommends ways in which governments, donors and international organizations can advance inclusive urban governance and life for the benefit of all, starting with children.

This point should not be lost on those more given to instrumentalist arguments; the denial of the right to participation excludes those with the most at stake – and often, the most to offer – from the process of finding solutions that improve their lives and those of countless others.

The author of this blog posting, Abid Aslam, is the  Editor of the UNICEF report ‘The State of the World’s Children: Children in an Urban World’. Photo shows girl in Kirkuk, Iraq, collecting scrap metal that her family will use to reinforce their home – a small space with curtains for walls on the top floor of a former football stadium. Image provided courtesy of Unicef. © UNICEF/NYHQ2007-2316/Michael Kamber

The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the institutional position of CESR.

Posted by Abid Aslam on February 29th, 2012