New UN Report on how human rights support the SDGs globally - and reflections on Scotland’s contribution
By Alan Miller - Posted on 10 March 2022
This blog is a summary of the text of an address given to an event on 2 March 2022 of the University of Strathclyde’s Centre for Sustainable Development by Professor Alan Miller. Together with his UN Ukrainian colleague, Iryna Yakovlieva, he has authored a new UN Report “Good Practices – how the Universal Periodic Review process supports sustainable development”.
I would like to share some insights as lead author of the newly published UN Report on human rights and the SDGs and also some reflections on Scotland’s contribution.
The Report provides examples of good practice of where human rights supports sustainable development, analyses key trends, identifies challenges and offers recommendations to UN country teams on using a human rights-based approach to sustainable development.
The key message is the urgent need to increase public participation so as to increase the accountability of governments to implement both their human rights and Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) commitments, including in the context of the post-pandemic recovery and climate change.
I very much hope that it serves as a spur to urgent action.
Let me make a couple of observations on the context of this Report.
Firstly, we need to appreciate the natural tension within the UN system of balancing respect for the sovereignty of member states with the recognised need of international cooperation and accountability of member states. This runs through the three pillars of the UN of peace and security, sustainable development, and human rights.
Secondly, the voluntary agreement of all member states in 2015 to support the introduction of the SDGs signified a high watermark of the UN system. However, there has since then been a growing recognition of the need to introduce a greater degree of accountability to the SDG process.
Accordingly, efforts have been made to use the pre-existing state obligations under UN human rights treaties to strengthen the accountability of member states towards achievement of the SDGs. Human rights and the SDGs are understood as being mutually reinforcing.
This has been in recognition of the fact that over 90% of the SDGs and related targets are aligned with human rights obligations of states, e.g. the rights to life, health, education, adequate standard of living and equality, etc.
The most effective way of leveraging these human rights obligations to support sustainable development is proving to be through use of the Universal Periodic Review process.
The Universal Periodic Review (UPR) process
This process was introduced in 2006 and is itself a balance between state sovereignty and accountability which has proven to be very effective with 100% engagement of member states and positive outcomes in implementation of commitments.
Every 4-5 years every member state is reviewed by its peers on its implementation of its human rights treaty obligations. The member states under review produce national performance reports and this is accompanied by a report from the UN human rights monitoring system as well as, critically, reports from UN supported independent national human rights institutions (NHRIs) within such states and from civil society organisations (CSOs).
A peer review then takes place and produces a set of recommendations which the states under review can either voluntarily accept or note.
This outcome then provides an entry point for UN country teams as well as NHRIs and CSOs to engage with the member states and advocate for the implementation of the recommendations, including on sensitive human rights issues and as a “problem solver” more generally.
This engagement is proving to be an effective process through linking such human rights recommendations, based upon UN treaty legal obligations, to the SDG commitments of the member state and so increasing the accountability of member states to implement both sets of commitments.
For example, the UPR recommendations will very often identify and call for actions to address discrimination against marginalised sections of the community and this serves to strengthen efforts within the member state to achieve the SDGs and particularly to “leave no-one behind” in national development.
Key message from the Report
The key message from the Report’s analysis of good practices along with key trends, challenges and recommendations is the urgent need to increase public participation at all stages of the UPR process – the repeated cycles of reporting, implementation and monitoring.
This enables the voices and rights of the disempowered to be heard and governments to be held to account for implementation of their human rights and SDG commitments.
The good practices demonstrate the more the public participation the better are the results on the ground. This public participation can include the active engagement of national assemblies, NHRIs and CSOs as part of a public debate and public ownership of both the UPR and SDG processes.
The reality however is that there is shrinking democratic space in the majority of member states. This can often be a prelude to serious human rights violations and so the key challenge is to give the UPR and SDG processes the space to breathe and not be confined to internal state-controlled processes.
Whilst the voluntary SDG process is providing an entry point for otherwise very challenging human rights dialogue in some member states, efforts do urgently need to be stepped up to protect and expand the democratic space.
Public participation with democratic space for NHRIs and CSOs is the lifeblood not only of the UPR and SDG processes but of the UN system as a whole.
Scotland’s National Performance Framework (NPF) is explicitly aligned with the SDGs.
It also includes as a specific national outcome that “we will respect, protect and fulfil human rights and live free from discrimination”.
A Human Rights Bill, based upon the Report of the National Taskforce for Human Rights Leadership, will be introduced in the current session of the Scottish Parliament and will bring into our law, policy and practice a number of key UN human rights treaties along with the right to a healthy environment.
This new human rights framework will bring an increased accountability across all of the outcomes of the NPF and support their realisation.
In so doing Scotland is demonstrating leadership in a number of respects.
Firstly, through the NPF’s explicit alignment with the SDGs and the Human Rights Bill supporting the achievement of the NPF, Scotland is illustrating how human rights can support sustainable development.
Secondly, through the introduction of the Human Rights Bill and placing economic, social, equality and environmental rights at the heart of post-Covid recovery, Scotland is demonstrating leadership in response to the call of the UN to “build back better”.
Thirdly, through the introduction of the Human Rights Bill and the incorporation of key UN human rights treaties, Scotland is re-affirming the international rules-based order which is under pressure in these times.
These are indeed challenging times for the world, the UN and the international rules-based order and for all of us.
In conclusion, it is today not possible to talk about human rights without condemning the utterly unjustifiable and unlawful Russian invasion of Ukraine.
This conflict once again underlines the interdependence of the three UN pillars of peace and security, sustainable development and human rights.
There can be no sustainable development without peace and security, there can be no peace and security without sustainable development and there can be neither without human rights.
This UN Report shines a light on how to make progress in leveraging human rights to support realisation of the SDGs, including of course peace and security as specified in Goal 16.
However, the current tragic events in Ukraine expose the continued need of much greater and more strategic progress in achieving and maintaining peace and security.
Accountability is again the key to progress.
Whilst the sanctions response and the opening of an investigation by the International Criminal Court into war crimes and crimes against humanity are clearly to be welcomed they are self-evidently not enough to prevent or stop the human catastrophe in Ukraine.
It is fundamentally the veto power of Russia and of the other “Permanent Five” members of the UN Security Council – China, France, the US and the UK – which once again is exposed as a major impediment to achieving and maintaining peace and security and abiding by international human rights and humanitarian law.
This systemic failing needs to be effectively addressed in order that we can all live under the rule of law and everyone – be they Ukrainians, Afghans, Syrians or Yemenis – can rely equally upon the three UN pillars of peace and security, sustainable development and human rights. The people of Ukraine and everyone everywhere deserve nothing less.
Alan Miller is Professor of Practice in Human Rights at the University of Strathclyde and is a member of the Centre for the Study of Human Rights Law. He served as Independent Co-Chair of the National Taskforce for Human Rights Leadership and continues to advise the Scottish Government on the Human Rights Bill. A former Special Envoy with the UN he is an Independent Expert with the UNDP Crisis Bureau.
You can find out more about the Centre for the Study of Human Rights Law on its website.