Sustainable Development Goals and Human Rights

August 19, 2019 - nr.110
Summary

Summary and recommendations

Seventy years ago – on 10 December 1948 – the member states of the United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It was the first document in which the international community recognised and affirmed the ‘inherent dignity and […] the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family’. The Universal Declaration is not a binding treaty, but it is universally accepted as a moral and legal standard for human rights.

The foundations of the Universal Declaration had been laid seven years before by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. His ‘Four Freedoms’ speech outlined his vision of a world in which everyone could rely on freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom from want and the freedom from fear. Roosevelt was keenly aware that these four freedoms were inseparable. Without basic needs such as food and security, freedom of speech is of limited value. Freedom of expression is in turn necessary in order to demand social and economic justice. This understanding found expression after the end of the Second World War in the Universal Declaration, which laid down both civil and political rights (art. 1-21) and social, economic and cultural rights (art. 22-27).

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is the source of a network of legally binding human rights treaties to which all countries in the world have committed themselves in one way or another. Together they form the multilateral human rights system, whose significance should not be underestimated. Human rights treaties and the national laws based on them have made the rights and freedoms of hundreds of millions of people all over the world visible and tangible, helping them to speak out for better living conditions, and to be and develop themselves. This global achievement must be cherished and defended, if necessary in the face of opposition.

At the same time, unremitting poverty, hunger, economic inequality, environmental degradation, war and violence compellingly expose the fallacy that human dignity can be achieved simply by signing legally enforceable national and international agreements. True universality of human rights also requires sustained and popular support for development processes, both at home and abroad. Development is a precondition for the achievement of human rights, and human rights are necessary for development.

Human rights and development cooperation have long been seen – wrongly – as separate policy fields. Moreover, Western governments and human rights organisations in particular have traditionally prioritised the promotion of civil and political rights. Social, economic and cultural rights are also part of the treaty-based human rights system, but they have not always received the attention they deserve. Human rights, including environmental rights, are inherently inseparable. Interaction between development and human rights organisations did not commence until the 1980s, and it remains an ongoing challenge. Major multilateral actors such as the World Bank still seem reticent about making human rights a central focus of their programmes.

The Netherlands’ foreign policy is not yet truly integrated either. Its human rights policy focuses on traditional civil rights, while its development policy prioritises the creation of social, economic and environmental conditions conducive to development. In the AIV’s opinion, this compartmentalised approach is understandable from a historical perspective but it weakens the impact of policy and is counterproductive. The AIV welcomes the initiatives the Minister of Foreign Affairs and the Minister for Foreign Trade and Development Cooperation have taken to foster harmonisation, but the relationship between the two policy fields, as set out in the Human Rights Report 2017 and the policy document Investing in Global Prospects: For the World, For the Netherlands, rests, on balance, on weak foundations.

The AIV believes the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development provides a practicable worldwide framework for a coherent (integrated) approach to sustainable development and human rights. The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are concrete social, economic and environmental goals, and achieving them can also deliver many human rights goals in these fields. The 2030 Agenda also recognises that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and international human rights treaties are the framework in which the SDGs must be achieved. The SDGs therefore recapitulate and reaffirm the reciprocal relationship between human rights and sustainable development, as originally articulated by President Roosevelt. The 2030 Agenda and the SDGs therefore provide a unique opportunity to realise this close association, both in theory and in policy and practice. The Netherlands must not miss this opportunity. Overcoming the major social, economic and climate-related challenges facing the world requires urgent action at a time when international solidarity is coming under heavy pressure.

The acceptance of the SDGs, including by the Kingdom of the Netherlands, makes it easier to implement the traditional foreign policy priority of promoting human rights. The AIV believes the SDGs and human rights can strengthen each other in a variety of areas.

Opening for dialogue

The SDGs provide an opportunity for the Netherlands to engage with countries that are reticent about, or even dismissive of, the traditional human rights dialogue, which tends to be narrowly legalistic and sometimes cursory and ritualised. The goal of human dignity is a good starting point, as it is a universally recognised and widely held ambition. Both sustainable development and human rights are aimed at achieving human dignity. The SDGs, moreover, stress the overarching principle of ‘leaving no one behind’. They also require a discussion of issues that are directly related to social, economic and environmental rights, such as good healthcare, education, clean drinking water, food security, gender equality, good working conditions and housing. Human rights in many of these areas are already laid down in international treaties. Talks can be held on how they can be achieved in tandem with the SDGs.

Support

The leaders of the UN member states adopted the 2030 Agenda unanimously. The SDGs’ legitimacy is also founded on the willingness of many countries to report voluntarily to the High-level Political Forum that oversees the SDGs’ progress. Support for the multilateral human rights system can be strengthened, with the help of the SDGs, by giving human rights greater prominence. With hundreds of millions of people facing inequality, suffering extreme poverty and living in fear, it is no surprise that they rarely make a priority of pressing for their other human rights. By means of an integrated rights approach to the social, economic and environmental dimensions of sustainable development, it can be made clear that human rights make a tangible contribution to improving the daily living conditions of citizens. This can create and foster public support for human rights.

Oversight and monitoring

Both the SDG process and the human rights tools are aimed at measuring and assessing the action taken and results achieved, as well as collecting information and data. Currently, however, these processes often occur separately from each other. Knowledge and insight would probably be enhanced if more information were shared and used jointly. Integration of SDG and human rights data would also lighten the burden of the many international reporting requirements imposed by the 2030 Agenda and human rights treaties. The requirements are particularly onerous for countries with less well developed civil services. The data and reporting requirements, however, create a source of basic information that governments need to pursue meaningful and effective policy. The integration of SDG and human rights data and reports would therefore have a welcome multiplier effect and could significantly improve national problem analysis, planning and policy.

In view of the above, the AIV has drawn up the following policy recommendations. For each one, a number of suggestions are included on how foreign policy could be made operational.

1. INTEGRATE DEVELOPMENT, HUMAN RIGHTS AND ENVIRONMENTAL POLICY.

Dutch foreign policy should consistently promote and invoke sustainable development as a necessary condition for human rights, and human rights as a condition for development. Achieving the SDGs requires a comprehensive, rights-based approach to the social, economic and environmental dimensions of development processes. The close substantive relationship and interaction between these dimensions cannot be ignored.

The AIV believes that the Netherlands’ development, human rights and environmental policies can be strengthened by increasing their coherence. The 2030 Agenda and the SDGs provide a good framework for deepening this integration. Policy on foreign trade and development cooperation is already explicitly situated in the 2030 Agenda framework, but the human rights dimension of the policy should be better elaborated. Conversely, the annual Human Rights Report could explain how various priority issues contribute to the SDGs. A human rights-based approach to sustainable development must be established and made binding at intraministerial and interministerial level. Ideally, there should be just one overarching policy framework.

The indivisibility of human rights requires foreign policy to focus more consistently on both political and civil rights on the one hand and social, economic, cultural and environmental rights – both individual and collective – on the other. An important step to strengthen coherence with domestic human rights policy would be ratification of the optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.

Priority 4 of the Netherlands’ human rights policy – support for human rights defenders – must provide sufficient scope to support advocates of social, economic, cultural and environmental rights.

In its capacity as a donor, the Netherlands can urge multilateral development organisations such as the World Bank to put human rights at the heart of their development programmes.

The AIV recommends that both the Minister for Foreign Trade and Development Cooperation and the Minister of Foreign Affairs take part in parliamentary debates on human rights policy.

2. USE AGENDA 2030 TO STRENGTHEN THE MULTILATERAL HUMAN RIGHTS SYSTEM.

There is a risk that some countries will use the SDGs, with their emphasis on collective social, economic and environmental rights, to undermine the legal obligations laid down in international human rights treaties. This requires vigilance from the Netherlands during international consultations. In bilateral and multilateral talks it must consistently emphasise that, when it comes to achieving the SDGs, human rights – with their established international minimum standards – are the cornerstones of countries’ explicit and enforceable obligations.

In the UN Human Rights Council, international financial institutions, the European Union, the Council of Europe and elsewhere, the Netherlands must consistently draw attention to the indivisible relationship between respect for human rights and the achievement of the 2030 Agenda’s Sustainable Development Goals.

As the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities show, binding treaties can be effective instruments to establish and implement specific human rights. Other instruments include UN declarations (e.g. on human rights defenders), resolutions (e.g. the 2030 Agenda), Global Compacts (e.g. on business and on migration) and the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. The AIV recommends that the Netherlands determine whether one or more specific socioeconomic rights, such as the right to clean drinking water and the right to a healthy environment, can be further elaborated with the aid of these human rights instruments.

3. IMPROVE SUPERVISION OF AND ACCOUNTABILITY FOR THE IMPLEMENTATION OF THE 2030 AGENDA AND ESTABLISH A LINK WITH INTERNATIONALLY RECOGNISED HUMAN RIGHTS INSTRUMENTS.

To make a success of the 2030 Agenda, a transparent and straightforward system of verifiable supervision and accountability is needed. There is still a great deal to be achieved in this area, and the Netherlands could play a leading role. The Netherlands should ask the UN Secretary-General to make proposals to streamline and lighten the burden of reporting to the High-level Political Forum and the UN Human Rights Council. The Netherlands can highlight the intertwined nature of human rights and the SDGs by consistently referring to the 2030 Agenda in its own recommendations for the Universal Periodic Review.

The Netherlands can ask the UN Human Rights Council’s Advisory Committee to identify ways to enhance the SDGs’ international policy coherence. It should also urge signatories of human rights treaties to address the SDGs in the national reports that they are required to issue.

The Netherlands could also mobilise financial and human resources to help less developed countries build capacity to collect and interpret data and prepare SDG and human rights reports. Moreover, the Netherlands could also help national human rights bodies and civil society organisations improve national reporting obligations.

Within the Inter-agency and Expert Group on SDG Indicators (IAEG-SDGs), the Netherlands could make proposals for the further refinement and operationalisation of the SDG indicators. To that end, it could use human rights indicators developed to measure, for instance, inclusion, gender and other forms of equality, and non-discrimination, drawing on the expertise of the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and the EU Agency for Fundamental Rights.

The AIV welcomes the involvement of the Netherlands Institute for Human Rights in the preparation of the third SDG report to be submitted to the House of Representatives. The Institute should be permanently involved in both the SDG report and the Voluntary National Reviews that the Kingdom of the Netherlands submits to the High-level Political Forum.

4. MAKE TACKLING INEQUALITY WITHIN AND BETWEEN COUNTRIES A STANDARD TOPIC IN INTERNATIONAL CONSULTATIONS.

The AIV recommends that the Netherlands draw attention to inequality in various international forums. At the High-level Political Forum at the level of heads of state and government in September 2019, the Netherlands could organise a prominent side event on income and capital inequality and its relationship with the SDGs, working in a broadbased partnership with one or more like-minded countries (North and South), multilateral organisations (World Bank, ILO), non-governmental organisations (Oxfam, Transparency International) and multinational businesses and banks. The Netherlands could subsequently organise similar side events during, for instance, the UN General Assembly and the annual World Economic Forum in Davos.

5. PROMOTE THE REFORM OF GLOBAL GOVERNANCE.

In the AIV’s opinion, the Netherlands, with its exceptionally open economy and strong international orientation, should actively promote international policy coherence and global governance. The global partnership necessary to achieve the SDGs can only work on the basis of equality. The Netherlands must work internationally to give emerging and developing countries a stronger voice in multilateral organisations and partnerships216 This applies particularly to their say in the composition of the executive boards of the main international financial institutions. Global governance also includes the network of SDG partners.

6. MAINTAIN THE NETHERLANDS’ LEADING ROLE ON BUSINESS AND HUMAN RIGHTS.

The Netherlands should pursue a stronger relationship between business, human rights and the SDG agenda. Eliminating ‘business and human rights’ as a human rights policy priority must not be allowed to diminish the Netherlands’ international prominence in this area. Cooperation with the business community on achieving the SDGs should be strengthened in both human rights policy and foreign trade and development policy.

If the private sector is to play a major part in achieving human rights and the SDGs (for example those in the area of climate change and the environment), government must actively oversee how business fulfils that role. The AIV recommends that the government prepare a second national action plan on business and human rights in order to clarify the relationship between human rights, business and the SDGs, further flesh out states’ duty to protect against human rights abuses by third parties, and identify instruments that encourage businesses to help achieve the SDGs while respecting human rights.

In addition to encouraging businesses to self-regulate (through international responsible business conduct agreements), the Netherlands should retain the option of binding regulations as a policy tool to deal with companies that lag behind on human rights. It should make an active, constructively critical contribution to the exploratory talks on a business and human rights treaty currently being held in the UN Human Rights Council. After all, international agreements help create a level playing field for national and multinational businesses alike.

7. MAKE COMBATING ‘SHRINKING CIVIC SPACE’ AN INTEGRAL PART OF HUMAN RIGHTS AND DEVELOPMENT POLICY.

Civil society organisations play an indispensable role in the SDG partnership. That is why the Netherlands’ human rights and development policy should include targeted activities to prevent deliberate government action, either political or financial, to shrink civic space. The Netherlands should publicly highlight the importance of independent civil society organisations and human rights defenders more often. The European Commission should be urged to do the same.

Measures should therefore be taken to strengthen the embassies’ knowledge and capacity regarding human rights and attacks on civil society. Dutch embassies in countries where human rights organisations are under fire should implement the EU directives on human rights defenders, which are based on the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders (1998).

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ support for civil society organisations should be strategic and flexible, preferably using long-term core financing (rather than short-term project financing). The Netherlands should not support civil society organisations established by repressive governments.

8. ACTIVELY INVOLVE YOUNG PEOPLE IN IMPLEMENTING THE 2030 AGENDA.

The Netherlands should press for a special representative in the UN system to focus attention on the interests of future generations. Acting on a proposal by the UN Secretary-General (see chapter I), the Netherlands could encourage the High-level Political Forum for the 2030 Agenda to make the rights of future generations a standard item on its agenda.

The annual SDG report submitted to the House of Representatives includes a section on young people written by the National Youth Council. This is undoubtedly a positive move by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. However, the AIV believes the Dutch government should make far more use of young people’s ability to promote action on the SDGs. It should be standard practice for youth organisations to be involved in Dutch policymaking on the 2030 Agenda and have a say in related policy fields, such as education, climate change and sustainable development, health and equality. By guaranteeing young people a seat at the table, including at line ministries and in local government, government would increase knowledge and awareness of human rights and sustainable development among new generations.

9. STRENGTHEN THE COORDINATION AND COHERENCE OF NATIONAL AND INTERNATIONAL ACTION ON THE SDGS.

Responsibility for coordinating internal and external SDG policy rests with the Minister for Foreign Trade and Development Cooperation. This can create the impression that the Netherlands’ primary focus in implementing the 2030 Agenda lies abroad. But the 2030 Agenda must be implemented in every country, including the Netherlands. The Netherlands’ international efforts on the SDGs will be convincing only if it puts its own house in order. This is a responsibility of the government as a whole.

The annual SDG progress report submitted to the House of Representatives should include a standard section on SDG efforts, including human rights, in the Caribbean Netherlands (Bonaire, St Eustatius and Saba). Although the islands of the Caribbean Netherlands are an integral part of the Netherlands, their specific development and human rights challenges do not receive the attention they deserve from the European Netherlands. The annual SDG report should also consider the coordination of SDG policy between the four countries that make up the Kingdom of the Netherlands (the Netherlands, Aruba, Curaçao and St Maarten).

Given the overwhelming importance of the 2030 Agenda to society as a whole, the AIV calls on the prime minister to accentuate the Netherlands’ European and international profile on the SDGs and human rights in the run up to the High-level Political Forum at the level of heads of state and government in September 2019, for example by hosting the side events referred to in recommendation 4.

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216 The AIV previously supported developing countries’ ambitions to have a stronger international voice and more opportunity to create independent national policy in its advisory report no. 89, ‘Improving Global Financial Cohesion: The Importance of a Coherent International Economic and Financial Architecture’, no. 89, August 2014.
Advice request

Professor Jaap de Hoop Scheffer
Chairman of the Advisory Council
on International Affairs
P.O. Box 20061
2500 EB The Hague

Date 12 April 2018

Re    Request for advice on human rights and the SDGs


Dear Professor De Hoop Scheffer,

After the Second World War, a wide range of international human rights instruments were developed. They were based on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted by the United Nations (UN) in 1948, in which the universality of human rights was confirmed at international level for the first time. This heralded a period spanning several decades in which the protection of human rights steadily improved, in part through the adoption of a number of legally binding human rights agreements. Nevertheless, human rights cannot be upheld by law alone. They must be embedded in the fabric of society.

The adoption of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by UN member states in 2015 generated worldwide momentum for sustainable development and more extensive global cooperation. Specific targets have been set to end poverty and inequality and halt climate change by 2030. The SDGs highlight the importance of rights, respect and dignity under the overarching principle that no one may be left behind. Their strong focus on human rights provides helpful support for a political and rights-based approach to development, with human interests at its core.

Respect for human rights and freedoms, as laid down in international agreements, is a key precondition for sustainable development and conflict prevention. The SDG agenda cannot be implemented successfully if human rights are not observed, and vice versa. Experts regard the SDGs and human rights instruments as frameworks for an enduring commitment to preventing violent conflict. The two agendas can be mutually reinforcing in many ways.

However, there has so far been no systematic research into specific potential for promoting human rights by striving to achieve the SDGs – and vice versa. In light of the above, the government would request that the Advisory Council on International Affairs (AIV) issue an advisory report, by the end of 2018 at the latest, addressing the following questions:

Main question: How can the Dutch commitment to the SDGs and Dutch foreign policy on human rights, as set out in the policy letter ‘Justice and Respect for All’, reinforce each other?

Subsidiary questions:

  1. What overlap is there between the two agendas and how do they complement each other?
  2. What specific opportunities exist that would allow the SDGs to contribute more to promoting human rights at international level?
  3. How can Dutch foreign policy on human rights make an optimum contribution to achieving the SDGS that relate to Dutch policy priorities?

We look forward to receiving an operational advisory report containing specific guidance on Dutch foreign policy, with a particular focus on human rights and the SDGs.

Yours sincerely,

Stef Blok
Minister of Foreign Affairs                                                    

Sigrid A.M. Kaag
Minister for Foreign Trade and Development Cooperation

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