Human rights: The post-2015 agenda?

Development Policy22 Sep 2010Aldo Caliari

Some of the criticisms directed to the MDGs when they were agreed were about their minimalist nature. Many observers saw them as a perhaps too narrow distillation of the outcomes of the conferences of the 1990s. So the issue was: after all the effort that went into agreeing those conference documents, now we have to agree what part of them we will do. It is quite disappointing that, in spite of the many concessions that it took to come down to such a minimalist agenda, progress is so limited.

The worst that could happen after 2015 is that governments decide that the MDGs were too much and that, in a next iteration, they have to make a ‘distillation’ of them. Unfortunately, talking to several governments, one gets the impression that this is a scenario certainly on the table – quite implicitly in some cases, but on the table nonetheless. Any discussion that attempts to redesign or reinvent the MDGs risks having this as the end result.

This short piece intends to advance the provocative notion that not less, but more is required. By more, I mean, after 2015 it might be wise to go back to the international human rights framework.

The international human rights framework is clearly more comprehensive than the MDGs. One point that could be argued against this idea is that human rights instruments offer too broad an agenda. They are not a clear set of priorities, like the MDGs sought to provide. But such notions can be counterbalanced with a look at how the MDGs worked in practice. They might have been expected to play a unifying role for the international community; it is debatable to what extent really did. In the face of the limited progress, arguing that they did does not take the argument very far: it is still to be shown whether such uniformity is a strongly desirable factor, or whether in a counterfactual scenario more progress overall could have been achieved.

There is no consensus on the human rights agenda, others might say. But while not the whole world has signed up to all human rights instruments, one would struggle to find a country that has not signed at least one convention. This is enough as a starting point. Nobody would be telling countries to do more than they signed for. But that would already be a lot.

The human rights agenda tells us much more about the processes and the accountability and transparency that need to accompany development in a holistic sense than MDGs ever could. If one includes the human right to development – and extraordinary progress has been made in defining the criteria and standards by which this right could actually have a bearing on development policy-making – they tell us, in fact, a lot more.

It is true that human rights do not address the systemic issues that need to be faced to make development possible. They are stuck in notions of a time when Nation-states were expected to have at their disposal, on their own, all means to respect, protect and fulfill human rights within their borders.

On the one hand, the Global Partnership for Development was filling that ‘systemic picture’ gap in the MDGs. But, by all measurements, it was doing so quite imperfectly.

Perhaps it should be recognized that human rights are just the goals and some principles on the means but, besides that, the means require their own elaboration. In favour of this view, it could be argued that, after all, MDG 8 as a separate MDG never reached such a high entity that it could play its expected role of balancing the discussion.

In addition, let us be clear; this summit outcome document confirms that, as far as economic and financial issues are concerned, the MDG process does nothing in advancing new ideas that had not been discussed in other specialized UN processes. For instance, the language on economic and financial issues to be found in this outcome document is largely taken from previous Financing for Development Outcomes and General Assembly resolutions.

Re-adopting the human rights agenda would be a step that would miss a dimension of ever-growing importance: the environment. This is a fair point. But not an insurmountable one. It will, in fact, be great to bring human rights and environmental issues together. How to do it in a way that does not imply any of the two is taking precedence over the other is tricky, but arguably not impossible. And it would be sad – besides false – to say we are forced to keep the MDGs because there is no other meeting place for human rights and the environment.

The question of the post-2015 (some say ‘post-MDG’) agenda has perhaps quite a simple answer: let’s get back to basis, let’s get back to human rights.