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Statement by Navanethem Pillay, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights ‘The MDGs and Human Rights’ International Symposium co-organized by OHCHR, UNICEF, University of Oslo, Institute for Development Studies-Sussex and Harvard University Harvard Law School, 22-23 March 2010

Excellencies, distinguished participants, colleagues, friends,

It is a great pleasure for me to be able to open this important meeting on the Millennium Development Goals and human rights. I regret that I cannot be with you today, however your interest and commitment in working with us on these issues are greatly appreciated.

I want to recognise at the outset the valuable collaboration of all the institutions involved in the organization of this event, including UNICEF, University of Oslo, Harvard University and the Institute for Development Studies.  A special thanks is also due today to the Human Rights Programme at Harvard Law School, for helping us to bring this international symposium together.

This meeting takes place at a critical juncture. This year, all Member States of the UN General Assembly will hold a High-Level Plenary Meeting in September to review the progress made with regard to the Millennium Development Goals and to shape new efforts for accelerating progress to meet them by 2015.  This symposium provides us with an excellent opportunity to set up clear criteria of what we consider a successful summit outcome from a human rights perspective and the strategies to influence this vital process.

In the course of the last years, the human rights community has witnessed the powerful role that MDGs have played in shaping national development agendas and in mobilizing international cooperation efforts. However, ten years after the birth of MDGs, it is clear that the objectives of human wellbeing and dignity for all enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and reaffirmed in the Millennium Declaration will not be achieved if the MDGs are pursued in isolation from all human rights, including the right to development.

While many countries are on track to reaching a few of the goals, more than a billion people are still trapped in extreme poverty and go hungry every day.  The challenges are most severe in the least developed countries, land-locked developing countries, some small island developing states and those vulnerable to natural hazards and armed conflict. Yet, even in countries scoring major successes, large disparities still persist, with millions of people left behind in the race towards achieving the MDGs.

The causes for this are no doubt complex, exacerbated in many countries by weak governance systems, unpredictable aid flows, and the negative impacts of recent financial, food and fuel crises. Discrimination and multiple deprivations of human rights are also frequently part of the problem, sentencing entire populations to poverty.

Take maternal mortality, for example, the area of least progress among all the MDGs. It is surely a matter of outrage that over half a million women die annually from complications related to pregnancy and childbirth. This is nearly half the annual global death toll, and arguably, a direct reflection of the disempowerment of women in social, economic and political life.

This appalling example demonstrates that accelerating progress towards the MDGs is an imperative. The MDGs remain feasible with adequate commitment, resources, policies and effort. A human rights approach to MDG-based strategies has an important added value as it calls for more integral strategies in addressing both immediate and structural problems, putting the rights of people at the centre, and raising the level of accountability of States both at national and international levels.

In his report ‘Keeping the Promise’ prepared for the Summit, the UN Secretary General has highlighted the weakness of the MDG accountability system as one key factor explaining slow progress on MDGs. Human rights standards, monitoring institutions and expert bodies can add important accountability dimensions to the MDG framework.

To accelerate the progress and to ensure long-term sustainability, States need to bring MDG targets and indicators in line with human rights in their national strategies. National strategies should aim at strengthening human rights and MDG accountability systems as both are mutually reinforcing. Many actions could be suggested in that regard:

  1. Developing monitoring and evaluation systems so that information disaggregated on different grounds of discrimination is collected periodically;
  2. Systematically assessing the impact of MDG-based strategies on the human rights of the poorest, prior to making policy and budget decisions.
  3. Strengthening mechanisms and procedures for civil society participation in the monitoring and evaluation of public polices and budgets.
  4. Making available effective remedies for those persons negatively affected by development choices. This includes access to judicial, administrative and other mechanisms. The Optional Protocol on Economic Social and Cultural Rights is a critical tool for legal protection of these rights.

Ladies and gentlemen,

2015 is just around the corner. We need to draw lessons and experiences of what has and has not worked, in order to make the progress for the remaining five years. This evidence-base will enable us to make a stronger case for human rights in the post-2015 development agenda.

I trust that -guided by your expertise – we can together craft a clearer vision of human rights as the essential foundation of the solution.  I wish you well for the Symposium, and I greatly look forward to seeing the outcomes.

Thank you.