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Keynote address by Ms. Navi Pillay, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights at the Presentation of the report of the UN System Task Team on the Post-2015 Development Agenda: “Statistics and indicators for the Post-2015 development agenda”

“Human rights and the post-2015 measurement agenda”

Geneva, 4 July 2013


Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen, distinguished colleagues,

It is a pleasure to be with you today at this launch of the UN Post-2015 Task Team’s excellent report on statistics and indicators for the post-2015 development agenda.

The subject matter of the report could not be more important: without adequate data and appropriate measurement methods, post-2015 commitments will be little more than pious hopes, devaluing the currency of global promises.

The report is the product of a broad inter-agency and inter-disciplinary consultation process. It articulates a bold and ambitious agenda for building statistical capacities, tapping into new data sources, partners and technologies, and defining responsibilities for data collection at international and national levels.

The starting point for post-2015 measurement is, of course, the MDGs.

The MDGs emerged from a comparatively insular process. Nevertheless, they have come to exert a significant influence on development policy, driven by their simplicity, measurability, and the power of numbers. Data collection and statistical methods have undoubtedly improved as a result.

But as we know, not everything has gone as planned.

Not all of the MDGs numbers were as “hard” as is sometimes assumed. Certain targets and indicators were poorly specified. Target 7.D on improving the lives of slum dwellers, and the maternal mortality ratio indicator, are examples.

Targets and indicators were not always aligned with member States’ existing human rights treaty commitments. This lack of alignment can have very tangible consequences. For example, target 2.A failed to specify “free” primary education, without which the goal of universal enrolment is unachievable. The indicators for target 7.C measured improved infrastructure rather than actual safety and quality of drinking water, which – as UNICEF’s rapid surveys have shown – can be a fatal difference in practice.

Target-setting was to some extent arbitrary, based often on linear extrapolations of past progress. This contradicts member States’ existing obligations of conduct under international treaties, to dedicate “maximum available resources” to achieve socio-economic rights.

The near-silence of the MDGs on issues of discrimination was also highly problematic, given the disturbing increase in inequalities within and between many countries.

The gender equality goal was alarmingly reductionist. Violence against women, a global epidemic and crippling source of disempowerment, was not addressed.

Civil and political rights were almost categorically excluded, beyond a single indicator: “the proportion of women in parliament.” This neglect seems to have been based on two assumptions: (1) that the MDGs are a proxy for civil and political rights; and (2) that composite indices produced by unrecognized experts were the only plausible direct measure for these rights.

Both assumptions are of course fatally flawed. Some of the MDGs star performers in the early 2000’s have since become sites of revolution or mass unrest. Freedom from fear is inextricably linked with freedom from want. And civil and political rights measurement is now a vibrant field of inter-disciplinary innovation, as the Task Team’s report recognizes.

Equally troubling, the selection of MDGs indicators was limited by established indicators and data sources, and ignored the potential to generate demand and capacities for new data.

In other words, in 2000, we treasured what we measured, rather than the other way around.

We have learned a great deal since the year 2000. As the Inter-Agency and Expert Group has noted, data availability should be a relevant but not controlling criterion in the selection of indicators. The Task Team’s report reflects this evolution in thinking.

The human rights analysis and recommendations in the Task Team’s report are also noteworthy.

Of course, this should come as no surprise.

One of the strongest and most consistent demands emerging from global consultations on the post-2015 development agenda is that the new agenda be grounded explicitly in internationally recognized human rights.

Given this emphatic demand, and given the human rights gaps in the MDGs, it is fitting that the report should address them. It does so in a number of ways.

Firstly, the report recommends that target-setting and the formulation of indicators should be consistent with agreed norms in human rights treaties. This draws directly from the criteria for Sustainable Development Goals agreed by member States at the Rio+20 conference.

The report recognizes a number of important consequences of this criterion, such as the need to collect disaggregated data for different social groups, and identify acceptable measures of effort as well as outcomes. The report very helpfully canvasses a range of plausible ways to measure inequalities, a defining challenge of the post-2015 agenda.

Civil and political rights measurement is usefully discussed, in addition to socio-economic rights, though perhaps the report could have made clearer the distinctions between human rights and more general concepts of governance and rule of law.

The report also makes a strong argument for user participation, transparency and accountability in indicator development, which are core features of a human rights approach.

While not mentioned in the report, we should not forget that human rights are also an ally of robust statistics. Rights relating to data confidentiality and protection provide important safeguards to the compilation of trustworthy official statistics. The right to have a name, and the right of a child to be registered immediately after birth, are also of obvious importance.

Critically, the report also identifies two important criteria – broad consultation, and alignment with international human rights treaty standards – that should guide the tailoring and adaptation of post-2015 goals, targets and indicators to the national level.

This is a vital yet neglected topic in the post-2015 debate.

National tailoring should not be an à la carte exercise, much less a carte blanche.

Without agreed criteria, beginning with those suggested in the report, global commitments will be lost in translation to national and local levels. 

The 2012 OHCHR Human Rights Indicators Guide offers detailed guidance and illustrative indicators for tailoring globally agreed indicators to the national level, drawing explicitly from international human rights law. The Guide discusses, among other things, the increasing role of independent national human rights mechanisms in the development and use of statistics.

The Task Team’s report,  and the OHCHR Indicators Guide, serve as important milestones in inter-disciplinary collaboration in the fields of statistics and human rights.

The field is a fertile one. The Fundamental Principles of Official Statistics explicitly recognize the rights of members of society. Statistical offices have a critical responsibility to inform policy-making processes and provide the public with high quality statistics about the state of society.

Taken seriously, this responsibility can be an onerous one. Capacity constraints are a major problem. National statistical officers may also face serious pressures to conceal unpalatable truths, and some have even lost their lives defending the truth.

International and national human rights monitoring mechanisms, in turn, rely heavily on these statistics, which are critical for measuring human rights progress, strengthening incentives for better policy-making, and building a culture of accountability.

The common cause of statistics and human rights is manifest and obvious, and will gather in importance as we work our way towards a principled and effective post-2015 agenda.

I very much look forward to our further collaboration, guided by the Task Team’s report.

Thank you.