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Opening remarks of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Human Rights and the Post-2015 Development Agenda: Challenges and Prospects

University of Oxford, 24-25 November 2014

Distinguished participants,

It is a pleasure to offer some opening remarks at this important conference, although I regret that I am not able to be with you.

I thank the Oxford Martin School Programme on Human Rights for Future Generations, the Norwegian Centre for Human Rights, and Metrics for Human Rights for organising this event.

You are meeting on a critical subject at an auspicious time.

Four months ago, following the largest global consultation in the UN’s history, the Open Working Group on Sustainable Development Goals finalized a set of 17 proposed goals and accompanying targets to replace the Millennium Development Goals.

The UN General Assembly accepted these proposals as the main basis for its work to craft a new, transformative and sustainable development agenda, relevant and applicable to all people in all countries, prior to next September.

As with any such negotiation, nobody is entirely happy with the outcome. The degree of difficulty of the Open Working Group’s task was particularly high, dealing with issues such as climate change, trade, finance, sustainable consumption and production, and technology transfer.

But the Open Working Group’s achievements should not be underestimated. Its final proposals substantially embody what my Office, and my predecessor Navi Pillay, have long advocated: a new universal development agenda grounded in freedom from fear and freedom from want for all, without discrimination.

Yet we cannot doubt the seriousness of the challenges ahead.

Each year, 6 million children die before their fifth birthday – equivalent to the entire population of Nicaragua, Norway or New Zealand. At least half of these deaths are preventable.

In 2013, almost 300,000 women died from causes related to childbirth and pregnancy. The great majority of these deaths were also preventable.

The global reduction in income poverty, one of the MDGs’ most loudly proclaimed success stories, was achieved by the subtle deception of moving the MDGs’ baseline year back to 1990, in order to capture the effects of rapidly rising growth rates in Asia.

And the MDGs, of course, say nothing about the scandal of poverty in rich countries.

In all countries, the same people are being left behind: women and girls, minorities, migrants, indigenous peoples, older persons, persons with disabilities, and people living in informal settlements and rural areas. Even where overall progress has been strong, inequalities have often dramatically increased.

The disease of discrimination is not easily cured, and the freedom to speak out is increasingly curtailed.  To borrow from Orwell, many of our “democratic vistas” are ending up tangled in barbed wire.

The challenges to international cooperation are also acute, exemplified by our shamefully inadequate responses to the global financial crisis and the Ebola epidemic in Western Africa, and our painfully slow progress on trade, technology transfer and financing for development.

On climate change, we are the proverbial frogs in the pot, paddling away while oblivious to the boiling waters rising around us.

So how can we overcome such challenges? How can political leaders be incentivised to cooperate, serve the public interest, transcend parochial politics and the 24-hour news cycle, and give genuine priority to the most marginalised and disenfranchised people in their societies?

These are among the vexing but compelling questions you may discuss during the next two days.

In approaching your work, be creative, and be radical. As Karl Marx once said: “To be radical is to grasp things by the root.”

We cannot possibly predict the course and outcomes of the inter-governmental negotiations in the General Assembly in the coming year. Your deliberations, in any case, cannot be hostage to the vicissitudes and horse-trading of inter-governmental politics. The quest for knowledge needs no separate justification.

Yet, there is also a case for pragmatism: there is only a very short window in which to mobilize politicians and publics to seal an acceptable, workable new deal for global development, firmly grounded in human rights obligations. The more that discussions such as yours draw from and feed into the inter-governmental processes and outcomes, the better the prospects we will have next September to emerge with a principled, equitable and implementable global agreement.

I extend to you my very best wishes over the next two days as you chart the challenging waters between idealism and pragmatism.