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Human rights and the 2030 Agenda: Empowering people and ensuring inclusiveness and equality

Human Rights Council Intersessional meeting

16 January 2019

Distinguished President of the Council,
Dear Mary,
Distinguished panellists,
Excellencies,
Colleagues,
Friends,

Allow me first to warmly welcome to his new functions the incoming President of the Council, Coly Seck. It will be a pleasure and an honour to work with him, and with all of you, in the coming year.

It has been exactly 1,111 (one thousand one hundred and eleven) days since January 1 2016, when the Sustainable Development Goals officially came into force. It was a moment of shared hope, as the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development seeks to achieve durable and truly inclusive development for all.

The world came together with a realisation that it was time to fully address inequality; the inequality which results from the persistence of biting and systemic discrimination, and leads to development that is unequal, unsustainable, and generates instability. Time to face the economic and social turmoil, which helped to generate today's threats to our planet, as well as pose great risks to political and social harmony within and among States.

The 2030 Agenda sets an ambitious objective: a model of more equitable and sustainable development that puts people at its centre and is explicitly grounded in all human rights – including the right to development.

The overarching commitment of Member States to "leave no-one behind" demands that we address inequalities and that we clearly identify, and eliminate, all forms of discrimination.  This includes structural inequalities between social groups, which frequently flare into conflict and force people to flee their homes.

The 2030 Agenda is a commitment to achieve greater international cooperation, for a more equitable international order. But above all, it is a promise extended to people previously locked out of development: the marginalized, disempowered and excluded communities – the millions of women; racial, religious and caste minorities; indigenous peoples; migrants; persons with disabilities; Roma; and the poor.

The Agenda set out concrete goals, targets and indicators to ensure the realization of the human rights vision of freedom from fear and want.  It is a detailed plan to end poverty and secure justice and the rule of law, enabling the broadest possible public participation in decision-making, and securing access to essential economic and social rights – to food, health, education, water, housing, sanitation and others.

Excellencies

One thousand, one hundred and eleven days into the 2030 Agenda, are we succeeding in realizing this vision?  Is the world meeting this great goal of leaving no-one behind?  

On the one hand, there has been tremendous progress in some countries, and on some metrics. According to the 2018 SDG Progress Report, extreme poverty has fallen below 11% of the world population. The proportion of families living on less than $1.90 per person a day has fallen from almost 27% in 2000 to 9.2% in 2017, with much of this progress achieved in Asia. Since 2010, the proportion of children in school has risen from 63% to 70%.  Maternal mortality in sub-Saharan Africa has fallen by 37% since the year 2000, and mortality in children under five years old has been halved.

And, according to UNICEF, South Asia has seen the largest decline in child marriage worldwide in the last decade, as a girl’s risk of marrying before her 18th birthday has dropped by more than a third, from nearly 50 per cent to 30 per cent,

And yet overall, we are not on track for 2030.

Many countries are still very far from achieving gender equality, which is both a goal and a driver of sustainable development – since almost always, it is women and girls who are farthest behind. Three years into the 2030 Agenda, women's inequality remains powerfully entrenched in terms of political empowerment, economic opportunities, physical safety, equal pay and individual freedom of choice.

Conflicts are destroying people's lives, hopes and ability to earn a decent livelihood in the places they were born. 44,400 (forty-four thousand four hundred) people are forced to flee their homes every day because of conflict or persecution. Climate change is generating overwhelming environmental disasters, which devastate basic infrastructure and exacerbate tensions and conflicts.

After many years in which undernourishment and food insecurity has declined, the painful, ominous and almost entirely preventable number of people counted as "undernourished" rose from 777 million in 2015 to 815 million in 2016 – mainly due to conflicts, as well as drought and other climate-linked disasters.

815 million is 11% of humanity: in other words, one out of every nine women, men and children around the world is still going without sufficient food.

Young people are three times more likely to be unemployed than adults. Although more children are in school, less than half of all children and adolescents worldwide meet minimum standards in reading and maths. Around the world, 93% of children live in environments where air pollution exceeds maximum guidelines. Close to 1 billion people lack access to electricity.  

And economic inequalities continue to grow. More wealth is being produced than ever before in human history; globally, labour productivity grew by over 2% in 2017, the fastest growth registered since 2010. But this wealth is not being equitably shared. As the ILO has pointed out, the labour share of GDP has been falling for 25 years, and this trend has continued. Everyone in this room has surely heard of the analysis by Oxfam, which asserted that 82% of all the wealth generated in 2016 went to the richest 1% of the global population, while the poorest half of humanity saw no change in their income – leaving them even further behind.

Mr President,  

With just 12 years left to 2030, we need a greater sense of urgency about achieving the Agenda's promise to the world's people. All the SDGs are attainable: the Agenda is a detailed, practical roadmap, and this year's High Level Political Forum is an important milestone along the road.

A "business as usual" approach will not take us in the promised direction. This journey requires immediate and accelerated action, including stronger partnerships between stakeholders at all levels to drive implementation of the SDGs.

Sometimes it takes great courage to be a political leader. It takes courage to embark on broad economic, social and political reforms – on policies that will mean tremendous change, yet can also produce  greater and more sustainable economic growth, increased social harmony, and more accountable, more effective governance.

Such policies may involve risking political capital, overturning entrenched interests by narrow élites, and upsetting dominant groups. But they pay dividends.

The human rights approach leads to development that is more powerful, more sustainable and more effective, because it promotes empowerment, inclusiveness and equal opportunities for all. 

This frees the forces of innovation to devise the best and most appropriate approaches to technological change, a globalised economy and new environmental conditions.

It lifts the obstacles that so heavily and disproportionately burden our poorest and most marginalised communities.   

Let me be clear: inequality is a human rights issue. And food, water, healthcare, education, housing and access to justice are not just commodities, for sale to the few – they are rights, to which all human beings are entitled.

The 2030 Agenda is a vital opportunity to realise the promise of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Declaration on the Right to Development. It explicitly recognises that respect for all human rights – civil, political, economic, social and cultural – is central to the work of constructing more equal, resilient and sustainable societies. 

Indeed, the theme of this year’s 2019 High Level Political Forum is “Empowerment, inclusiveness and equality” – a theme that perfectly illustrates the interrelatedness of human rights and development. 

And this mutually reinforcing relationship of human rights to sustainable development is also evident in the  specific SDGs under review at this year's High Level Political Forum – especially Goal 10, on Reduced inequalities, and Goal 16 on Peace, justice and strong institutions, but also in relation to Goal 4, on Quality education; Goal 8, on Decent work and economic growth; Goal 13, on Climate action; and Goal 17, Partnerships for the achievement of the SDGs.

In all of these areas, the Human Rights Council and its Special Procedures have important contributions to make. In an analysis carried out for the High Level Political Forum last year, we found that that “virtually all of the activities and outcomes of the Human Rights Council may be understood as contributing to the overall aim of leaving no one behind.”

Likewise, the recommendations of the Treaty Bodies and the work of my Office can play a vital role of support and guidance – including in guiding decision-makers to ensure the widest possible space for civil society to speak out and act for human dignity and equality.

This discussion today helps to bridge the work being carried out in Geneva and New York, feeding into the High Level Political Forum in July, and the SDG Summit in September. It will also contribute to taking the discussion on human rights and SDGs to the national level, where change must ultimately take place.

By identifying some key messages and strategic priorities, I hope today's meeting will  infuse a sense of urgency and greater energy and commitment among all partners, so that nations and economies can thrive and transform by promoting the full potential of every human being.

Thank you, Mr President.