The future of the Sustainable Development Goals and human rights

by Dr Meghan Campbell

10 Dec 2018

Human Rights

The scope of human rights obligations is traditionally thought of as being circumscribed by state boundaries. As the 21st century unfolds, the limits of this approach are fast becoming apparent. First, the sheer depth and severity of human rights violations are often beyond the capability of one state to redress. Tackling the Ebola virus epidemic in West Africa, that claimed over 11,000 lives, required the concerted efforts of many states and international organisations. Second, the power of globalisation is striking at the roots of the state-based model of international law. Social justice movements seeking to uphold human rights such as #MeToo and Black Lives Matter are reaching across state boundaries. The inter-connectedness of the global economy means that multinational corporations and international financial organisations have immense power to impact the human rights of thousands of people all over the world. The human rights impact of climate change does not respect territorial limits. Thus, human rights can no longer be thought of as the exclusive purview of the state. The global community has a stake in respecting, protecting and fulfilling human rights everywhere. Article 55 and 56 of the UN Charter requires states to cooperate to realise human rights and find solutions to international economic, social and health problems. The radical idea is that human rights obligations should and must transcend borders.   

The tension between global aspirations of human rights law and state sovereignty

The extraterritorial scope of human rights obligations, however, remains deeply contentious. States often rebuke global efforts to realise human rights in the name of state sovereignty. While the concept of state sovereignty is difficult to pin down, broadly speaking a state should have absolute power over its own territory and people. No other state can interfere with the internal workings of another state. Any effort to combat global suffering, through overseas development aid, is framed by states not as a legal obligation but as charity. This is problematic as largesse can be withdrawn when the political winds shift and other issues take priority. There is a fundamental tension between the global aspirations of human rights law and state sovereignty, the bedrock principle of international law. To overcome this tension, the exciting synergy between the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and human rights could point the way forward.

The duty of cooperation

First, looking at the human rights side of the equation, along with the UN Charter, various UN treaties—the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) and the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD)—all explicitly require states to cooperate and provide assistance to realise socio-economic rights (such as rights to food, water and housing). The duty of cooperation is in its infancy and the scope of this obligation remains theoretically and practically unclear. At the same time, despite not containing an explicit obligation to cooperate, other UN treaties, such as the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), are holding states to account for human rights violations that cross boundaries. For example, the CEDAW Committee expressed concern that Australia supports extractive industries operating in South Africa and Papua New Guinea that do not ‘consult [local] women on the management of mines or benefit sharing’. In a similar vein, the CEDAW Committee noted that Australia disproportionately contributes to global greenhouse gas emissions and observed the limited impact of Australia’s ‘humanitarian assistance on the surrounding small island States.’ The legal basis for the CEDAW Committee critiquing the state’s extraterritorial impact on women’s rights is far from clear. As a result, the CEDAW Committee and other UN treaty bodies are vulnerable to criticism that they are not merely monitoring the implementation of treaties but are in essence creating new legal obligations.  

Sustainable Development Goals as a springboard for future development

Turning to the SDGs, they contain a more precise commitment to cooperate and provide assistance. SDG-17 creates a global partnership to realise the other SDGs such as ending poverty and achieving gender equality and empowerment. There are a series of nineteen targets and indicators to flesh out the nature of this partnership. In relation to cooperation in finance, by 2030 developed states should devote 0.7% of their GNI to developing countries and 0.2% of GNI to the least developed countries and assist developing countries in attaining long-term debt sustainability. There are also cooperative indicators on technology, capacity-building, trade and systemic issues. 

The SDGs on cooperation, although imperfect, can be a springboard for the future development of a human rights obligation to cooperate across boundaries. There is already precedent for using the SDGs to legitimatise an evolutionary interpretation of international human rights law. To justify the release of General Recommendation No 37 on the gender-related dimensions on disaster risk reduction in the context of climate change, the CEDAW Committee relies on the SDGs on the environment. SDG-17 on a global partnership can provide a blueprint for the nuances of the obligation to cooperation. It also situates a human right obligation to cooperate in broader trends in international law and demonstrates that this not a radical proposal but is contributing to the internal coherency of international law.

The future extraterritorial reach of human rights will continue to be explored and developed and at this stage there are more questions than answers. There may be divergences between the global partnership under the SDGs and the duty to cooperate under human rights law. For instance, the SDGs and human rights have differing understandings on the role of private corporate actors. At a minimum the SDGs offer a starting point for refining the obligation to cooperate. The political commitment of the SDGs and the legal obligation of human rights both take seriously human flourishing and development. Innovative methods are needed to hold states to account and it is now time to seriously explore protecting human rights of the individual regardless of territorial boundaries.

Dr Meghan Campbell is Lecturer in Law at the University of Birmingham and Deputy–Director of the Oxford Human Rights Hub.

To find out more about the existing and potential synergies between the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals and human rights, read the British Academy’s report Working Together: Human Rights, the Sustainable Development Goals and Gender Equality.

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