Universal Goals, Universal Rights

The Sustainable Development Goals must be grounded in recognition of our common humanity
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Environmental protection and sustainable development are human rights responsibilities. Pollution, environmental degradation, and human-induced climate change represent not only an assault on our common ecosystem, but breaches of human rights obligations as well.
Nothing reminds us more of the universality of human rights than the planet that we all share.

Just as human rights are universal, so too is the struggle to realize them for everyone, everywhere. To some degree, every country in the world has major human rights issues to resolve, be they in the midst of conflict or in its aftermath, or dealing with wide wealth gaps, institutionalized discrimination or the lack of a democratic space. Clearly, any attempts to resolve our common shortcomings must be grounded in our common humanity.

If there is one document that captures the essence of this—and that must be on the table for every policy discussion at the national or international level—it is the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Adopted more than 60 years ago, it is a set of absolutely fundamental, inalienable principles, relevant in every context, in time of peace and conflict, and at every stage of development. It is indisputable that for peace, security and development to be sustainable, they must be anchored in respect for human rights.

As the international community works towards the elaboration of Sustainable Development Goals, required by the Rio+20 document to be “universally applicable to all countries”, the key guiding texts must be the Universal Declaration of Human Rights—as the common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations—and the international treaties that have fleshed out these rights in legally binding form.

The idea of universal applicability of the SDGs recognizes our interconnectedness and the “butterfly effect” that increasingly defines the modern world. That metaphor, drawn from chaos theory—that a butterfly flapping its wings can influence the occurrence of a hurricane in a distant land several weeks later—well illustrates the current geopolitical landscape.

The demand for cheap clothing or diamonds in one part of the world fuels rights abuses in another. Similarly, unemployment, inequality and discrimination anywhere can facilitate recruitment for extremist causes elsewhere. And clearly, the impact of environmental pollution and climate change knows no borders.

States negotiating the SDGs have acknowledged that development and human rights shortcomings are universal, and that the enjoyment of human rights, such as the right to education, the right to food, the right to water and the right to health, are entitlements for everyone, everywhere, in “developed” and “developing” countries alike. This is not about charity, but about rights, about empowerment.

Therein lies the key to the successful achievement of the SDGs: in empowerment which, in practical terms, means that the people most affected by decisions and policies must be involved in crafting and implementing them.

Universality applies not just to universal application but also to universal participation and ownership of the goals. Only when tackled in such an inclusive manner will the results be truly equitable and sustainable. Otherwise communities already on the margins of society—due to poverty, discrimination, nationality or other status—may be further alienated and fail to benefit from well-intentioned but uninformed policies. Development must be by the people, for the people.

Through such participatory processes, universal goals and standards can be implemented to fit the specific context of each society. Universality does not demand a one-size-fits-all approach. We all have common needs and entitlements, but customized paths.

And, of course, nothing reminds us more of the universality of human rights than the planet that we all share. Pollution, environmental degradation, and human-induced climate change thus represent not only an assault on our common ecosystem, but breaches of human rights obligations as well. Unchecked, such acts of planetary vandalism undercut the rights to health, to food, to water and sanitation, to adequate housing, and—for the people of small island states and coastal communities—even the right to self-determination.

A healthy environment is an underlying determinant of so many human rights, and states are thus obliged by human rights law both to abstain from harmful policies and practices, and to take positive action to prevent their commission by private actors. Simply put, environmental protection and sustainable development are human rights responsibilities. Useful lessons can be drawn from the work of international human rights bodies on implementing universal standards in different countries with greatly varying capacities, cultures and challenges. The expert committees that monitor the implementation of binding international human rights treaties provide individualized advice and recommendations to each country, taking into account the specific contexts. For some economic and social rights, there is also the concept of “progressive realization” to work towards full enjoyment of all human rights by everyone within their jurisdiction using the “maximum available resources.”

This does not mean that these rights are purely aspirational. They are not. They are human rights, not hopes or desires. It is the legal obligation of every state to ensure their promotion and protection. And the UN Human Rights Office and other expert bodies are here to advise on the best means to reach this end. The need for international cooperation, assistance and aid is also invoked as necessary.

The preamble of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights emphasizes that the peoples of the United Nations have in the Charter “reaffirmed their faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person and in the equal rights of men and women and have determined to promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom.” On that basis, a considerable body of binding human rights instruments have been developed, and spell out concrete legal norms. They should guide states negotiating the final SDGs and guard against narrow national or regional interests trumping this larger goal.

The SDGs, if crafted and implemented in this spirit of universality and anchored in human rights law—and thus grounded in our common humanity—have real potential to fulfil the promise of a better world for all. ▲