Human Rights and the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development

Event Video: 

“We see the promotion of human rights and development not as separate goals but as mutually enforcing objectives,” said Ine Eriksen Søreide, the Norwegian Foreign Minister, introducing the 12th annual Trygve Lie Symposium, co-sponsored by IPI and the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and focused this year on Human Rights and the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

She made the comment in response to a view she said she too often encountered that there was some element of guaranteeing human rights that stood in the way of pursuing economic growth. In fact, she said, “good governance with respect for rule of law, human rights and individual freedoms is a condition for development, economic growth and innovation.”

A panelist at the September 26th event, Kevin Casas-Zamora, Secretary-General of International IDEA, put it even more emphatically. “There cannot be a serious effort to realize the Sustainable Development Goals that fails to fully embrace human rights,” he said. “Without a commitment to human rights, we cannot truthfully speak of human development.”

Michelle Bachelet, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, noted that a core principle of the 2030 Agenda was “leaving no one behind,” and cited a World Bank report that no developmental progress was possible without helping society’s economic stragglers. Seventy percent of the wealth in rich countries was explained by human capital, she said, while in developing countries it was only 30 percent.

The Bank concluded, Ms. Bachelet said, that investing in human rights wasn’t just the ethical thing to do, but “we have economic reasons why it’s also an economic factor to do the right thing.” She added: “It’s so obvious that improving people’s lives and rights is a win-win for every country.”

Shirley Ayorkor Botchwey, Ghana’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, said that her country recognized that “development can only thrive in an environment that promotes democracy, human rights, fundamental freedoms and the rule of law.”

Achim Steiner, Administrator of the UN Development Programme (UNDP), said he had never “bought into” the argument that human rights and development could be incompatible. “Our work every day, in the largest sense of development, is about human rights,” he said. “It is self-evident.” Theoretically, he said, you could achieve some sort of development without human rights. “But the question is, ‘How sustainable is it going to be?  How long will it last?’”

Maina Kiai, the former UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and of Association, warned of the perils of pursuing development with no regard for human rights. “In the 1960s, newly independent countries in Africa decided to put development first and human rights later,” he said. In the end, he said, “we had neither.” For Africans, he said, “human rights is not just about voting and speech, it’s about development as well and thinking about how to operationalize it.”

Dr. Casas-Zamora had a warning for the audience. “If we accept that a vibrant civil society and the freedoms that allow it to operate are essential to bring about the 2030 Agenda, then a quick glance at the world will give you plenty to worry about,” he said. “Civil and political liberties are weakening around the world, and space for civic action is shrinking.”

Ms. Eriksen Søreide said she was dismayed at evidence that there was now “pushback” and “backsliding” on implementing the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). “I had not imagined that I would spend more of my time on human rights work to defend hard won victories and things that we have already achieved instead of breaking new ground,” she said.

She recommended “pushing back” the pushback. “It’s all too easy for us to respond with passive exasperation, but we have to work with the same intensity and conviction whether we are defending or breaking new ground.”

Remarks were made from the floor by Kai Sauer, Finland’s Under-Secretary of State, and Bärbel Kofler, Germany’s Federal Commissioner of Human Rights and Humanitarian Assistance. Ms. Eriksen-Søreide moderated the discussion.