Accountability and disability: the role of human rights in achieving the SDGs

Diane Kingston, Deputy Director of IAA and Vice Chair of the Expert Committee for the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities highlights why human rights must underpin the implementation of the SDGs.

The last few years have seen a huge amount of effort focused on the inclusion of disability rights in the new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).  Some notable achievements in the 17 goals must be acknowledged, so what next?

The UN Secretary General rightly points out “The true test of commitment to Agenda 2030 will be implementation”.

Needless to say, the implementation of the new development agenda must be firmly anchored in human rights if we are to achieve its goals. Why?  Because the SDGs are political goals and represent a strong political commitment, but they are voluntary and not legally binding.

Human rights are clearly recognized in international and national law—realizing them is a legal obligation. The Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) and other core human rights treaties remain as the key instruments for advancing human rights, and in combination with the SDGs, provide tools to hold Governments accountable for both poverty elimination and upholding rights.  The Chairs of all the human rights treaty bodies called for human rights to be central to the SDGs during the negotiating processes [1].

Mutually reinforcing

Human rights and the SDGs can be implemented in a mutually reinforcing manner, and human rights can strengthen efforts to achieve the SDGs. Human rights approaches can reinforce the legitimacy of SDGimplementation strategies that build on legal obligations in human rights treaties. The implementation of the SDGs can also benefit from harnessing the mobilizing potential of human rights discourse and building participatory and empowering strategies on the basis of civil and political rights. Achieving the SDGs will require sustained political pressure, broad popular support and effective service-delivery mechanisms. Such efforts are complemented by human rights processes and institutions that strengthen transparency and accountability processes for the achievement of the SDGs. These include courts, national human rights institutions and informal justice systems, and international mechanisms, including treaty bodies, independent expert committees that oversee compliance by States with their international human rights treaty commitments.

For the 160 countries who have ratified the CRPD, they are required to report periodically at a national and international level. This information could also be useful for contextualizing the goals and targets to the specific circumstances of all countries, alongside the expert reports of Special Rapporteurs and Working Groups who are mandated to carry out thematic or country-specific work, including on issues at the heart of the SDGs, such as education, food, health and the right to development. In addition, many human rights resolutions on civil and political rights and on economic and social rights (such as on the right to safe drinking water and sanitation or on human rights and extreme poverty) contain components relevant to the SDGs. These, combined with expert reports can provide further insights into the specific areas that need to be targeted in particular countries in order to achieve the SDGs. But it does not stop there, each major international and regional human rights instrument has an expert committee, a commission or a court which monitors its realization. The CRPD expert committee produces recommendations to State parties on key areas such as health, education and international cooperation, which can be relevant for implementing and reviewing progress towards achieving the SDGs.  Many also have the power to receive individual or collective complaints, including the CRPD.

Non - state actors

As with human rights, it is essential that the SDGs are anchored in national policies.  The importance of multi-stakeholder engagement lies at the core of the CRPD committee’s working methods. The participation of organisations of persons with disabilities in the work of the CRPD committee keeps us in touch with the reality on the ground, their voices keep us accountable in regard to our commitments and remind us what is at stake.

National Human Rights Institutions and regional organizations are also important contributors to the CRPD committee work and are essential for ensuring effective implementation on the ground and follow-up to commitments by States.

Human rights-based approaches

Human rights-based approaches to development planning and programming can help in addressing unjust distributions of power, bring a focus to the rule of law, and make development achievements more sustainable. All human beings are entitled to enjoy their human rights equally without discrimination. This includes the human rights of persons with disabilities. While focusing on marginalized groups may sometimes necessitate trade-offs against economic growth or other aims, evidence shows that equity is critical for long-term development. Persons with disabilities are entitled to the removal of physical, attitudinal and other barriers hampering their access to employment, education or health care as well as reasonable accommodation to ensure that they enjoy access on an equal basis with others. Remote rural and deprived urban areas need to be targeted. To be relevant for indigenous peoples, the SDGs may need to be significantly adapted to respect their land and cultural rights effectively.

Key actions for meaningful implementation

  • Align the Goals with human rights by harmonizing SDG targets and indicators with the core standards of the CRPD. This includes ensuring that the targets and indicators effectively correspond to all obligations, that efforts are adequately directed towards persons with disabilities.  The CRPD also sets minimum standards of service delivery to ensure rights are realised.
  • Use the CRPD as a lens of analysis using its core principles to specifically address the barriers to participation, poverty and inequality persons with disabilities face amongst and within countries.
  • Adopt a human rights-based approach to empowerment and participation in target-setting, policymaking and implementation. In order to create the conditions for effective participation and good governance, civil and political rights must be effectively respected.
  • Prioritize rights by making policy choices and resource-allocation decisions within a human rights framework. SDG-related policies should respect, promote and fulfil human rights.
  • Claim the SDGs by ensuring enforceable rights, accountability mechanisms and sustainable strategies. The human rights framework offers a relatively objective and comprehensive framework for legal empowerment and accountability of all relevant stakeholders, to help ensure that the SDGs are not only reached but that the achievements are sustained.
  • Provide adequate resources for implementation – lessons learned from gender budgeting can be applied to disability rights budgeting and sufficient resources should be provided to reach human rights-consistent goals.

In conclusion, we must ensure that human rights concerns are and remain at the heart of future steps towards implementation of the 2030 transformative Agenda.

Note: This document has been adapted from the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights publication Claiming the Millennium Development Goals: A human rights approach