What can New York learn from Geneva? Can human right mechanisms, such as the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) developed by the Human Rights Council in Geneva serve as a model for the follow up of the new development agenda currently beingdiscussed in New York?

That was the guiding question formulated by Hubert Rene Schillinger, director of the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung in Geneva to a panel on “accountability mechanisms for implementing the SDGs” held last June 18.

Irish ambassador David Donoghue, co-facillitator of the drafting process of the new development agenda admitted that “accountability” is referred to as “the a word” in New York and he explained that “to address sensitivities in various quarters, the phrase we use is ‘follow-up and review’ instead”.

Donoghue confirmed that it “virtually certain” that the new agenda will endorse the 17 sustainable development goals (SDGs) since “practically every UN member state feels this is safer” than reopening the discussion.

On follow-up and review, he admitted that the current “zero draft” is deliberately vague because “members did not want to be too prescriptive”. However, “all good proposals are awaited with interest”.

German ambassador Joachim Rücker, current president of the Human Rights Council, joked that “Geneva is not a different planet from New York” and explained how “the integration of human rights in the SDG agenda can become a turning point”, since “empirical evidence on human rights approach to development is growing”.

Rücker argued that “it is not about using human rights mechanisms as the follow-up and review mechanism for post-2015” but “the UPR has given us a lot of lessons to offer as a model”.

In UPR, he explained, all States participate on equal terms. While there are some weaknesses and it doesn’t have same judicial stringency as treaty bodies, UPR offers concrete advantages, because it is state-centred, state-led, there is mutual accountability and mutual commitments, and the process brings out wealth of information.

Irene Khan, director-general of the International Development Law Organization explained that “many of the goals in the SDGs mirror human rights obligations and standards”. She argued that “while SDGs are not legally binding, but many of them are underpinned by human rights obligations, national legislation and constitutional provisions.” That “ empowers people to demand accountability – including through community-based political mechanisms”.

Roberto Bissio, coordinator of Social Watch, addressed the need to make corporations accountable for the human rights impact of their operations. He criticized the notion that no regulation is needed because it would be in their best interest of big business to support sustainable development: “If that is the case, why aren’t they doing it already?” A previous draft for the coming Financing for Development conference argued for “adequate incentives” for the private sector to do sustainable development, but an amendment was introduced by the US saying those incentives should be “consistent with international trade rules.” In practice, Bissio explained, this means that corporations that do the wrong thing cannot be excluded from such incnetives, because the WTO rules could consider that as a forbidden “discrimination”.

Bissio also noted that so-called “private-public partnerships” or PPPs are promoted as a tool by the new agenda. This tool is “terribly risky” as it encourages a “buy now pay later overspending (and debt-creating) behaviour”. Further, since business participation in PPPs can usually be equated with investment, disputes around them would be settled, in many cases, through arbitration panels that do not take human rights into account instead of by national courts.

Craig Mokhiber, in charge of development and economic and social issues in the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights highlighted that “the word accountability does appear in the zero draft, that mentions ‘accountability to our citizens.’ We would have preferred the term ‘people’ and not citizens, as it also includes migrants and other non-citizens, but we see this phrase as an important shift away from State-State accountability or accountability to donors.

He noted that “UPR is badly understood, since delegates in NY seem to think this is a compulsory, not State-led, finger-pointing exercise”. He argued that all of the information and data generated by the human right system, including the Special Rapporteurs and the treaty bodies could be used by the review process in New York. That would meet the requirement to make maximum use of existing mechanisms. All what is needed is “a proper interface”.

– – –

The High-level roundtable discussion took place at the 29th session of the UN Human Rights Council on Accountability mechanisms for implementing the SDGs on 18 June 2015, 13:00 – 15:00, Palais des Nations, Room XVII, Geneva, Switzerland. The event was coorganized by the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung (FES), in cooperation with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) and the Geneva Academy of International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights (ADH).

The audio is available here.


Background material:

Background paper: 
The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) – Contributions of the UN Human Rights Council to the Debate so far. (Julia Kercher)

OHCHR Key message on SDG accountability

Photo: Khan, Mokhiber, Donoghue, Schillinger, Rücker and Bissio.