Human rights in the post-2015 agenda: an imperative, not an option


Sabrina Büchler
Human Rights Policy Section of the Human Security Division, Swiss Federal Department of Foreign Affairs

23 June 2014 ─ As the discussions around concrete targets that should guide the future sustainable development agenda become more concrete, the imperative of mainstreaming human rights becomes increasingly evident.

During a High-level event organised two weeks ago by the President of the UN General Assembly on the contributions of human rights and the rule of law to the post-2015 development agenda all delegations agreed on a number of points which fully reflect Switzerland’s position.

First, including the various aspects pertaining to human rights and rule of law in the future sustainable development framework is an imperative, not an option. The question at this stage is not whether these dimensions should be included, but how.

Second, important lessons learnt from the MDG process have to be taken into account. For instance, by setting targets measuring global averages, disparities in the access to health, education or decent employment were masked. This meant that a country could perform well in general terms but, at the same time, entire groups of the population may have been discriminated, excluded and marginalized.

Third, and in direct connection with the above, there is consensus around the necessity of making the often-cited principle of «Leave no one behind» a reality. The prominent inclusion of goals and targets aimed at reducing inequalities will be essential to reach this objective.

UN News Centre: At high-level event, UN officials call for human rights-backed development agenda  

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon opening the High-level event on Human rights and rule of law in the post-2015 agenda: «The right to food and the right to express one’s opinion are equally important.» © UN Photo/Evan Schneider

The importance of civil and political rights for sustainable development

The discussion around human rights, the rule of law, and good governance is, however, a prickly issue. As Switzerland has persistently argued, civil and political rights – which are attributed to the dimension of «freedom from fear» – needs to find its space in the future agenda as much as economic, social and cultural rights. Else, the agenda fails to be truly people-centred, inclusive and ultimately successful.

As the consultations conducted around the world show, people firmly believe that access to justice; independence of the judiciary; personal safety (including the protection from violence, in particular gender based violence); labour rights as well as meaningful and effective participation in political, policy and decision-making processes are key elements to sustainable development.

Such elements, mostly reflecting civil and political rights, are first of all a question of political will, and less a matter of resources. This may be a reason for the controversy in the ongoing debate, with some States arguing that the rule of law at the national level is a matter of sovereignty, that there is no one-size-fits-all model when it comes to the rule of law and that national specificities need to be taken into account.

Fundamental inter-linkages between human rights and rule of law

Switzerland will spare no effort to ensure that both the dimensions of «freedom from want» and «freedom from fear» will find their place in the post-2015 agenda. We are convinced that the universally accepted human rights framework offers an essential common denominator about what good governance and the rule of law should aim to achieve. Or, as Navy Pillay, the outgoing UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and a South African national, recently said: «The rule of law, as understood by the UN, is not value free. Under the apartheid regime in South Africa we had rule of law. But rule of law without the respect of human rights is an empty shell. »