Human Rights and the SDGs: Progress or a Missed Opportunity?

by | Jan 6, 2017

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About Siobhan McInerney-Lankford

Dr. Siobhán McInerney-Lankford is Senior Counsel at the World Bank Legal Vice-Presidency and a recognised expert in international human rights law, advising the World Bank in this area since 2002. She currently serves as country lawyer for CAR, Comoros, Madagascar, Mauritania, Mauritius, Namibia and Syria. She regularly represents the World Bank in international human rights fora, including at the UN, EU and OECD. Dr. McInerney-Lankford has published widely on human rights law and is the co-editor of a forthcoming book on human rights methodology. She is an adjunct professor at AU Washington College of Law. She holds an LL.B. from Trinity College, Dublin, (First Class Honors), an LL.M. from Harvard Law School, a BCL and DPhil in EU human rights law both from Oxford. In 2010 and 2011, the Irish Voice newspaper named her among the Irish Legal 100 and in 2016 the Irish Times recognised her among the Irish Women of the World (Law).


Siobhán McInerney-Lankford, ‘Human Rights and the SDGs: progress or a missed opportunity?’ (OxHRH Blog, 6 January 2017) <> [Date of Access]

On 25 September 2015 the United Nations General Assembly adopted the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, including the new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which would replace the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). The 17 SDGs, 169 targets and 230 indicators cover poverty, health, education, water and sanitation, but also inequalities, gender, climate and institutions. While the SDG Declaration accompanying the new Goals contains numerous references to human rights and international law, the SDGs themselves do not. The relationship between human rights and SDGs must be assessed in light of the relationship between human rights and MDGs, on which a significant body of critical scholarship exists. The MDGs and human rights operated in separate, parallel spheres, with the divergences between them more evident than their points of convergence. The MDGs reflected neither human rights obligations nor human rights principles; in terms of substantive coverage, the MDGs overlapped with economic and social rights, but neglected civil and political rights. 

How do the SDGs compare with the MDGs in human rights terms? On one account the SDGs are redolent of the MDGs: the new Goals contain no freestanding human rights goal, no explicit mention of human rights and no link to human rights law obligations. From a different perspective, however, the SDGs can be said to integrate human rights principles such as participation and inclusion, accountability and equality and non-discrimination.

On participation and inclusion, SDG 16 explicitly addresses inclusion and implicitly incorporates participation. It calls upon governments to “promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels.” According to the UN Secretary-General, Goal 16 represents a commitment to “effective governance for sustainable development demands that public institutions in all countries and at all levels be inclusive, participatory, and accountable to the people.” Inclusion is also reflected in Goal 4 on education, Goal 8 on economic growth, Goal 9 on industrialisation and Goal 11 on cities and human settlements. Additionally, SDG 16 explicitly aims to build accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels (also reflected in Target 6 of Goal 10), clearly reflecting the human rights principles of accountability and inclusion.

On equality and empowerment, the SDGs clearly register inequality and discrimination based on gender, racial or ethnic origin, disabilities, or age. Goal 10 explicitly addresses inequality within and among nations, and Goal 5 calls for achieving gender equality and empowering all women and girls, as does Target 4.7. Furthermore, there is a requirement that SDG Indicators be disaggregated, where relevant, by income, sex, age, race, ethnicity, migratory status, disability and geographic location, or other characteristics.

Beyond the Goals, Target 4.7 contains one relatively narrow reference to human rights:  “by 2030, all learners acquire knowledge and skills needed to promote sustainable development, including among others through education for sustainable development and sustainable lifestyles, human rights . . .” References to “rights” alone can be found in other targets, including Target 1.4, on women’s equal rights to economic resources; Target 5.6, which ensures universal access to sexual and reproductive health and reproductive rights; Target 5.a, which undertakes reforms to give women equal rights to economic resources; and Target 8.8, protecting labour rights. Nevertheless, these references are limited in number and relatively restricted in their spheres of application.

Finally, human rights are reflected in a select number of the 230 indicators adopted on 11 March 2016.  Indicator 4.7.1 mentions human rights, Indicator 16.a.1 refers to the existence of independent human rights institutions and Indicators 10.3.1 and 16.b.1 reflect discrimination prohibited under human rights law.

Overall therefore, the SDGs represent a significant advance on the MDGs in human rights terms, but that advance is limited to a more implicit integration of human rights principles and ad hoc references to human rights in certain SDG Targets and Indicators. Despite the occasional references to international agreements (e.g. Target 16.10, 15.1 and Indicator 12.4.1), the SDGs themselves cannot be said to be indexed to international law or human rights law norms. Indeed, the fact that references to international human rights law in the SDG Declaration were not reflected in the SDGs themselves suggests a repeat of the disconnect between the Millennium Declaration and the MDGs in 2000. Despite the clear points of progress this would also indicate that the accountability underpinning the SDGs is diffuse and political rather than legal, reflecting, once again, the fragmentation of international law and the absence of international policy coherence between human rights and development.

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1 Comment

  1. Kaium Ahmed

    There is a strong conflict between environment and development in the developing nations. These countries are not wiling to combat climate change by reducing carbon emission which may be a great obstacle to reach the desired stage. It is highly deeded to make a agency conducted by United Nation which will try to make a combination between to contradictory terms.

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