Taking the backseat? Strategic utilisation of human rights in the implementation of SDGs

by | Mar 17, 2018

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About Jaakko Kuosmanen

Dr. Jaakko Kuosmanen Research Fellow and Programme coordinator of the Oxford Martin Programme on Human Rights for Future Generations|Dr. Jaakko Kuosmanen Research Fellow and Programme coordinator of the Oxford Martin Programme on Human Rights for Future Generations


Jaakko Kuosmanen, “Taking the backseat? Strategic utilisation of human rights in the implementation of SDGs” (OxHRH Blog, 17 March 2018), <https://ohrh.law.ox.ac.uk/taking-the-backseat-strategic-utilisation-of-human-rights-in-the-implementation-of-sdgs> [date of access].

Human rights and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are closely entwined. The text of the Agenda declares that human rights constitute the foundation and the aim of development. It states that the Agenda is grounded in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and international human rights treaties, and that the SDGs seek “to realize the human rights of all”.

Plenty of invaluable work has been done recently to clarify the links between human rights and the SDGs. A human rights-based approach provides a conceptual framework for human development based on international human rights standards and operationally directed to promoting and protecting human rights. Various human rights principles, including participation, transparency, accountability, equality, non-discrimination, indivisibility, and interdependence, have been utilized in the construction of a human rights-based approach to development.

The implementation of SDGs is a complex global and local effort involving states, regional and local governments, international organisations, NGOs, and private actors. When explored from the bottom-up, high-level dialogues about the interrelationship of SDGs and human rights can at times seem distant. Those designing and implementing development initiatives do not always have a strong background in international human rights standards. Also, human rights standards do not necessarily offer definitive guidance as there are often competing understandings of key conceptions. Furthermore, development initiatives can require plenty of coordination between different partners, including civil servants, local communities, and private companies whereas human rights, for the most part, is focused solely on the state.

For practitioners, the work can involve strategising and persuasion. They may need to ask what is the best strategy to push a development initiative through? Should human rights always be invoked? What if there are more effective alternative strategies of persuasion available, e.g., appeals to economic growth, equality, fairness, or human dignity, or even to streamlined processes that make civil servants’ work easier? Should they be used rhetorically instead of human rights?

Invoking human rights in a particular development context may (or may not) in fact complicate development matters. In a local context human rights can potentially be seen as creating an additional layer of bureaucracy for civil servants, or even as something that is dictated top-down from the international community to local level.

What should practitioners do in such circumstances? Should human rights take the backseat? Should development initiatives be approached with a principle that sets success as the highest ranking value? At first sight it can appear as if human rights are abandoned for more ‘traditional’ forms of development when human rights discourse is left from development strategising and persuasion efforts. This, however, does not ultimately have to be the case.

The realisation of SDGs and human rights is a global collective effort, and there is space for development actors that have not mainstreamed human rights discourse in their operations and impact strategies. Simultaneously, it is important to proceed with caution. Past decades’ development initiatives show all too well that abandonment of human rights as the guiding standards for development can lead to insensitivity towards contexts and particular needs of individuals. I wish to suggest three important principles that can provide guidance for joint efforts of actors approaching SDGs from different angles:

Division of labour

Achieving the transformative agenda of SDGs requires actors with different strengths, capabilities, and impact strategies. Some actors may have mainstreamed human rights discourse to their operations and strategising, others have not. Context dictates the best strategic avenues for advancing SDGs for each actor. Identification of strengths of different actors and coordinated development activities can potentially lead to better overall global achievements in the implementation of SDGs.


Although human rights discourse may not always be strategically the best response available for persuasion in a local development context, there nevertheless should be alignment efforts between different initiatives. Regardless of the discourse utilised, efforts should be made to ensure that the content of human rights principles is advanced where possible.


Alignment requires coordination. Not all actors have extensive understanding of the content of human rights principles, which makes establishment of communication networks and knowledge exchange crucially important. Furthermore, coordination can support division of labour between actors and therefore make development initiatives more effective. At times, it may be useful to have different actors approaching a development context from different perspectives, and with different discourses.

This blog is the third in a series capturing the discussions from our Working Together: Human Rights and the Sustainable Development Goals exploring the potential of human rights to realize the SDGs. The first two were by Brenda Kelly (on FGM) and Marta Rodriguez de Assis Machado (on anti-women mobilisation in Brazil).

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