Righting Development

In late September 2015, the UN General Assembly will formally adopt a new sustainable development agenda that builds upon the progress the international community has made towards the Millennium Development Goals. In the consultations that will take place at the UN Summit, member states, intergovernmental and civil society organizations should place human rights at the center of efforts to tackle poverty and promote environmentally sustainable economic development. In the lead-up to the summit, Human Rights Watch will be publishing a series of articles that bring a human – and human rights – focus to what is sometimes an abstract discussion around these goals.


After the Fanfare, What Progress Will Be Made?

So, after all the rhetoric and fanfare and marches and celebrity appearances, when the presidents and prime ministers have all gone home and the Sustainable Development Goals have been formally approved, what will have changed for the world’s three billion people living on less than $2.50 per day?

Whatever the limitations of the SDGs, the real challenge now is to support and promote their implementation. To succeed, progress needs to be scrutinized and governments held to account for the commitments they have made to the very communities and people whose lives they affect.

U.S. President Barack Obama addresses a plenary meeting of the United Nations Sustainable Development Summit 2015 at United Nations headquarters in Manhattan, New York, September 27, 2015.

© 2015 Reuters

On this front, there are reasons for concern. The mechanisms for monitoring and reviewing the post-2015 agenda are “vague and entirely voluntary,” according to one expert closely involved with the process.

How could they be improved? Start by including a regular, global review of progress on SDGs similar to the Universal Periodic Review of the United Nations Human Rights Council in which every government has to present its human rights record for scrutiny by other governments every five years. That can be supplemented with comprehensive reporting by governments, civil society groups and the UN system to ensure the most complete and credible analysis of progress.

But just as importantly, holding governments to account depends on open participation by civil society – at the local, national, regional and international levels. As the recent report of the special rapporteur for human rights defenders noted, those “promoting and defending rights relating to land, the environment and corporate responsibility” are the most vulnerable to attacks, intimidation, forced disappearances and other threats. These are the very people working on issues of just and sustainable development. Human Rights Watch’s own work has found that the World Bank has “done little to prevent or dissuade governments from intimidating critics of the projects it funds, or monitor for reprisals.” 

For the SDGs to have a chance to reach their lofty targets, governments and major international institutions, including development donors, both need to recognize that a vibrant civil society, a free media, genuinely democratic political processes, and an independent judiciary are essential for the impoverished and marginalized to be able to demand accountability for progress made - and not made. Ultimately, development has to mean enhanced freedom – especially for those at greatest risk.  


Building a Better World by ‘Righting’ Development

On September 25-27, global leaders will take a crucial step toward building a better world by adopting the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) 2015-2030 at a United Nations high-level summit in New York. The goals set out a far-reaching agenda to tackle poverty and promote environmentally sustainable economic development.

Child picking cotton in September 2012, Suyima Pakhtakor, Jizzakh.

© 2012 Uzbek-German Forum for Human Rights

Success is anything but assured, and bold action is needed. Deep inequalities and compounding threats of violence, climate change, and environmental degradation pose enormous challenges to the world and the poorest and most marginalized are bearing the brunt.

Human Rights Watch research over many years and across all regions has found that a lack of focus on human rights in economic growth and human development programs often reinforces and exacerbates exclusion, discrimination, and inequality. The poorest and most marginalized – women, people with disabilities, ethnic and religious minorities, children, LGBT people, and those furthest from centers of power and influence – are especially likely to be denied the benefits of economic progress or access to economic opportunities, resources, and services. And, these groups are often left out of discussions, decision-making, and planning of programs designed to enable them to reach their fullest potential.

Over the next two weeks in the lead-up to the UN Sustainable Development Summit, Human Rights Watch will be publishing a series of articles that bring a human – and human rights – focus to what is sometimes an abstract discussion around these goals. The central theme in the series is an insistence that human rights remain central to any discussion of sustainable development. That means that governments and international organizations should:

  • Allow people to meaningfully participate in decision-making that affects them, their families and communities; 
  • Strengthen accountability at national and international levels for delivering on commitments to inclusive, sustainable, and rights-respecting development; and
  • Collect data to monitor the progress of disadvantaged groups in meeting the SDGs.

This won’t be easy. And, the growing impact of climate change will place an increasing burden on governments struggling to meet their human rights obligations with limited resources and fragile or inadequate infrastructure.

But human rights are critical – whether the issue is sustainable cities or quality education. At the heart of these at times abstract discussions are real people, individuals who should enjoy their fundamental human rights and “live free of fear and want.”

Will the SDGs succeed? It’s uncertain. But one thing is sure – in 2030, when we look back and consider what good these goals have done, much will depend on how well we have respected the human rights of people living in poverty and whether the world and its new set of development goals were answerable to them.



Keeping Rights at the Center of Climate Change Debate

Xiuhtezcatl Martinez and his brother Itzcuauhtli were among the thousands who descended on New York last week for the Development Summit at the United Nations, a couple of indigenous teens from Colorado, artist-activists sharing their eco-tinged brand of hip hop.

The new village of Bildak in Ethiopia's Gambella region, which the semi-nomadic Nuer who were forcibly transferred there quickly abandoned in May 2011 because there was no water source for their cattle.

s © 2011 Human Rights Watch

They joined many voices – from Mary Robinson to the Pope – calling on governments to act to ensure climate action and human rights become integral parts of the post-2015 development agenda.

The Martinez brothers’ message is pretty simple: “Young people are standing up all over the planet, because we see that climate change is a human rights issue.”

The brothers are not wrong. The consequences for much of the earth’s population of a warming planet are already being felt. That’s why responses to climate change and human rights need to be at the center of any approach to sustainable development.

...responses to climate change and human rights need to be at the center of any approach to sustainable development.

Human rights bodies, scientists, governments, and civil society groups are already documenting the implications of climate change for human rights. Increasing temperatures and extreme weather events threaten people’s basic rights to water, food and health, especially in countries with limited resources and fragile ecosystems. For vulnerable populations and marginalized communities these events are often linked to the loss of lives, homes, and livelihoods.

After a strong push from civil society, governments have agreed to include both action on climate change and human rights in the post-2015 global development agenda. Goal 13 of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) calls for “urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts.” That makes sense because development efforts need to protect rights from the effects of climate change, particularly the rights of the most vulnerable communities.

But this work has just begun. So far, the integration of climate action and human rights has been rhetorical. To move from words to action, governments should ensure human rights become a central element of the future climate change agreement to be adopted in Paris later this year.






Opening up the Internet to Close the Poverty Gap

The Internet has become like “the air we breathe.”   It’s where many of us work, communicate, collaborate and solve problems.  There was a time when Internet access was really more of a luxury than basic need, but no longer.

But more than half the world – 4 of the 7 billion people on the planet today - do not have Internet access and have never gone online. 

Internet café in Lalibela, Amhara Region, Ethiopia.

© 2010 Hemis.fr/AFP Photo

This digital divide has huge implications for hopes of achieving the Sustainable Development Goals being finalized at this week’s UN summit. How will global inequality be reduced if Internet access is not available to most people?  How is it feasible to make progress on inclusive participation in governance decisions if Internet access is denied to most?

Since, the ability to access and share information is central to the enjoyment of core civil and political rights, such as freedom of expression and freedom of assembly and association, those without access to the internet, are at a huge disadvantage.

Internet access should also be recognized as an essential element in the right to education.  Those without Internet access lack a basic means of accessing information and communicating their ideas. Goal 4 of the SDGs – Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all –will fail if Internet access is not recognized as core to inclusive education.

Internet access should also be recognized as an essential element in the right to education.

Similarly, lack of Internet infrastructure and access bars many from participation in this global economic and problem solving activity.  Progress on Goal 8 of the SDGs – Promote sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, and Goal 10 of the SDGs  - Reduce Inequality Between and within countries – is not possible, if access to the Internet is not prioritized.  In fact, failure to dramatically expand Internet access could lead to a widening inequality gap, not the narrowing envisioned in the SDGs.

So it’s time to start recognizing that progress on SDGs depends on vastly expanded Internet access.  The eradication of poverty, ending hunger, ensuring healthy lives, achieving gender equality, preventing climate change, and promoting peaceful and sustainable societies cannot be accomplished without dramatic expansion of information communication technology infrastructure.  Work related to all of these goals rests upon Internet access for those who are most affected by these problems, and whose involvement in solving these problems is essential. 


Why Justice Matters for Development

It’s a no-brainer to say sustainable economic development requires stability. In its 2011 development report, the World Bank warned that “a major episode of violence, unlike natural disasters or economic cycles, can wipe out an entire generation of economic progress.” Moreover, “repeated cycles of violence” exact “human, social, and economic costs that last for generations.”

Displacement site at Yaloké, where 509 ethnic Peuhl Muslims are housed in government buildings in the town center in deplorable conditions.

© 2014 Zoe Flood for Human Rights Watch

But for many developing countries, stability remains fragile or elusive. It is no coincidence that many of the globe’s poorest countries – including Afghanistan, Mali, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and the Central African Republic, according to the World Bank – have been wracked by violence and horrific rights abuses. Society’s most vulnerable often pay the heaviest price.

Violence thrives where impunity is rampant, a conclusion supported by Human Rights Watch’s research in these countries. Leaving those responsible for grave crimes unaccountable sends the message that those in authority need not abide by the rule of law.

Impunity carries another cost: barring the marginalized from the benefits of economic development. In countries with rampant human rights violations, people’s economic security also becomes vulnerable. Without the rule of law, achieving economic progress, including the delivery of the sustainable development goals for the benefit of the poorest, will be stunted.

In countries with rampant human rights violations, people’s economic security also becomes vulnerable.

Donors should consider long-term, strategic investment in building key justice institutions – such as a competent, independent, and impartial judiciary; an impartial prosecution service; and a legal aid system to help indigent victims and defendants – to ensure accountability, especially for government rights violations. Justice that is fair and transparent can give victims a much-needed remedy, help marginalize and remove those acting unlawfully – who may be hindering good governance and economic development – and help dismantle criminal networks whose actions have far-reaching impact.

The benefits to developing societies of institutions that mete out credible justice extend beyond individual criminal trials.

Signaling there is a price to pay for serious violations of the law can deter future crimes. And using the law to place checks on the abusive actions of the powerful offers the best protection for those marginalized and is critically important for bringing economic justice.

Inclusive Education in India Key to Reducing Inequality

India has made significant progress on universalization of primary education, one of the 10 millennium development goals, after enacting the Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act in 2009. But the pursuit of these education goals also taught India and the world an important lesson: By focusing on enrollment alone, in an unequal society, it failed to ensure that children stay in school and receive quality education.

A primary school in Sonbhadra district, Uttar Pradesh. The school’s principal told Human Rights Watch that the tribal students are a “big problem.” “Their main aim is to come and eat, not to study,” she said. “Just see how dirty they are.”

© 2014 Yogesh Aggarwal/ Human Rights Watch


According to Indian government estimates, six million children are out of school – and more crucially, two out of five drop out before completing elementary schooling. Numbers are much higher for children from the disadvantaged Dalit (so-called untouchables), Muslim, and tribal communities. Ensuring access to education for children with disabilities remains a serious challenge. Discrimination against children from these most vulnerable communities, often first generation learners in their families, means the right-to-education law is failing those who need it the most. Lack of effective monitoring by authorities to check age-old prejudices by school staff means at worst, ill-treatment, and at best, neglect.

This month, India will commit to the new global development agenda for the next 15 years by endorsing the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). This is an opportunity to set things right, for India to shift focus from enrollment to inclusive, equitable, and quality education as envisioned in Goal 4.

The government should commit to “zero discrimination” in classrooms, train teachers to focus on inclusive learning practices that are effective, and ensure greater participation of children from marginalized communities and healthy interaction among children from different backgrounds. At the same time, the authorities need to develop guidelines to better identify and respond to discrimination in schools.

This is an opportunity to set things right, for India to shift focus from enrollment to inclusive, equitable, and quality education

Effective monitoring and accountability at both the domestic and the international level will be crucial to success. First there needs be better data collection on children who drop out, breaking it down by gender, social groups, and religious minorities among others. It needs a process to monitor and track children from enrollment to graduation and a consistent approach to identifying children who are out of school, have dropped out, or are at risk of dropping out.

Much is at stake here. The United Nations secretary-general has said “sustainable development begins with education.” The new agenda seeks to reduce inequality within and among countries and ensure equal opportunity for all. Here, India, which dominates the world’s poorest 10 percent, will have a critical role. Even as India’s wealth has risen in the last two decades, millions of families have been left behind. Unequal access to quality education perpetuates an impoverished underclass with sharply limited economic opportunity among other things. A country where a child spends her first years in school experiencing she is less worthy than others cannot hope to provide her equal access of opportunity when she grows up 15 years from now.

Safe and Inclusive Settlements Key to Tackling Displacement Crisis in Somalia

Faiso, a 34-year-old mother of nine, has been living in informal displaced people’s settlements in Somalia’s capital, Mogadishu, since the 2011 famine. In March this year, government forces violently evicted Faiso and her children – along with 20,000 other displaced people – from their settlement without warning.

A child surrounded by her family’s belongings during the massive forced eviction by Somali authorities of a displaced person’s camp in the Kadha (formerly Dharkenley) district of Mogadishu, Somalia on March 4, 2015.

© 2015 Private

“Now, we are sitting under tree, we have no shelter, no water, no toilets. Men and women all go to the toilet in the open air. There is no place to hide yourself, men can see us,” Faiso said.

So far, Somalia’s government has done little to protect or improve living conditions for Mogadishu’s displaced. Hundreds of thousands of people – most from historically marginalized clans and groups – are currently living in squalid settlements all over Mogadishu, where they face rape, beatings, and restrictions on access to humanitarian aid. Now, as land becomes more attractive to investors, to the diaspora and the government is keen to reclaim public land, the displaced face repeated forced evictions, often marked by brutality.

When world leaders meet in New York in September to discuss the post-2015 development goals, they should remember people like Faiso. Having sustainable cities will require a real commitment to tackling underlying inequality and discrimination that make displaced urban communities so vulnerable to abuse.

Those evicted in March 2015 were not offered any viable relocation or local integration options. Many told Human Rights Watch that the eviction cut them off from water, food, and meager day labor opportunities. Women were worried about being attacked or even raped by armed men along the route into Mogadishu.

Consulting with affected communities and allowing their participation in decisions is critical. Those criticizing government actions should not face reprisals, which is often the case in Somalia. The government should also be transparent in its decision-making, providing regular feedback to the communities.

Looking forward, the Somali authorities, with the help of international partners, should focus on building urban settlements that provide access to water, housing, food, education, healthcare, and employment for all. Authorities also need to think about how to provide safe transport links, particularly for the most vulnerable.

The Somali government has an opportunity here, but the international framework coming out of the Sustainable Development Summit should put Somalia’s authorities on notice that they need to do more to protect and improve the lives of their most vulnerable citizens.