Ireland can make its mark on UN development goals

Global development must be based on human rights and justice rather than charity

Ireland is taking centre stage at United Nations talks in New York that will determine the future course of global development. Photograph: Stan Honda/AFP/Getty Images.

Ireland is taking centre stage at United Nations talks in New York that will determine the future course of global development. Photograph: Stan Honda/AFP/Getty Images.

 

At the same time as Taoiseach Enda Kenny has been urged by Oxfam to “drive concrete discussion’’ on tackling global inequality at the world economic forum in Davos, Ireland is taking centre stage at United Nations talks in New York that will determine the future course of global development.

Ireland was appointed, alongside Kenya, as co-facilitator of the post-2015 sustainable development negotiations. These talks, which started last week, will have a crucial impact on a broad range of economic, social and environmental challenges – from poverty and gender equality to democratic governance and environmental sustainability.

The negotiations will culminate in a new global framework, to be adopted in September 2015, replacing the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) – a set of eight objectives agreed back in 2001 which expire this year.

Over the past 18 months a resounding consensus has emerged from civil society worldwide that human rights be incorporated into the very core of the new agenda. Underpinning this call is the understanding that the future sustainable development promises must be based on a model of justice rather than the failed charity-based approach of the past.

Human rights

During deliberations of the Open Working Group on the Sustainable Development Goals, the Irish Government made a strong stand for human rights to be central. The 17 goals do reflect some important human rights principles. For example, there is a “zero target” approach to ending extreme poverty, child mortality and other forms of deprivation, and a call for robust measures to counter inequality. The document also requires universal application in both developed and developing countries, all the more important when the majority of poor people live in middle-income countries, and ill-conceived austerity measures are increasing poverty and inequality in many wealthier nations such as Ireland.

Where the proposals are still weak is in ensuring accountability – the cornerstone of the human rights approach. Ordinary people must be able to hold governments to account for development commitments, and states should be subject to mandatory periodic reviews of their progress on development objectives, which should be fully and explicitly aligned with their internationally agreed commitments to human rights – whether civil, political, social, economic, cultural or environmental.

Moreover, the new framework must take a truly universal approach if it is to deliver on its promises, one that recognises that the actions of one state can severely constrain the ability of others to fulfil their commitments. As such, all states should also be subject to independent assessments and periodic public reporting on the human rights and sustainable development impacts of their policies beyond their borders. Ireland is already ahead of the game in some regards, having committed to carry out impact assessments on the international effects of its taxation regime, but it must now push for such measures to be implemented in other areas, both by itself and other nations.

Corporate accountability

In a similar vein, it’s not just governments, but also international financial institutions and, crucially, private sector actors, that must be held to account. While the business sector doubtless has a crucial part to play in development, it must also be answerable for harm caused by its activities. The current proposals are woefully lacking in recognition of these risks, and fail to include even minimal provisions for corporate accountability and respect for human rights standards.

Another fundamental question is that of financing future development. A human rights-based approach suggests primary emphasis be placed on public funding, including through progressive tax and real commitment to combat tax evasion – a major drain on the resources available to combat poverty and inequality. Governments supporting human rights in theory will need to bring these fresh perspectives into the debates on how to ensure that financing is equitable and accountable in practice.

With the wellbeing of both current and future generations hanging in the balance, it is essential the Irish Government stand by its oft-stated commitment to human rights – domestically as well as abroad. The final phase of the “post-2015 process” offers one of those rare moments when a small nation like Ireland can influence the lives and wellbeing of people everywhere.

Luke Holland is researcher and communications co-ordinator at the Center for Economic and Social Rights in New York

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