Bergen Summer Research School
BSRS 2015 keynote

BSRS 2015: Sustainable development can be pursued with legal tools

A human rights based approach may make governments legally accountable for the political commitments made in the Sustainable Development Goals.

Siri Gloppen
DEVELOPMENT GOALS AS HUMAN RIGHTS Professor Siri Gloppen thinks that by looking at the SDGs in terms of human rights and law bring about opportunities, frees up the mind, creates agency and provides a place to go for individuals who are less powerful in the society.

Main content

In September, a new set of development goals – the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) – will be adopted by world leaders at the UN General Assembly. These goals will set out a shared vision for the development agenda up to 2030.

Professor Siri Gloppen has asked herself how one should meet the challenges presented in these 17 goals. She presented her views in a keynote lecture at the Bergen Summer Research School this week.

Watch Professor Gloppen’s keynote lecture

The SDGs are a set of targets for what the world should prioritize in terms of international development and a sustainable future.  They point to the need to simultaneously tackle issues of inequality; multidimensional poverty; decent livelihood for all; ecological sustainability; and climate change.

– The SDGs can also be read as a statement of what we owe to each other as human beings, both the people of today and future generations. This is also what human rights do. International human rights documents specify the rights that states and the international society is legally obliged to respect, protect and fulfil in order to respect the equal moral worth and dignity of all human beings, says Professor Gloppen.

She therefore thinks it is useful to read the SDGs with a human rights lens: as a commitment to prioritize moving the society towards respect for human rights, including social, economic and environmental rights.

– It is easy to become overwhelmed by the complex challenges of sustainable development, of creating decent lives for all without depleting the resources of the planet and destroying ecosystems. On the one hand these challenges require all countries to get their own institutions in shape to distribute resources and burdens in accordance with what sustainable development requires. At the same time, these challenges cannot be solved within individual states. Problems like climate change, ecological degradation and health problems, cut across borders, she says.

Making governments legally accountable

Gloppen has asked herself how we can utilise existing legal structures to play a role from below, and points to the scholarship on human rights and how various human right’s commitments have increasingly been enforced.

– For example, social and economic rights – to health, education, housing, food, water, sanitation and to a healthy environment – seemed purely aspirational thirty years back. They were seen to be about resources and politics, not law. But today they have a bite.

They have been taken to courts in all parts of the world and have gradually been enforced, both at the individual level and through the development of jurisprudence that obliges governments to give priority to these rights in their policies.

A human rights approach may thus provide a strategy for making governments legally accountable for the political commitments listed in the SDGs. 

– Abiding to human rights is something governments are obliged to do, not necessarily out of preference or choice. They have a duty to respect them and not to encroach upon these rights. They also have an obligation to protect them by regulating other actors so that they don’t encroach upon them. They have a duty to take steps to the maximum of their available resources to progressively realize the rights that cannot immediately be realized for all.

– More importantly, because it is a right, you can claim it. By thinking about them as rights and not purely as political decisions you create agency, says Professor Gloppen.

A human rights perspective also adds value as a diagnostic tool. It asks why rights violations occur and why some groups are worse off, and may thus aid the SDGs by pointing to structural change.

– A human rights approach asks how structures work and requires that people are enabled to participate in diagnosing the problem and help create solutions.

She thinks that by looking at the SDGs in terms of human rights and law it can help create and strengthen mechanisms of accountability,  both at the national as well as the international level, to keep this process moving towards the goals, and make the duty bearers forced to answer and justify the decisions that are made.

– It creates opportunities, frees up the mind, creates agency and provides a place to go for individuals who are less powerful in the society.

See other lectures from the Bergen Summer Research School 2015