Human Rights and the 2030 Agenda

Speech at The 2019 Annual Trygve Lie Symposium on Fundamental Freedoms on Human Rights and the 2030 Agenda

September 26, 2019

As prepared for delivery


Her Excellency, Minister of Foreign Affairs of Norway, Ms. Ine Eriksen Søreide,

The Honourable Kevin Rudd,


Fellow panellists and colleagues,

I would like to express my gratitude to the International Peace Institute and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Norway for inviting the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) to participate in this symposium in honour of the UN’s first Secretary-General, Trygve Lie -- who championed the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

The fundamental principle enshrined in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights was that human beings are born free and equal -- both in rights and in dignity.

This ideal is as relevant and as pressing today as it was when nations emerged from the shadow of the devasting effects of the Second World War -- and together vowed to protect the rights and dignity of all people.

Indeed, I believe that the Declaration of Human Rights is one of the most beautiful pieces of vision, ambition and commitment ever articulated.

Those principles are also very much reflected in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development that sets out to ensure that:

“…all human beings can fulfil their potential in dignity and equality and in a healthy environment”.

Development and Human Rights

The 2030 Agenda is grounded in human rights. Indeed, according to the Danish Institute for Human Rights, over 90 per cent of the 169 Sustainable Development Goals’ (SDG) targets are in some way connected to international human rights and labour standards.

We also know that human rights approaches are essential to the 2030 Agenda’s central pledge to leave no one behind -- to provide more sustainable and effective development outcomes through the promotion of empowerment, inclusiveness and equal opportunity.   

Thus, the relationship between human rights and the 2030 Agenda is very clear.

Indeed, for the development community including the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) -- human rights are the very foundation on which our work is built.  
When we reach out to empower the poorest and the most vulnerable, when we support governments to build strong, just and inclusive institutions.

When we support the provision of essential services and infrastructure, we are helping to put in place the necessary conditions for people to live lives of dignity and opportunity.

Development that places human rights at its core is the only way that we can truly achieve a sustainable future -- and without addressing some of the fundamental challenges we face in terms of sustainable development, human rights cannot be fulfilled.

Concerning Trends

71 years on from the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, those rights remain a bedrock of the United Nations’ mission and mandate. However, in many places around the world, concerning trends are hindering human rights and the achievement of the SDGs.

Thus, safeguarding them requires our close attention and vigilance.

Conflicts have risen 300 per cent since 2010. UNHCR found that over 70 million children, women and men were forcibly displaced at the close of 2018 -- the highest number in the organization’s almost 70-year history. Injustice caused by conflicts is on the rise.

In many contexts, we are witnessing a contraction of civic space and an increase in attacks on human rights defenders -- including environmental human rights defenders.

Commitments to multilateralism are being rolled back -- including, in some places, the commitment to human rights and justice.

Younger generations are correctly educating the adult world and advancing the notion that the climate crisis is also an issue of justice.

Human Rights: The Need to Focus on some Key Areas

The uneven progress across the SDG 16 indicators is a particular cause for concern considering its critical role as an accelerator across the Agenda. This creates urgency in putting increase focus on how to accelerate progress on SDG 16.

At UNDP, we are driven by trying to understand what barriers people face to realising their human rights, and how to best lend our support in their quest to overcome them. We believe that there is a need to concentrate on some key areas:

1.    Firstly, we must pay attention to countries which are being left behind in achieving the SDGs, including SDG 16. These are countries where data is often difficult to gather; where progress on the indicators faces many challenges, which are often taken for granted in other contexts; and where large investments in capacities is required. However, even in complex contexts such as the Central African Republic, UNDP is supporting efforts to coordinate data collection and analysis to report on SDG 16. Investments are also sorely needed in rights-based data and governance statistics systems.    

2.    Secondly, we need to “unpack” the progress being reported by each country at the aggregate-level. We need to focus on leaving no one behind and “go behind” the numbers to understand which groups are not making progress; who doesn’t have access to services; and which groups are disproportionately affected in terms of numbers in pre-trial detention, for example.

National Human Rights Institutions (NHRIs) which work on the frontline to defend, protect and promote human rights -- help to go beyond aggregates and show a clearer picture of how different groups are progressing.  However, the progress towards establishment of NHRIs is too slow -- only seven countries have established new NHRIs since 2015. At the current rate, only 54 per cent of countries will have these critical institutions by 2030. UNDP is working with 40 countries -- often with the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) – to help these institutions thanks to support provided by the Government of Norway. Much more can and should be done to support these vital institutions.

3.    Thirdly, where there is progress -- we cannot take it for granted. UNDP is working to deepen and broaden meaningful spaces for civic participation particularly for marginalized and vulnerable groups. This is key to foster “civic space resilience’ to ensure that civil liberties and human rights progress are less vulnerable to reversals.

Examples of UNDP’s varied support in the Human Rights field

Earlier this year, UNDP was pleased to participate in the Human Rights Council intersessional which showcased many good practices and highlighted the increase in the focus of the SDGs by human rights mechanisms. This includes Special Procedures  in their thematic and country reports -- which are invaluable resources for our Country Offices and UN Country Teams.  

We also need to more efficiently support governments to utilize reporting on progress in the human rights field in their Voluntary National Reviews and SDG implementation plans -- and vice versa, as we have done with Paraguay. This is also the focus of a regional collaboration that we are undertaking with the Office of the OHCHR in Cape Verde and Panama.

UNDP keenly understands that our global work on strengthening human rights is only sustainable when it is grounded in dynamic, multi-stakeholder, and cross-sectoral partnerships. Across the UN System, we are working together to integrate the political and development dimensions of these efforts. For example, that includes our work convening stakeholders and supporting the Guiding Principles for Business and Human Rights in 11 countries in Asia.

Demand-driven support that is provided at the request of national counterparts -- helps to ensure that the political environment enables transformative change. This principle is reflected in all of UNDP’s efforts in this area. To take one example, our Global Programme on Strengthening the Rule of Law and Human Rights for Sustaining Peace and Fostering Development makes varied and valued contributions to strengthen the rule of law and human rights in nearly 40 crisis-affected contexts around the world.

UNDP is also committed to taking advantage of innovation including the use of technology in the human rights and rule of law arenas. For example, an accessible, straightforward mobile/cell phone app known as Your Rights -- is helping displaced people and survivors of sexual and gender-based violence in Ukraine to access comprehensive tools to seek the restoration of their rights.


In closing today, I would like to convey a simple message: an unjust world cannot deliver the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

We must act now, and we must act together to achieve peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development -- societies which provide access to justice for all and have effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels which protect the rights and dignity of all people.

In this respect, I believe that now is the time to scale-up and make a concerted push for results. The United Nations Development Programme’s commitment to both human rights and the achievement of the SDGs is unwavering – and we will continue to offer tailored support to governments at their request.

To me, it is very clear that advancing human rights is a long-term investment in people, peace and the planet -- an outlay that will pay massive dividends.

Therefore, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is much more than noble idealism. Indeed, the rights it enshrines protect individuals, communities, and ultimately the respect and social cohesion that binds us together.

Together with the 2030 Agenda, human rights provide a pathway to a world free of discrimination and exclusion, a world of peace and sustainable prosperity -- a world in which no one is left behind.