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Keynote remarks by ASG Andrew Gilmour, OHCHR at the HLPF Plenary Session, Leaving no one behind: Are we succeeding?

Friday, 13 July 2018, 4:30 PM - 6:30 PM
Conference Room 4 United Nations, New York

Thank you.  It is an honour to speak at this event.

As you know, this is the first time that the HLPF has held a session on the central commitment of the 2030 Agenda to “leave no one behind”.  It is critically important to assess our progress.

That commitment of the SDGs to “leave no one behind” marks a momentous shift from the MDGs.  Along with the call for disaggregated data, it calls on us all to focus more on individual people and communities, and particularly those who are the most vulnerable and marginalized.  It requires a new way of working, to ensure that development works to the benefit of all, rather than just a few.  

Leaving no one behind is an affirmation of the principles that are central to human rights: equality and non-discrimination.  Indeed, the core aim of the SDGs, as agreed by all Member States in the 2030 Agenda, is to “realise the human rights of all”, to make our programmes people-centred.  

With both multilateralism and human rights taking such a pummelling at the moment, this core commitment of the SDGs seems a rare beacon of hope.  Along with today’s agreement on the Migration Compact.  

But are we succeeding?  Are we meeting this great pledge to leave no one behind?  

There has been incredible progress in some countries, regions and localities – some of which we have heard about in the plenary discussions this week.  And we will hear more during the Voluntary National Reports from Member States next week.

There are many good practices discussed in the thematic reviews during this HLPF of the goals important for sustainable and resilient societies.

However, according to the useful background paper (by the UN Committee for Development Policy) for this session, in overall terms, the answer is worryingly ‘Sorry, No’.  Actually, we are not on track for 2030.  We are falling behind in the required rate of progress.  

The problem is not just that some people are being ‘left’ behind, but that some people are being ‘pushed’ even further behind.  

Some are being pushed behind by the forces of globalization, technological advance, climate change, environmental degradation, austerity policies, and many forms of discrimination – as the risks and burdens are tragically, systematically and inequitably borne by our poorest and most marginalized communities.  

And some are being pushed even further behind, not so much by those impersonal forces of globalization, but rather by very up close and personal and deliberate policies.  For example, when they are dispossessed of their lands, property, water and other resources.  On Wednesday, for example, we heard from representatives of indigenous peoples who have been displaced, often violently, from their lands to make way for dams, hydroelectric power plants and other infrastructure projects.  And while, in principle they support the push for renewable energy, they are rarely accorded the opportunity to participate in decision-making, to give free, prior and informed consent to projects on their lands, or even to benefit from the energy produced.  

Often people are not even allowed to protest.  They lose not only their livelihoods, but pay the ultimate price by losing their lives.  I won’t forget visiting last year the family of Berta Caceres, killed in Honduras for campaigning against a hydroelectric dam and the logging of the lands of her indigenous community.  Brave environmental and human rights defenders – some of whom are in this room – put themselves at risk, even when they are only trying to make the point that they too should benefit from development, and not be left behind.

Just this week, we’ve seen troubling footage of Palestinians being expelled from villages in the West Bank, their houses demolished.  Institutionalized discrimination against the Rohingya in another case in point - illustrating that some people are being pushed further behind as a result of deliberate policy.  

These forces are often described as inevitable; their negative impacts the collateral damage of achieving greater economic growth or security.  But people who write in such terms are invariably part of the elite, connected to the powerful and the opinion-makers – never those actually affected.

For them and for us, these processes are not inevitable – they are man-made and thus can be changed.  We can change the policies, we can challenge the rules of the economic game, we can protect human rights, and we can ensure that the risks and benefits are shared more equally.  Indeed, the SDGs require that we do so.  

Leaving no one behind means focusing on ensuring that development benefits all people in all countries.  And, as the background paper emphasises, it also means focusing attention not only on those at the bottom, but also on those at the top – that is, on inequalities, both within and between countries.  

Our economic model is producing more wealth than ever before, but this wealth is not being equitably shared.  Far from it.
You have heard the incredible statistic from Oxfam that the top 1% captured 82% of all of the growth in global wealth in 2017, whereas the poorest 50% of the global population (3.7 billion people) saw their share of total global wealth increase by less than 1% – they are being left further behind. 

As labour rights weaken, more of the profits of economic growth are flowing to shareholders and CEOs, at the expense of the wages of workers.  So, for example, the income of a CEO of a top fashion brand in just 4 days would be more than the wage of a Bangladeshi garment worker working her whole life.  

As the ILO has pointed out, the labour share of GDP has been falling for 25 years and this trend is continuing, leaving workers further behind. 
“Trickle-down” economics has proved to be a spectacular oxymoron.  “Torrent-up” economics far better describes the realities of wealth distribution.  

Inequality is a human rights issue.   We need to talk more about economic, social and cultural rights – and embed these rights more deeply in our economic model.  Extreme economic inequality affects not only economic rights, but also civil and political rights – not only in less developed countries but also in the most advanced, industrialised countries in the North.

When we talk about inequalities and leaving no one behind, we cannot focus only on issues of economic inequality and poverty.  There is no getting away from the fact that a major cause of people being left behind is due to persistent forms of discrimination, including gender discrimination, which leave individuals, families and whole communities marginalised, excluded and left behind.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights proclaimed that “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights”.   This year is the 70th Anniversary of that noble document.

Less significantly perhaps, it is also the 73rd anniversary of the publication of George Orwell’s allegorical satire Animal Farm, which first came up with the phrase that: All are equal – “but some are more equal than others.”

Men’s wages are still substantially higher than women’s wages across the world.  People with disabilities are still often segregated out from our societies as if they cannot contribute, when this is so far from the truth.  Migrants across the world are treated as criminals simply for seeking a better life.  The LGBTI community are denied their identity. Older persons are ignored despite their wisdom, young people excluded for their inexperience, and so it goes on. 

And we are living in a moment where we see powerful actors fanning the flames of discrimination, racism, xenophobia and other forms of intolerance, to cement their hold over power.   

We are simultaneously witnessing a shutting down of civic space in many countries. A closing down of debate and dialogue, the criminalization of dissent, and an attack on fundamental freedoms of expression and association.   

Even participating in UN discussions can be dangerous for some of our civil society partners, with increasing numbers of them falling victim to clear reprisals, as a result of their engagement with us.  Yet participation and partnership will be critical for the success of this Agenda.

So, are we succeeding in meeting the promise to leave no one behind?

Yes, in key areas, we have made some progress, but overall, we are still lagging behind.

This absolutely does not mean that we can’t catch up.   But to do that, and to realize the promise of ‘leaving no one behind’, we will have to move beyond a technical focus on reaching the poorest of the poor (important though that is).  What’s needed is a broader collective challenge to the real obstacles lying in the path of the SDGs, and this requires tackling discrimination and inequalities in all their forms.

Thank you again for the opportunity to speak on this truly vital topic.