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Remarks by ASG Brands Kehris at the HLPF High-Level Side event on SDG16+: A United Framework to Build Forward Better

Global SDG16+ Coalition side event at HLPF 2021

Wednesday, July 14 8:00 AM - 9:00 AM EDT

Distinguished colleagues and friends,

I wish to thank the organizers – the SDG 16 Plus Coalition, the Global Alliance for Reporting Progress on Peaceful, Just and Inclusive Societies and the Permanent Missions of Sierra Leone, the United Kingdom and Canada – for convening us today.

It is a real privilege to join you. I am particularly grateful for the opportunity to address the topic of SDG16+ and the COVID-19 recovery from the perspective of the Call to Action for Human Rights.

First, I wish to stress two fundamental premises: First, the 2030 Agenda and the Sustainable Development Goals are grounded in human rights. Second, achieving the ambition of the 2030 Agenda requires the engagement of all of us, including Member States, civil society, the entire UN system, and the private sector. The Call to Action for Human Rights emphasizes the urgency of action on the common vision to accelerate progress by placing human rights at the core of sustainable development.  Our collective effort is imperative – only by joining forces will we ultimately see change and real impact for real people on the ground.

As the Secretary-General underscored on the one-year anniversary of the Call to Action this February, the COVID-19 recovery is a “unique and historic” opportunity to forge a world where everyone is afforded dignity and all societies can withstand crises. This is exactly why SDG-16 on promoting peace, justice and strong, inclusive institutions is so critical for building forward better – and the Call to Action for Human Rights is a framework to help us achieve it.

The concept of SDG-16 plus is particularly persuasive in this regard.

It acknowledges that a rule of law-based approach to the recovery must be founded on public confidence and trust in the institutions of governance – which, in turn, depends on their ability to respect human rights and uphold the principles of accountability, transparency and participation. SDG-16 Plus also advances the understanding that development is a highly complex process that requires integrated approaches and protection of all human rights; civil, cultural, economic, political and social rights.

This is at the very heart of the Call to Action for Human Rights.

The Call to Action is a transformative vision, launched precisely to respond to our times’ erosion of trust between people and States. It seeks to restore the social contract by committing all of us – including each and every actor in the UN system – to place human rights at the center of everything we do. It recalls the indivisibility of rights, and that all rights set out in 1948 Universal Declaration form a universally agreed foundation for sustaining both peace and development.  

I will therefore focus my remarks on four priorities identified under the Call to Action that are of particular relevance to building trust and accelerating SDG-16: Public participation and civic space; rights at the core of sustainable development; gender equality and equal rights for women; and rights in times of crisis.

First, the Call to Action recognizes that our societies and institutions are stronger and more legitimate when harnessing diversity and drawing on a pluralism of views. To apply this principle to the UN itself, we are now implementing the first ever UN system-wide Guidance Note on civic space, emphasizing participation of civil society, promotion of freedoms of expression, assembly and association, and protection of civil society actors. 

The increase in restrictions of fundamental freedoms during the pandemic – often under the guise of emergency measures or under the pretext of counter-terrorism efforts – has added urgency to this task. Building forward better, the Call to Action is therefore mobilizing the entire UN System to promote meaningful and inclusive participation of civil society actors in public policy- and decision making and to protect human rights defenders.

Second, it is imperative that all rights are central in efforts to implement the 2030 Agenda and the COVID-19 recovery.  Under the Call to Action, swift action was taken early on to assess the integration of human rights in the UN’s COVID-19 Socio-economic Response Plans.  We are now developing a range of tools and support structures to fully integrate human rights, gender equality and the principle of Leaving no one behind in the UN’s development efforts, including in Common Country Analyses and the Cooperation Frameworks.

Third, the Call to Action underscores – as a guiding principle – that human rights will never be realized without a special emphasis on the human rights of women. We have identified five concrete actions to that end: Repealing all discriminatory laws; ensuring equal representation of women everywhere; supporting women’s economic inclusion; addressing violence against women; and, finally, making space for the intergenerational transition underway by supporting young women leaders who call for justice.

To ensure that all UN colleagues have the support needed to help States achieve these objectives, we have developed a Checklist on Eliminating Laws that Discriminate against Women and Girls, and key messages on Temporary Special Measures. The increase in domestic violence in many parts of the world during the pandemic is a cry for accelerated action. Also because we know that violence against women can also be a predictor of whether a society is generally prone to violent conflict.

This speaks directly to SDG16 targets on peace – to reduce all forms of violence and related death rates everywhere – but also its targets on justice – to promote rule of law and access to justice.

That brings me to a fourth priority of the Call to Action: rights in times of crisis. Under that theme, we seek to improve the UN’s collective responsibility to ensure protection of the individual – at all times. It emphasizes the centrality of human rights in preventing conflicts and crisis. Rights-based prevention is the best form of protection.  This links directly with SDG-16: without justice there is no credible commitment, or path, to peace.

If anything, the pandemic has really made evident this truism: The disastrous impact of COVID-19, especially among minority groups and other already marginalized groups, could have been avoided if our health, justice and social protection systems were more equal, less discriminatory and more accessible to all.

That is why the Secretary-General early on defined the pandemic as a human rights crisis. And to build forward better, human rights must be front and center.

And this is why, as we move forward in a new phase of the Call to Action, human rights leadership and engagement at the country-level are our cornerstones. We look forward to joining efforts in realizing its transformative vision and achieving sustainable development and peace.

I thank you.