UN human rights chief welcomes MDG summit outcome and notes some gaps

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navanethem Pillay

23 September 2010 – The United Nations human rights chief has described as “a very significant advance” the outcome document of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) summit, but noted a number of gaps in some aspects of the global plan of action to eradicate poverty and end social-economic inequality.

Navi Pillay, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, said the strong emphasis on human rights “can help fill critical gaps” in development strategies for reaching the MDGs.

“A human rights perspective provides critical guidance to visualize who has been left out, and to understand and address the reasons why,” Ms. Pillay said as the three-day MDGs summit at UN Headquarters concluded late yesterday.

During the summit the High Commissioner had emphasized that States should take a human rights-based approach to the MDGs, which would mean that development and aid policies should explicitly prioritize the needs of the poorest and most excluded people.

But she stressed that with their emphasis on global average targets, the MDGs often neglect large segments of the world’s population, and may unwittingly exacerbate existing inequalities.

She said the Action Agenda segment of the outcome document repeatedly calls for universal access to basic social services, which is a vital corrective to what many perceive as the un-ambitious nature of certain MDG targets, many of which only aim at a proportion of those affected.

As an example of a shortcoming in strategy, she pointed to Goal 5 – which aims to reduce by three-quarters the maternal mortality ratio – and noted that more than 350,000 women and girls die each year from pregnancy or childbirth.

“Can you imagine setting a target that would explicitly allow for 125,000 summary executions each year, or 125,000 cases of torture?” Ms. Pillay asked. “The implication seems to be that the lives of women are still considered to be less worthy. This is a rallying call for us to attack inequality with greater vigour.”

Ms. Pillay said that the action plan detailed in the outcome document also repeatedly calls for analysis and assault on the “root causes” of lack of access to basic services, including barriers caused by discrimination. However, she said, there is no explicit requirement that States repeal discriminatory laws.

She said the principle of participation, for example, is reflected strongly in relation to the empowerment of women, but there is no explicit recognition of participation as a right, and no specific commitments to guarantee freedom of expression and association or other human rights guarantees necessary for active, free and meaningful participation.

Issues of accountability, good governance and the rule of law are referred to in a number of contexts, she said, but in relation to MDG 8, which mandates a global partnership for development, there is still a critical accountability defect because it lacks time-bound targets.

She said that a particular shortcoming in the action plan relates to slum dwellers, one of the targets of MDG 7. She argued that wording in the plan could be interpreted as prioritizing slum clearance policies rather than slum upgrading policies, with no reflection of the right to security of tenure – a critical right for slum dwellers.

That, she added, could lead to States to focus on slum clearance and forced evictions as MDG 7 policy measures, undermining the right to adequate housing under human rights treaties.

Ms. Pillay, however, stressed that the gaps can be filled by human rights treaty commitments, as the action plan itself stipulates.

The High Commissioner offered the support of her Office to States willing to integrate human rights into their development and aid policies.

“We have made more than enough promises to the poor and marginalized,” she said. “The challenge now is implementation.”


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