UN Sustainable Development Goals

Human Rights or the Way of the Dodo?

12 November 2015

By Allan Lerberg Jorgensen

Make your choice now for a better world by 2030.

In September this year, world leaders rallied in New York to sign off on the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. This is a good plan – but it requires a step-change. And the greatest leap must be taken by business.

"It's not earth that's in trouble. It's the people that live on it. Earth will be here long after we've all gone the way of the Dodo", muses my favourite song by The Streets.

Unlike the Dodo, there are no signs that humanity is declining in numbers. But if by humanity we mean a global community where every woman, man and child can live in freedom and dignity, then I side with The Streets: the danger signs are all around.
Man-made climate change is threatening millions most of whom have nothing to do with causing it in the first place. This is fuelling poverty and conflict, threatening to turn the current refugee and migration crisis into a desperate new normal. Suppression of human rights defenders is reaching new levels in a world, where freedom rights are in decline for the eighth consecutive year. Amid a faltering global economy harrowed by youth unemployment, 20 million new jobs must be created every year just to keep up with the threat of another lost generation. And these need to be decent jobs lest we further swell the ranks of the working poor and fuel galloping inequality where a busload of super rich own more wealth than the 3.5 billion poorest of their fellow citizens put together.    

The world desperately needs transformational change. And in September this year, world leaders rallied in New York to announce the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development - the plan to save humanity from itself. This is a good plan - probably the best plan that anyone could have hoped for. But if it is to work it needs to be implemented in fifth gear and at full throttle. There is no time for incrementalism. This means a step-change for everyone and the greatest leap must be taken by business.

The numbers speak for themselves. According to various estimates the annual bill for the 17 Sustainable Development Goals will be somewhere around USD 4-7 trillion - or around five percent of global GDP. By contrast, aid from developed countries amounts to around USD 140 billion annually. So who and what are going to pick up the slack?

The good news is that for anyone looking to finance a good cause there are plenty of places to start. Under the Addis Ababa Action Agenda, governments have resolved to start with themselves. Better tax collection could by some estimates generate USD 1 trillion annually for developing countries. Greening public procurement could direct a massive 12 percent of OECD GDP in a sustainable direction. The global cost of corruption has been put at a whopping USD 5 trillion every year. Imagine if all that money was put to better use. Then add the opportunity cost of inequality and discrimination. The OECD has shown that a 3-point rise in a country's Gini coefficient, a measure of income inequality, will reduce economic growth by 0,35 percent of GDP.

So while the challenges are staring us in the face, so are the opportunities. The means of implementation are there, we just need to grab it.

We have the solutions right at our fingertips. In the 2030 Agenda, States have agreed with remarkable clarity that sustainable development will only succeed if it is guided by human rights. In other words, States are starting to figure out what others have known for years: human rights are not a cost - they are an asset. Human rights are an enabler of sustainable development, including economic development: Human rights are the key to creating decent jobs that feed mouths and generate taxes (Goal 8). They are the key to having the kind of effective institutions needed for a stable and transparent business environment (Goal 16). And human rights are the key to enabling and empowering women and other marginalised groups to contribute to the economy (Goals 5 and 10).

This is the business case for human rights writ large. Getting political and business leaders to understand and accept this is truly transformational.

Business has the capacity to drive the kind of change for which states have now so clearly expressed their demand. But for this to work, the role of business in the 2030 Agenda has to be about much more than a scaled up version of philanthropy and clever solutions. It has to be about the very rules of the game for how business is done in the first place.

Unanimously endorsed by the UN Human Rights Council in 2011, the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights are the perfect companion to the 2030 Agenda. As the world's only global, politically agreed standard for responsible business, the Guiding Principles are an indispensable enabler of sustainable economic development. But given the urgency of the job, a step-change is required in the pace of their implementation. The current trickle of government action plans needs to become a global flood of legal and administrative reform for responsible business practice. The vanguard of corporate leaders committed to responsible business must grow from the hundreds to the hundreds of thousands. Corporate accountability for human rights wrongs must be the rule and not the exception.

For policy makers and practitioners in the field of responsible business, important work now lies ahead to drive this development. A shared agenda for action is required for this. In its recent State of Play report, the Institute for Human Rights and Business (IHRB) has provided a first framing of the task at hand. And at the UN Annual Forum on Business and Human Rights next week, I will be convening a panel of experts, including from IHRB, to further unpack the role of responsible business in the 2030 Agenda.

So what’s it going to be - human rights or the way of the Dodo? Returning to my favourite Streets song - it is all about leadership: "if you don't know where you're going then any road will take you there. Where you go first I'll follow suit. I'm right behind you but don't expect me to ride like it's a race". With the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development we do actually know where we are going. It is now up to all of us to choose the right path and lead the way. 

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