SDG Report 2020: The Civil, Political, Economic, Social, Cultural, and Development Rights Crises Deepening in the Global South

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The United Nations recently released its Sustainable Development Goals Report 2020, and the results are expectedly grim during this global pandemic.  Not only has the world fallen well off track from Agenda 2030 objectives – including the eradication of poverty – but the deepening inequalities within the Global South augur even worse outcomes for the most vulnerable populations on the planet: children, women, the elderly, disabled, informal sector workers, communities already experiencing extreme poverty, refugees and migrants.  Development aid has already been on the decline globally for several years, whether from ‘Global North’ countries (such as the UK; United States; Australia; Canada) or behemoth ‘Global South‘ countries (such as China, Brazil), fueling resounding warnings about “the end of aid“.  In a nutshell, the UN summarizes some of the key 2020 SDG findings as:

  • “An estimated 71 million people are expected to be pushed back into extreme poverty in 2020, the first rise in global poverty since 1998. Lost incomes, limited social protection and rising prices mean even those who were previously secure could find themselves at risk of poverty and hunger.
  • Underemployment and unemployment due to the crisis mean some 1.6 billion already vulnerable workers in the informal economy – half the global workforce – may be significantly affected, with their incomes estimated to have fallen by 60 per cent in the first month of the crisis.
  • The more than one billion slum dwellers worldwide are acutely at risk from the effects of COVID-19, suffering from a lack of adequate housing, no running water at home, shared toilets, little or no waste management systems, overcrowded public transport and limited access to formal health care facilities.
  • Women and children are also among those bearing the heaviest brunt of the pandemic’s effects. Disruption to health and vaccination services and limited access to diet and nutrition services have the potential to cause hundreds of thousands of additional under-5 deaths and tens of thousands of additional maternal deaths in 2020. Many countries have seen a surge in reports of domestic violence against women and children. 
  • School closures have kept 90 per cent of students worldwide (1.57 billion) out of school and caused over 370 million children to miss out on school meals they depend on. Lack of access to computers and the internet at home means remote learning is out of reach of many. About 70 countries reported moderate to severe disruptions or a total suspension of childhood vaccination services during March and April of 2020.  
  • As more families fall into extreme poverty, children in poor and disadvantaged communities are at much greater risk of child labour, child marriage and child trafficking. In fact, the global gains in reducing child labour are likely to be reversed for the first time in 20 years.” (Emphasis mine.)

What the SDG annual report does not capture, however, is the unraveling and worsening human rights crises ubiquitously occurring throughout countries in the ‘Global South’, and the growing normalization of human rights violations that populations are being made to tolerate (if not accept) during this indefinite emergency under a vaccine-less COVID-19 pandemic thus far.

Worsening human rights situations in countries within the ‘Global South’ 

The recently launched Global Monitor of COVID-19’s Impact on Democracy and Human Rightsa joint project of the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA) and the European Union, powerfully maps the proliferation of worsening human rights situations throughout the ‘Global South’, reporting from five dimensions: (1) representative government; (2) fundamental rights; (3) checks on government; (4) impartial administration; and (5) participatory engagement.  The red circles in the map above indicate reported worsening of human rights situations and erosions of democracy, most of which are concentrated in the ‘Global South’ countries in Asia, Africa, and Latin America:

Much as the United Nations in its “COVID-19 and Human Rights: We Are All In This Together” has publicly touted human rights as the central premise of global campaign to cooperate on COVID-19 responses, its reinforcement of human rights is primarily at the level of recognition and promotion of human rights law.  The United Nations’ 2020 document, “The Highest Aspiration: A Call to Action for Human Rights“, outlines this predominantly recognition and promotion-based strategy, while remaining significantly quiet on human rights enforcement, human rights reparations, and strengthening human rights accountability. 

The United Nations’ seeming de-emphasis of human rights accountability, reparations, and enforcement, in my view, suggests that the United Nations implicitly yields to the more nationalist rhetoric of more authoritarian (or authoritarianism-inclined) States zealous of asserting exclusive authority and jurisdiction over human rights violations against populations during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Human Rights Watch observed, earlier this February 2020, that UN Secretary-General is “strong on ideas” but does not actually focus on human rights implementation.) Ceding the routes for international monitoring, accountability, reparations, and enforcement wholly to the wherewithal of individual governments and politicians does not bode well for the prospects of preserving and protecting human rights and democracy – especially in the Global South – from steady erosion.  The UN cannot afford to retreat, and must instead even increase, international human rights monitoring, accountability mechanisms, human rights reparations efforts, and opening even more paths to human rights enforcement and justice mechanisms in this time of greatest need.

A Time to Rethink Current Limitations of UN Human Rights Protection

The United Nations has a well-entrenched architecture for human rights protection, but quite a mixed record of effectiveness and efficacy in assisting in individual human rights victims. The UN’s intergovernmental Human Rights Council’s has a 13-year old Complaint Procedure, but  the significant majority of its 16 situations examined thus far have dismally resulted in the Council’s discontinuance of consideration of the complaints therein.  The nine main human rights-based treaty bodies (the Human Rights Committee; the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights; the Committee Against Torture; the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination; the Committee on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women; the Committee on the Rights of the Child; the Committee on Enforced Disappearances; the Committee on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and their Families; and the Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities) are well known for the vast expertise of those comprising such bodies, but they are also burdened by: 1) jurisdictional limitations under their respective inter-State or individual communications procedures, which cannot compel or enforce compliance by States; 2) the fewer number of States that have agreed to optional protocols to the major human rights treaties that enable such inter-State or individual communications procedures to be opened against them; and 3) the more pedestrian bureaucratic issues facing any international organization, such as the limitations of these bodies’ operational budgets and the harder work of achieving cooperation with States under examination from these redress procedures.  While the UN treaty bodies have achieved so much in the elaboration and authoritative interpretation of their corresponding treaties, their actual impact on individual human rights victims’ pursuit of reparative justice is debatable, if not cautiously measured.  A crystal example is the 7 January 2020 View of the Human Rights Committee, which dealt with the communication submitted by Mr. Ioane Teitiota against New Zealand in regard to his deportation back to Kiribati.  The UN press release hailed this decision of the Human Rights Committee as having “opened the door” to climate refugee asylum claims, but on the merits the Human Rights Committee did not actually find in favor of Mr. Teitiota’s suit and declined to find that New Zealand had violated his right to life by deporting him and his family back to Kiribati – whose very existence is directly imperiled by climate change.  While the Human Rights Committee laudably elaborated on the right to life as directly threatened by climate change, in Mr. Teitiota’s case the Committee required a high threshold of evidence to show that he was under imminent risk of the arbitrary deprivation of his life with deportation back to Kiribati (paras. 9.12 to 9.13).  

The current limitations of jurisdiction, lack of enforcement, and limited scope of possible individualized or customized reparations available for human rights victims under the UN Human Rights Protection system will be of even greater concern for countries in the ‘Global South’ during this global pandemic.  At a time when so many populations in the Global South are: 1) under lockdown or quarantine restrictions (even on pain of police shooting or brutality for any alleged non-compliance); 2) face real challenges of gaining confidential access (and without governmental surveillance) to human rights lawyers and other fellow human rights defenders who are also threatened; 3) do not have the freedom of movement to gather the necessary evidence sufficient to meet the threshold of the UN treaty bodies’ fact-finding; and 4) are subjected to increasing restrictions against expressions of dissent or any other speech (even those from doctors and health care workers), even through newly legislated anti-terrorism laws (such as that recently passed in the Philippines) — the UN’s seeming abdication under its 2020 Call to Action and 2020 SDG Report of human rights enforcement, human rights accountability, and human rights reparative justice to the efforts of individual States ultimately closes off a valuable and impartial channel for human rights victims in the Global South already facing the worst normalization of human rights violations now under de facto and de jure authoritarian rule.  This is a ripe ecosystem for dangerously entrenching a permanent generational shift in the Global South away from human rights and democracy.

Re-Strategizing SDG Realization for the Global South: Human Rights Contexts Matter

The 2020 SDG Report makes it clear that the COVID-19 pandemic has not only reversed gains achieved, but that the SDGs do not in themselves focus on the specific vulnerabilities of communities, groups, peoples, and individuals under crucial demographic criteria such as youth, old age, disability, gender, migration status, educational achievement, and nature of employment, where COVID-19 has already revealed severe inequalities. There is a real sense that data being harvested on SDG realization indeed has to be “disaggregated to leave no one behind“. 

What I particularly find lacking in the SDG framework, especially when contextualized for countries within the ‘Global South’, is any deep methodological, conceptual, and operational sensitivity to local conditions, power structures, governance frameworks, socio-economic hierarchies, and resource (natural, human, educational, financial, or otherwise) asymmetries within populations.  When the 2020 SDG Report talks about “4 billion people [who] did not benefit from any form of social protection“, “71 million pushed to extreme poverty“, or “young workers twice as likely to be living in extreme poverty as adult workers” [p. 6 of the SDG Report];  “food insecurity on the rise, small-scale food producers hit hard by the crisis” [p. 7 of the SDG Report], among many other consequences – there is a totalizing, if not homogenizing narrative that fails to capture those essential differences within countries of the ‘Global South’.  Secretary-General Guteres’ April 2020 statement speaks of “the pandemic…exposing and exploiting inequalities of all kinds”, but those inequalities had long been in existence well before the construction of the SDG Framework.  The very fact that the UN has not anticipated those inequalities – so many of which ensue from deprivations and violations of political, civil, economic, social, cultural, and development rights as the full spectrum of human rights law – especially in the worsening realities of Latin America and the Caribbean, Africa, small low-lying islands in the Pacific, and smaller less developed countries in Asia – speaks volumes about the institutional blinders and belated approaches of the United Nations to integrating human rights law (in its full compass of recognition, promotion, enforcement, accountability, and reparative justice) to all strategies, cooperative partnerships, and institutional plans for SDG implementation in the first place.  

Vulnerable populations are not ‘fragile’ populations, but rather, disempowered populations whose full political, civil, economic, social, cultural, and developmental rights have not been the central focus of any grand ambitious global strategy such as the SDGs under Agenda 2030.  The real question for the United Nations in its continuing engagement with countries and populations within the ‘Global South’ is if the United Nations will continue to largely focus on human rights recognition and promotion activities, and ultimately diminish the counterpart importance of human rights accountability, human rights enforcement, and human rights reparative justice to the domaine reserve’ of States under a strong version of the principle of non-intervention under Article 2(7) of the UN Charter.  Without a United Nations that is willing to deliberately and concertedly engage all States (authoritarian, semi-authoritarian, as well as democratic) on building channels, institutions, or pathways for authentic, transparent, and open human rights accountability, human rights enforcement, and human rights reparative justice, we may well find before this global pandemic is over that many politicians within countries of the ‘Global South’ could well be emboldened to permanently jettison human rights in practice, in favor of the symbolical gestures of human rights rhetoric at the United Nations.  Today’s generational fight, at least for the disempowered ‘vulnerable’ populations within the ‘Global South’, remains the same as it was in the rewriting of the international system in the 1970s decolonization era: the fullest realization of human dignity and all of our human rights in any State or non-State decision-making.  More than ever, the SDG Framework cannot afford a tangential approach to human rights law.

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