Leadership Meeting on Addressing Inequalities in the Post-2015 Development Agenda Statement by Ms. Navi Pillay United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights

Copenhagen, 19 February 2013
 “The Equality Imperative”


On 16 December last year, a young woman was brutally raped and murdered by a gang of men on a bus in India. People around the world were horrified by the details of this terrible crime. Public outrage spilled on the streets in India, cascading into a powerful movement for justice, law reform and social change.

Earlier this month, in my own country, South Africa, as you may also have read, a 17-year old girl was gang-raped, mutilated and left to die at a construction site in Bredasdorp, in the Western Cape.

The callousness of these crimes shocks our conscience. Yet, however horrible, they are merely two acts within a systemic pattern of violence against millions of women worldwide. Most of it happens behind closed doors, and it is so widespread, so endemic, that it is has become almost invisible. Except in its most brutal manifestations, we have been inured to violence.

Human faces help us comprehend a crime whose force is numbed by habit and statistics. But episodic outrage sparked by occasional newspaper reports cannot hope to stem the global tide of violence against women — for this is a crime that is deeply entrenched, fuelled by apathy and long-standing structures of discrimination and domination.

This is why this consultation today is so important.

The post-2015 consultations will generate many pertinent and important recommendations. But whatever commitments member States may make in the year 2015, they will mean little if they leave fully intact those structures of power that result in many girls and women suffering violence and the amputation of their fundamental human rights.

As all of you know, 12 years ago the Millennium Development Goals helped us to change the terms of development discourse and commit to poverty reduction as a shared global concern. And since then, progress has been made on many topics.

But the Millennium Development Goals were not an agenda for equality. To the contrary, reports of “average” MDG progress sometimes masked a significant degree of inequality, and some troubling human rights contradictions.

The report of the present consultation makes what is to me a timely and powerful case that reducing inequalities and promoting substantive equality should be a central objective of a post-2015 development agenda.

The report also highlights how, specifically, a human rights approach can help achieve that objective.

I applaud the many hundreds of contributors to these consultations across the globe, and to those people in the co-leading agencies, UNICEF and UN Women, and the Advisory Group members, who brought this report together.  

The main concern in the report, and my own abiding concern, is not about inequalities in an abstract sense. Rather, it is about inequalities caused by discrimination and injustice.

Serious inequalities – in outcomes as well as opportunity – are not only morally objectionable. They are a recipe for violent conflict. Inequalities and discrimination have been at the heart of the most appalling genocides, and continue to fuel some of our most intractable conflicts today, including in Syria, and the African Great Lakes.

And in the wealthiest countries of Europe and the Americas, entrenched discrimination continues to force millions into marginalisation, exclusion and deprivation.


  • the rules of the game are written by the powerful, for the powerful;


  • the capacity to aspire is suffocated at birth, or degraded over time through social conditioning;

And where:

  • opportunity is denied by the wilful intent or passive effect of public policy choices . . .

. . . then the international human rights framework has something to say.

What does the international human rights framework say about inequality, and what does this mean for the post-2015 development agenda?

Firstly, and most obviously, no vision or metric of human progress should be complete without analysis and tracking of who is winning and who is losing in the quest for development. This should apply at all levels – global, national and sub-national.

UN Member States have solemnly committed themselves to a raft of legally binding treaties that protect their populations from discrimination on grounds such as sex, race, ethnicity, national and geographic origin, age, disability, religion and political opinion, among others.

I am troubled by how often international commitments – such as the Millennium Development Goals – are concluded without proper regard to existing — and legally binding — agreements that address the same, or very similar, subjects.

Human rights treaties call for more than mere “equality of opportunity”, or similar treatment for all. Treating all persons equally in formal terms can literally be a death sentence to those labouring silently, daily, under the yoke of structural discrimination.

Rather, these treaties require the active dismantling of discriminatory barriers to social, economic and political freedom and rights, and special measures to level the playing field.

Secondly, human rights principles should guide the process of policy-making. This means, at a minimum, that the voiceless should be heard and prioritised in the policy-making process. It means that whatever economic policies may be appropriate, there should be a minimum floor of socio-economic rights guaranteed for all.

Moreover — and this is crucial — there should be accountability and redress mechanisms to improve policy-making and compensate rights-holders when policies go wrong. It simply does not matter what promises member States make in 2015, if there are not adequate incentives and mechanisms of accountability to ensure that those commitments are translated into real and durable action.

Accountability for post-2015 commitments should be anchored in the existing, specific, obligations that are inscribed in our human rights treaties. To ignore these treaties is to undermine them.

Finally, if the post-2015 agenda is to give effect to peoples’ aspirations for equality, it is essential that these aspirations be enshrined as a self-standing goal, and that the principles of non-discrimination and equality be integrated effectively within all other goals, targets and indicators.

New goals that aim to be universal, which centre on the goal of equality, and that are framed by human rights will enhance the moral resonance, the mobilising force, the sustainability and the impact of post-2015 commitments.

Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen, no new development agenda will eliminate, entirely, a problem as profoundly ingrained as the scourge of violence against women.

But a new development agenda must, at the very least, bring structural discrimination of this kind to the surface wherever and whenever it occurs.

It must ensure that the needed data is collected, causes of exclusion analysed and reported, and remedial action taken.
In short: it is time for a fundamental re-think of what counts for human progress after 2015. And that re-think should be grounded explicitly in our universal human rights obligations, and in the equality imperative.

Thank you.