Statement by Navanethem Pillay, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Seminar on the MDGs and Human Rights organized by the Government of the Netherlands, Palais des Nations Geneva, 28 May 2010

Distinguished Participants,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

I am pleased to be invited to address this important topic today among a diverse group of participants. I wish to express my gratitude to the Government of the Netherlands for organizing this event, promoting human rights in the Millennium Development Goals’ agenda, and supporting the work of my Office more broadly.

In September, the General Assembly will be convening the MDGs Review Summit to consider new efforts for accelerating progress to meet the Goals and Targets by 2015.  As we speak, Member States are discussing how to shape the draft Summit outcome and what actions should be considered for the future.  This seminar, therefore, is a very timely opportunity to reflect on what elements should be considered at the Summit from human rights perspectives, based on concrete country experiences. 

Ten years after the conception of the MDGs, more than a billion people are still trapped in extreme poverty and go hungry every day.  The challenges are most severe in the least developed countries and those vulnerable to natural hazards and armed conflict.  Even in countries scoring major successes, large disparities still persist, with millions of people left behind in the race towards achieving the MDGs.

These situations are exacerbated in many countries by weak governance systems, unpredictable aid flows, and the negative impacts of the recent financial, food and fuel crises.  Persons facing discrimination and multiple deprivations of human rights in their daily lives are, predictably, affected most severely by natural and man-made emergencies.  To address their needs it is crucial to devise holistic strategies encompassing an equal emphasis on all human rights – civil, cultural, economic, political and social rights. – as well as on targeted interventions and remedies for those who are severely hit by hardship and exclusion. 

It is clear that the objectives of human wellbeing and dignity enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and reaffirmed in the Millennium Declaration will not be achieved if the MDGs are pursued in isolation from human rights obligations.  These are obligations that Member States voluntarily accepted as their own.

Consequently, some countries have embraced human rights standards and principles, and the obligation of progressive realization of economic, social and cultural rights, in setting their national MDG targets when the local conditions, capacities and resources allow them to pursue a higher level of achievement.  For example, the Latin American and the Caribbean regions amended the primary education target under Goal 2 to include secondary education in addition to primary education, with a target of 75 per cent of children to be accorded access by 2010.

Even countries lagging behind see the value of applying human rights principles of equality and non-discrimination, participation and accountability when they design and implement national development strategies.  Moreover, the Declaration on the Right to Development, underscores the duty to co-operate with a view to promoting, encouraging and strengthening universal respect and observance of all human rights without discrimination.  In emphasizing both the national and international dimensions of development, the Declaration is eminently relevant to the achievement of the MDGs.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

It is widely acknowledged that the MDG 5 on maternal mortality is one of the most off-track goals.  This is also very much a human rights issue that has significant implications on a range of other rights.  The Human Rights Council stated in its resolution 11/8 that there are multiple human rights dimensions of maternal mortality, namely, the right to life, to be equal in dignity, to education, to seek receive and impart information, to enjoy the benefits of scientific progress and to be free from discrimination.
My Office has prepared a report on preventable maternal mortality, morbidity and human rights for the Council’s consideration at its 14th session.  The Council will also hold a panel discussion on this subject.   I will thus use this specific issue as an illustration of the intrinsic relevance of a human rights approach to all other the MDGs.

Such an approach helps us to understand that maternal mortality is not simply an issue of public health but the consequence of multiple unfulfilled rights.

A woman suffering from chronic malnutrition, who lives in a slum without access to safe water and sanitation and who does not have an education is at a much higher risk of dying during pregnancy or childbirth. The same woman is at an even higher risk of dying if she is aged between 15 to 19, has suffered female genital mutilation, an early or forced marriage, gender-based violence, sexual exploitation.  She would be more exposed if she has HIV/Aids or if she is discriminated in her private and public life because she belongs to an indigenous group or because of her race, or for being an irregular migrant worker.  In order to ensure that vulnerable women and girls in remote rural parts of a country have access to family planning, skilled attendance at birth and access to emergency obstetric care without delays, public policies must address broader human rights issues, rather than simply deliver a set of technical interventions. A failure to do so, might continue to condemn millions to be neglected in the fulfilment of the MDGs.

Indeed, the human rights principles of equality and non-discrimination call for radical reforms in the legal and institutional fabric of a country in order to remove barriers that prevent access to basic services, change social attitudes and stop tolerating discriminatory practices in all spheres of life.  States and policymakers need to adopt adequate measures to this effect.  

From policy conception to its implementation, it is crucial to collect disaggregated data on how different groups are affected by discrimination and exclusion and by policies aimed at alleviating these conditions.  This data allows us to capture discrepancies in the way MDGs are pursued and on their impact on different population groups.  To improve the quantity and quality of data amassed, States must invest in strengthening their capacity of collecting, monitoring and evaluating information, as well as in bolstering statistical expertise.

Ultimately, a higher visibility of people living in extreme poverty in the political and policy arena will depend on the active and meaningful participation by them and their inclusion in all stages of the decision making processes. For example, in the context of maternal mortality and morbidity, access to education and to information enables women’s ability to make informed choices with respect to nutrition, their sexual and reproductive lives, including family planning and contraception.

Participation and choice depend on States’ accountability and on their willingness to make pertinent information available in clear and accessible terms.  The oversight role of parliaments and the judiciary, as well as independent national human rights institutions, are also key in enhancing participation.   Whenever necessary, States must also ensure that educational tools are deployed and outreach strategies put in place to bolster awareness of public allocations and expenditures.

For their part, and as agreed in the Accra Agenda for Action on Aid Effectiveness, donor countries should publicly disclose regular, detailed and timely information on volume, allocation and, when available, results of development expenditure to enable more accurate budget, accounting and audit by developing countries.

Some countries have successfully adopted laws and procedures on access to public information which, coupled with strengthened participatory and inclusive mechanisms, are playing a critical empowering role while ensuring more accountability. In this context and by using the maternal mortality case, women’s involvement in policy analysis, planning, and MDG costing exercises and expenditure tracking can greatly contribute to the development of maternal health systems in countries where social spending is low, health spending even lower and programmes on obstetric care are severely underfunded.

Distinguished Participants,

The Secretary-General, in his report ‘Keeping the Promise’ prepared for the Summit, has highlighted the weakness of the MDG accountability system as one key factor explaining slow progress on MDGs. Human rights standards, monitoring institutions and expert bodies can add important accountability dimensions to the MDG framework.

National strategies should aim at strengthening human rights and MDG accountability systems as both are mutually reinforcing. Some actions could be suggested in that regard, for instance:

  1. Systematically assessing the impact of MDG-based strategies on the human rights of the poorest, prior to making policy and budget decisions.
  2. Making available effective remedies for those persons negatively affected by development choices. This includes access to judicial, administrative and other mechanisms. The Optional Protocol on Economic Social and Cultural Rights is a critical tool for the legal protection of these rights.

Accountability also involves regular and independent monitoring of public policies, social systems and private service in order to address and correct systemic failure to prevent future harm.   For example, an important accountability measure to improve maternal health systems has been recommended by the Special Rapporteur on the right to health.  It requires the adoption of effective registration systems as well as a system of maternal death audits. These audits should be a non-judicial review that goes beyond medical reasons to identify the social, economic and cultural factors that are worrying patterns of maternal death. Some developed and developing countries are successfully implementing these mechanisms.

Let me conclude by noting that deadline for the fulfilment of the MDGs is just around the corner.  We need to draw lessons and experiences of what has and has not worked, in order to make the progress for the remaining five years. This evidence-base approach will enable us to make a stronger case for human rights in the last push for the MDGs deadline and beyond 2015.

I look forward to your deliberations today, which I hope will result in concrete and forward looking proposals that could be forwarded to Member States and all stakeholders as they discuss the Summit outcome and future actions at all levels. Our responsibility is to keep the promise made to the poorest, for which we will be held accountable. 

         Thank you.