Governments from around the world are discussing how to ensure the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) can be truly transformative. One of the key tenets to this comprehensive, far-reaching and people-centred global agenda is ‘accountability’ for the commitments – a word long avoided by many Member States. True accountability embodies the human rights principles of participation, equality and non-discrimination.
The role of civil society is crucial to building accountability and in the achievement of Agenda 2030. Civil society has transformative power and proven positive effects on development towards building peaceful and prosperous societies. Civil society plays a vital role in reaching out to, and defending the human rights of marginalised groups such as sex workers, people of diverse sexualities and gender orientations, migrants and others, and must be seen as enablers in helping governments achieve their promise of “reaching the furthest behind first”.
But, at a time when civil society engagement and participation is most needed, civil society is experiencing increasing pressure, reduced funding, and shrinking space. The recently passed UN Human Rights Council resolution on the protection of civil society space recognises the deepening challenges facing civil society globally, emphasizing the need for an enabling environment. A new essay published by Civicus identifies the specific threats faced by women human rights defenders, in particular, due to the nature of their work which includes challenging norms relating to reproductive rights, sexuality, freedom of expression, or the right to dress a certain way.
Civil society needs safe space to mobilize and generate new ideas. Regional platforms can provide space for activists to support the work that is being done at national level, and to jointly strategise based on sharing of successes, gaps and challenges. For example, at a recent South East Asia and the Pacific regional caucus “SDGS and the Fulfillment of Sexual Rights for Women and Girls” civil society activists shared priorities for accountability to SDGS and ensuring that vulnerable groups are not excluded, pinpointing key recommendations for the HLPF. This shows how working together on through different platforms can have key results.
Another regional space where civil society engagement must be promoted and supported are the regional inter-governmental review processes. In Asia Pacific, a Regional Civil Society Engagement Mechanism is gaining momentum as the primary interface for engagement with the ESCAP and governments in the fulfillment of Agenda 2030. Yet, at the Forum on Sustainable Development in April 2016, civil society were marginalized and their presence and contributions challenged.
While Agenda 2030 is unprecedented in its ambition, there are still gaps in Agenda 2030; civil society will need to be strategic about ensuring the fulfillment of certain rights. For example, for the sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) community, sexual rights are notably absent. However aspects of sexual rights can be clearly linked to specific targets, for instance:
Although Agenda 2030 offers a renewed opportunity to ensure the fulfilment of human rights and achieve sustainable development, it’s success is contingent on the commitment of governments to support the building of vibrant and tolerant societies, and the will and support for civil society to collectively sustain the momentum to be heard and recognised.