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Human Rights Treaty Bodies
Human rights treaty bodies and their role supporting the 2030 Agenda

Human rights treaties are particularly relevant to the principle of ‘ensuring that no one is left behind’. The two International Covenants include the principle of non-discrimination in articles 2 of each treaty and they share common article 3 promoting equality between men and women. Other human rights treaties focus on the rights of persons who are often left behind, including women, children persons with disabilities, indigenous peoples, national, ethnic and racial minorities, persons in detention, migrant workers, and people suffering enforced disappearance. The treaties set out a range of minimum protections from discrimination and other abuse as well as measures to promote equality. A list of treaties and other key instruments are set out at the end of this document.

Each treaty establishes a body of independent experts, elected by States parties, who are mandated to review implementation of the treaties and make recommendations. Nine human rights treaties have a reporting procedure which requires States parties to provide reports setting out steps taken to implement the treaties. The treaty bodies review the report, as well as alternative reports provided from other sources such as civil society, national human rights institutions and UN partners, and set out a series of concluding observations and recommendations to help States parties improve implementation. Treaty bodies also adopt general comments – documents providing detailed global-level analysis of specific thematic issues related to the treaty in question which seek to improve implementation by clarifying treaty obligations. A tenth treaty, the Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture establishes a treaty body that undertakes country visits to places of detention with a view to strengthening protection of detainees from torture and ill-treatment.

Treaty bodies promote a two way interaction with the 2030 Agenda. On the one hand, the significant amount of information relating to the implementation of treaties gathered through the reporting process is closely related to the implementation of the SDGs and therefore provides a ready-made source of data to help track progress on SDG implementation. In addition, the information relating to national implementation of the SDGs is itself closely related to treaty implementation and therefore of particular relevance to the work of treaty bodies.

The Chairs of treaty bodies already adopted a statement in 2015 on the post-2015 development agenda. Treaty bodies remain committed to consolidating and deepening this two-way interaction with a view to ensuring complementarity between the treaties and the SDGs.

In this regard, treaty bodies are already referring to relevant SDGs and targets in their constructive dialogues with States (for example, sending specific SDGs-related questions to States prior to the review of their treaty report, raising SDGs-related questions in the constructive dialogue with States and making recommendations to States in the concluding observations that link implementation of particular treaty provisions with SDGs and targets). In addition, the search function of the Universal Human Rights Index (http://uhri.ohchr.org/en) is being improved to allow for the search of treaty body information that relates to national implementation of the SDGs. This will be particularly helpful in identifying and analysing treaty-related information on SDG implementation and assist with providing the High Level Political Forum with relevant information to support its work.

Similarly, OHCHR field presences are helping States parties to align SDGs implementation and development of national development plans with treaty obligations and their treaty reporting. The aim is not only to have rights-based SDGs implementation but also to help use treaty reporting as a means of tracking SDG and national development plan achievements.

Finally, OHCHR has prepared a table setting out examples of treaty provisions relating to each of the 17 Goals to help the reader better understand the overlap between the goals, targets and human rights. The table has been added to the end of this document.

1. An assessment of the situation regarding the principle of “ensuring that no one is left behind” at the global level:

Since the adoption of the resolution A/RES/70/1 on 25 September 2015, the treaty bodies have reviewed 105 reports of States parties, providing a solid basis for an assessment of the situation regarding the principle of ‘ensuring no one is left behind’. The responses to the following questions are taken from the concluding observations and recommendations of treaty bodies adopted since 25 September 2015. While the situation regarding this principle differs from country-to-country (and potentially from treaty-to-treaty), it is nonetheless possible to highlight certain issues when viewed from the global level: First, there are many individuals who risk being left behind if the process of development does not expressly include them. In the experience of treaty bodies, individuals who are at risk of being left behind should be considered as open-ended. While some people are referred to expressly in the 2030 Agenda, others, such as Roma, nomadic people, and LGBTI people, refugees, asylum seekers, migrant workers in an irregular situation, missing persons and homeless persons might also be at risk of being left behind, even if not explicitly mentioned in the Agenda. Related to this, it is important to consider individuals at risk of being left behind in their particular context as implementation of the SDGs might affect them in various ways. For example, over the last year, treaty bodies have considered discrimination against women and girls in a general sense (for example, through the review of laws and policies) but also the specific situation of women and girls suffering from domestic violence, pregnant women and girls, women with disabilities, internally displaced women, girls forced to work, girls in conflict with the law, among other examples. Similarly, treaty bodies have considered the situation of persons with disabilities generally, but also specifically the situation of persons with disabilities such as those in involuntary detention in psychiatric institutions. Accordingly, in implementing the 2030 Agenda, it is relevant to note that some individuals face multiple forms of discrimination, for example, indigenous women might face discrimination on the basis of sex as well as race and social or national origin. Implementation of the SDGs should consider the inter-related factors that can exclude individuals from development so as to ensure that no one is left behind.

Second, treaty bodies note their concern that inequalities are increasingly stark and can take many forms including gender inequality, inequality on the basis of age, race inequality, inequality between minority and majority groups, income and wealth inequality to name a few. The drivers of inequality include racism and xenophobia, religious intolerance, unequal access to land and natural resources, discriminatory customs and traditions, colonialism, lack of access to political rights, lack of access to justice and remedies for human rights abuse. Discrimination in society often drives inequality – however, it is not the only factor that drives inequality and people from majority communities (for example, those living in extreme poverty) are treated unequally and are at great risk of being left behind through economic exclusion. Inequality manifests itself in differential access to essential goods and services (including food, health, education, land and resources, information, birth registration, justice, all of which are recognized as rights) as well as to political power which in turn aggravates and deepens inequality. Inequality is also inter-generational, which tends to entrench inequality and make it more difficult to remedy. Consequently, not only does inequality lead to human rights abuse, it also stymies development efforts and risks widening the gap between individuals even further. In this sense, treaty bodies welcome the inclusion of SDG 10 on reducing inequality within and among countries but also highlight that tackling inequality is a concern that runs across all 17 SDGs.

Third, ensuring no one is left behind requires a comprehensive approach that covers access to a range of services as well as respect for freedoms. For example, achieving free and compulsory primary and secondary education requires not only policies in the education sphere but also access to safe drinking water and sanitation, awareness-raising among parents and the community of the importance of, for instance the education of girls and children with disabiltities, and provision of safe educational environments free from discrimination and violence. Similarly, treaty bodies have emphasized the importance of freedom of expression, access to information and participation of people in disadvantaged or vulnerable positions as important means of promoting more inclusive societies and also ensuring that societies are adequately prepared to avoid natural and man-made crises having a disproportionately negative impact on those most often left behind.

Fourth, in the experience of treaty bodies, combatting inequality is a universal concern that goes beyond notions of developing and developed countries. In this sense, the human rights treaty system is well-placed as it sets out obligations in relation to all States parties, independent of the level of development, and therefore examines inequalities in all States that have ratified the treaties. In this regard, of the 105 States reviewed over the reporting period, almost a third came from countries considered as developed. Treaty bodies raised issues related to equality and non-discrimination in these countries as with other countries reviewed.

Fifth, while human rights treaty law focuses principally on combatting discrimination and inequality affecting individuals, it recognizes inequality between States and imposes obligations of international cooperation on States parties. In this regard, it highlights that those in a position to help, should provide international assistance and cooperation to other States parties to help them meet their obligations. Article 2(1) of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights obliges States parties to take steps both individually and through international assistance and cooperation to achieve economic, social and cultural rights progressively. The Convention on the Rights of the Child (article 4) and the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (article 4(2)) include similar provisions. Obligations of international cooperation provide treaty-based provisions that can strengthen implementation of SDG 17 as well as SDG 10, target 10.b. In this regard, treaty bodies have encouraged developed countries to meet the target of 0.7 per cent of gross national income for development assistance and to include a rights-based approach in development policies and programmes.

2. The identification of gaps, areas requiring urgent attention, risks and challenges:

Some specific areas that treaty bodies have considered over the last year related to ensuring that no one is left behind include:

Adopting laws and policies – of particular relevance to SDG 10, target 10.3, and SDG 16, target 16.b, treaty bodies recognize that laws and policies provide an important basis for action to ensure that no-one is left behind and consistently encourage States to adopt comprehensive non-discrimination legislation. Such legislation should protect against discrimination on the basis of any status, protect against multiple forms of discrimination (for example, discrimination against one person based on both sex and race) and should protect against discrimination in law (de jure discrimination) as well as in practice (de facto discrimination). In addition, in keeping with SDG 10, target 10.3, legislation should protect against both direct and indirect discrimination with a view of achieving not only equality of opportunities but also equality of outcomes. In this regard, temporary special measures aimed at achieving de facto equality are not considered discriminatory. Legislation should recognize that denial of reasonable accommodation for persons with disabilities constitutes discrimination. Legislation should also provide the means of redress for individuals alleging discrimination. In addition, to comprehensive non-discrimination legislation, treaty bodies have recognized that States should review other legislation with a view to amending any discriminatory provisions in those laws and should adopt laws dealing with specific situations such as protection of asylum-seekers, refugees and migrants and the prohibition of racial profiling, racial hate speech or incitement to discrimination.

Protecting against violence – All treaty bodies have highlighted the challenge of that violence poses to achieving equality, most notably between women and men, regardless of age, and have consistently reminded of the prohibition of torture in all circumstances, including against children in keeping with SDG 16, target 16.2. Violence takes many forms and can occur in both the public and private sphere. Both preventive and remedial action is required. For example, public awareness campaigns and training is important to some forms of violence that might be seen as acceptable by some, such as female genital mutilation. Similarly, laws that allow exceptions for violence should be repealed such as laws allowing violence on the basis of the so-called ‘honourable motives’ or that reprieve offenders if they marry a victim of rape. Of relevance to implementation of SDGs 5 and 16 in particular, remedial action is needed in areas such as ensuring prompt, thorough and effective investigations into allegations of violence, training of the police and judiciary in dealing with such cases, providing assistance to victims, including shelters to those affected by violence, punishing perpetrators and compensating victims. For disappeared persons, the authorities must take prompt action to seek and find them and to inform their relatives of their whereabouts. Programmes combatting violence need to be adequately funded.

Promoting access to justice - treaty bodies have emphasised the importance of individuals accessing justice, in line with SDG 16, target 16.3, as a means of promoting equality and protecting against discrimination. This includes access to formal systems of justice such as courts. However, treaty bodies have also encouraged the establishment of affordable and easy-to-access mechanisms such as national human rights mechanisms, traditional justice mechanisms (with the proviso that they meet human rights standards) and even help-lines for children and women suffering abuse. Ensuring access to justice alone is insufficient and treaty bodies have emphasised the importance of addressing obstacles to accessing justice such as linguistic barriers, obstacles to accessibility for persons with disabilities (lack of sign language interpretation or information in Braille), economic factors, lack of awareness of rights, reticence to file complaints due to social stigma and prejudices, the need for victim and witness protection in some cases, and ensuring an independent judiciary. Treaty bodies have noted that a lack of complaints related to discrimination and inequality can itself be an indicator of insufficient and inaccessible justice mechanisms, mistrust and lack of awareness of institutions and fear of reprisals.

Building stronger institutions – Treaty bodies have highlighted the important role of national institutions as a means to promote equality, monitor and implement laws and policies, and sanction non-compliance, in keeping with SDG 16, particularly targets 16.6 and 16.a. Treaty bodies have referred explicitly to parliaments, national human rights institutions, national machinery for the advancement of women, children’s ombudspersons, national mechanisms for the protection of the rights of persons with disabilities, labour inspectorates, national preventive mechanism for the prevention of torture amongst others. In the case of judicial institutions, treaty bodies have emphasized the importance of independence of judges and lawyers and the imperative of avoiding any pressure from the executive in the appointment, promotion and dismissal of judges as well as the protection of lawyers from retaliation for defending certain individuals. For national institutions such as Human Rights and Equality Commissions, treaty bodies have indicated that such institutions should conform to the Principles relating to the status of national institutions (Paris Principles), highlighting in particular the importance of the independence of such institutions and their members as well as the need for sufficient human and financial resources so that institutions can perform duties fully, effectively and independently and be accessible to everyone throughout the particular country.

Recognizing responsibilities of duty-bearers including the private sector – States have the primary obligation to respect, protect and fulfil human rights; however, all actors in society have duties to the community which is the basis for free and full development. While the private sector can be an important motor for development, treaty bodies have expressed concern about the impact of the private sector on local populations. In this regard, treaty bodies have encouraged the regulation of the private sector, including in relation to acts of domestic enterprises acting abroad, and to introduce effective mechanisms to investigate complaints filed against enterprises, including complaints lodged in relation to alleged acts occurring abroad.

Combatting stereotypes and stigmatisation– while better laws and institutions can do much to ensure that no one is left behind, entrenched discriminatory opinions, bias, stereotypes and invisible barriers are among the greatest obstacles to achieving equality and can perpetuate inequality. For example, parents who do not register a child with a disability due to traditional prejudices and stigma set the stage for a life of inequality. Treaty bodies have indicated that training and awareness-raising campaigns as well as engagement of community and religious leaders, civil society organizations, educators, parents, law-makers, police and the judiciary among others are important complements to better laws and institutions.

Promoting decent work – promotion of decent work, including equal pay for work of equal value, respect for the minimum wage, safe and healthy working conditions, protection from harassment, equal opportunity for promotion, and the right to rest and leisure, is fundamental to promoting equality as recognized in SDG 8. Promotion of decent work ensures equality in the work place but also ensures that individuals have the means to a decent living which in turn provides the ground for greater equality in society. One particular area of concern relates to persons with disabilities as prescribed under article 27 of the Convention of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. Nonetheless, inequality persists in the work place. In particular, treaty bodies have identified the gender pay gap as persisting in countries, no matter the level of development. The fact that women are over-represented in part time, informal and unpaid work exacerbates this gap. Treaty bodies have recommended the undertaking of comparative studies of salary scales across professions. In February 2016, the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights adopted a General Comment which sets out the various rights and duties to ensure just and favourable conditions of work. Finally, treaty bodies have identified the need to eradicate forced labour, trafficking and the worst forms of child labour as well as legal protection of domestic workers as areas requiring urgent action.

Promoting access to services, including social protection floors – promoting access to services is an essential step in ensuring that no one is left behind in the processes of development. Services, such as health care, provide the basis for a decent life and also empower individuals to realize their right to development. However, economic growth that is unaccompanied by pro-poor policies risks the continued exclusion of those left behind from benefiting from improved services that could result from economic growth. Similarly, those left behind can be the first to suffer from economic crisis unless appropriate safety nets are in place. Of relevance to promoting SDG1, target 1.3, treaty bodies have encouraged the establishment of social protection floors – a basic set of social guarantees, in cash or in kind – as being pivotal to ensuring income security and access to basic services such as health care for all. Collecting disaggregated data – Treaty bodies regularly call for data that is disaggregated by categories such as sex, race, national origin and disabilities, or other relevant ground, as a means of having a fuller understanding of equality and developing appropriate and targeted policies and development programmes. In this regard, treaty bodies have emphasized the importance of self-identification when collecting data related to minorities. As recognized in SDG 17, target 17.8, many countries need capacity-building to assist in the collection of high-quality disaggregated data and treaty bodies have encouraged States to seek technical cooperation, including from UN organizations, to assist with the collection and disaggregation of data, and have encouraged the public provision of data through on-line databases where this is consistent with human rights principles and individual confidentiality. The OHCHR Guidance Note ‘A human rights-based approach to data: leaving no one behind in the 2030 Development Agenda’ provides a useful reference.

Promoting consultation and participation –as recognized in SDG 16, targets 16.7 and 16.10, access to information, consultation and public participation in the development, implementation and monitoring of laws, policies and programmes is important to ensure both the suitability as well as the sustainability of measures ensuring that no one is left behind. The role of parliaments is key in this regard although participation and consultation should also go beyond formal mechanisms of participation. Treaty bodies have specifically emphasized the need for free, prior and informed consent for indigenous peoples in relation to the use of their land and natural resources. Similarly, treaty bodies have encouraged participation of children, people living in poverty, as well as persons with disabilities and their representative organizations in decisions that affect them. Persons with disabilities should enjoy legal capacity on an equal basis with others, including in the exercise of their right to vote. Defending members of civil society – A free and active civil society is important to giving voice to those left behind and in developing sustainable development solutions to inequality. This requires respect for freedom of expression and association as well as swift action to investigate promptly, thoroughly and impartially all allegations of mistreatment or reprisals of human rights defenders, to prosecute those guilty and to provide victims with redress. Member of civil society deprived of their liberty for doing work to combat discrimination and promote equality should be released and laws should facilitate the registration and financing of civil society organizations. Treaty bodies have also highlighted the need to protect journalists, artists, writers and bloggers from intimidation.

Combatting corruption – Treaty bodies have identified mismanagement of resources and corruption as obstacles to the allocation of resources to promote equal rights to basic services and to assist those at risk of being left behind. They have promoted the public monitoring of budget allocations as well as the detection, investigation and prosecution of those involved in corruption, and protection of those fighting it, as a means of combatting corruption which could be an important means of meeting SDG 16, target 16.5.

3. Valuable lessons learned on ensuring that no one is left behind:

Indicate where treaty bodies have already incorporated the 2030 Agenda in concluding observations.

4. Emerging issues likely to affect the realization of this principle:

A serious issue that continues has been the impact of economic crises on ensuring that no-one is left behind. Treaty bodies have highlighted the severe impact of austerity measures on rights, in particular rights to work, reduction in the minimum wage that go beyond an amount permitting a decent living for workers and their families, cuts to social security and to health care which affect the most disadvantaged and marginalized. Treaty bodies have noted that economic crisis and ensuing austerity measures have, in some cases, sharply increased the population at risk of social exclusion and poverty in recent years. For example, in one situation, reductions to health care have had a disproportionate impact on asylum-seekers and undocumented migrants. Economic, social and cultural rights should not be subject to retrogressive measures. In situations of economic crisis, any adjustments to these rights should be temporary, necessary and proportionate, non-discriminatory and protect minimum entitlements such as social protection floors.

Treaty bodies have also identified humanitarian crises and natural disasters as impediments to achieving greater equality, including gender equality. In Europe, States facing both economic crisis and the increased number of people fleeing armed conflict and persecution are facing increasing difficulties providing access to health care, adequate food, clothing, interpreters and social support and treaty bodies have highlighted the need for international cooperation to assist these States. Similarly, treaty bodies have highlighted the potential for climate change and natural disasters to affect certain people disproportionately, including women living in rural areas, persons with disabilities and others, and treaty bodies have highlighted the importance of including those often left behind in decision-making processes related to disaster prevention and response.

The role of non-state actors and their capacity to have both positive and negative effects on ensuring no one is left behind is another emerging issue. For example, while acknowledging the crucial role of the private sector in promoting sustainable development, treaty bodies have also observed that multinational enterprises, particularly in the extractive industry, can have particularly negative effects on the livelihoods of indigenous and local communities and on the environment. The situation is aggravated by unclear responsibilities of armed groups. Therefore, treaty bodies have observed the negative impact that conflict has on the enjoyment of rights and on sustainable development, leaving behind those caught up in conflict.

Beyond crises and conflicts, certain policies, even widely accepted, can aggravate inequality. Inequalities can result from the way that trade and financial systems are structured and operate. With an increasingly connected global economy, national inequality is often closely inter-related to global shifts in production and trade which can exacerbate existing inequality in market power, access to technology and industrial relation dynamics and in turn negatively affect inequalities nationally. In turn, limited access to technology – particularly the internet and digital media – can exacerbate inequalities and leave those without access even further behind.

Further, speech that advocates national, racial or religious hatred in public discourse and the media can incite discrimination, hostility or violence, which is prohibited under international human rights law, entrenching stereotypes and thus distancing those left behind even further from reaching the goal of equality. Treaty bodies have reminded of the need to protect individuals from discriminatory discourse and incitement to hatred, condemn discriminatory discourse in the strongest terms, call upon politicians and others in positions of power, to ensure that statements do not incite hatred or discrimination, investigate claims of discriminatory discourse, and increase public awareness to counter discriminatory speech and hate crimes, including through the training of public officials.

On a positive side, it is relevant to note that ratifications of human rights treaties continue to increase, thus showing ongoing commitment by States to protect human rights, including the principles of non-discrimination and equality. It is through this ongoing commitment to promote equality for all, through timely submission of reports and the continuing constructive dialogue between States and treaty bodies on the basis of those reports that greater respect for the principle of leaving no one behind has a greater possibility of being met in a sustainable manner.

5. Areas where political guidance by the High-level Political Forum on Sustainable Development is required:

  • To continue recognizing a role for human rights mechanisms in promoting greater accountability for the 2030 Agenda, including through systematic engagement with the High Level Political Forum. In this regard, the HLPF could recognize the role of treaty bodies and other human rights mechanisms as an invaluable source of data to support implementation and review of the 2030 Agenda.
  • To call on the United Nations to ensure that the imperative of combatting inequalities and discrimination is given appropriate focus by placing it at the centre of objectives, strategies, plans of action and policies in support of the 2030 Agenda over the next 15 years and beyond, including a prioritization of ensuring that no one is left behind in all relevant UN actions.

6. Policy recommendations on ways to accelerate progress for those at risk of being left behind:

Treaty bodies welcome this opportunity to provide information to the High Level Political Forum at its first meeting since the adoption of the 2030 Agenda in 2015. The clear link between human rights treaties and the SDGs, including the principle of ensuring that no one is left behind, highlights the complementarity between work of treaty bodies and that of the High Level Political Forum. In this regard, treaty bodies look forward to the deepening of this cooperation in the future. In this regard, the treaty bodies encourage the High Level Political Forum:

  • To make a strong statement in support of the objective of creating a more equal world, respectful of human rights and dignity
  • To place the elimination of discrimination and reduction of inequalities at the forefront of efforts to implement the 2030 Agenda, with a particular focus on reaching the furthest behind first
  • To reaffirm the importance of comprehensive and adequately resourced non-discrimination legislation and policies based on international standards as a basis for action to ensure that no one is left behind
  • To encourage the introduction of appropriate monitoring mechanisms and institutions at the national level – such as national human rights institutions, labour inspectorates, national machinery for the advancement of women, children’s ombudspersons, ombudspersons for persons with disabilities, and national preventive mechanisms for the prevention of torture. Monitoring mechanisms should be open to participation of stakeholders and their representative organizations
  • To support the development of appropriate methodologies, such as human rights impact assessments, prior to the introduction of laws, policies and development programmes to ensure that such instruments leave no one behind.
  • To support the development and use of appropriate data collection and monitoring methodologies that provide guidance on collecting data which allows for disaggregation and monitoring the trends and progress of the most disadvantaged individuals and groups to examine whether inequalities are reducing over time.