Putting Human Rights at the Heart of the UN's Millennium Development Goals

The major global response to the scourge of poverty is encapsulated in the UN Millennium Development Goals. These eight goals – known as the MDGs – were agreed to by all governments at the 2000 UN Millennium Summit.

They are:

  1. Eradicate Extreme Poverty and Hunger
  2. Achieve Universal Primary Education
  3. Promote Gender Equality and Empower Women
  4. Reduce Child Mortality
  5. Improve Maternal Health
  6. Combat HIV/AIDS, Malaria and Other Diseases
  7. Ensure Environmental Sustainability
  8. Develop a Global Partnership for Development

Putting Human Rights at the Heart of the UN's Millennium Development Goals

The major global response to the scourge of poverty is encapsulated in the UN Millennium Development Goals. These eight goals – known as the MDGs – were agreed to by all governments at the 2000 UN Millennium Summit.

They are:

  1. Eradicate Extreme Poverty and Hunger
  2. Achieve Universal Primary Education
  3. Promote Gender Equality and Empower Women
  4. Reduce Child Mortality
  5. Improve Maternal Health
  6. Combat HIV/AIDS, Malaria and Other Diseases
  7. Ensure Environmental Sustainability
  8. Develop a Global Partnership for Development

It is widely believed that few, if any, of the targets set out in 2000 will be met by 2015, for various reasons. Amongst the causes of the failure to meet commitments made at the Millennium Summit are a lack of funding and expertise and corruption. UN declarations and government statements repeatedly link the problem of development to the realization of human rights. Yet the MDGs and their targets include very few concrete benchmarks to measure progress in implementing existing human rights commitments. There is no Goal with associated targets, for example, to realize access to justice for the poor, to abolish discriminatory laws, to address violence against women, to ensure people living in slums are accorded protection of the police, or to enact and implement right to information legislation. Yet action in each of these areas would speed progress on the MDGs.

Above all, the key problem with the Goals is a lack of accountability. Developed countries promise aid and fair trade but don’t deliver. Poor countries buy expensive weapons rather than invest in education. Commitments to women’s empowerment are not translated into effective policy and pervasive violence keeps women marginalized. There are no real consequences for governments’ failure to deliver – except on the lives of the poor. These flaws could be addressed if the Goals embraced human rights fully.

The MDGs were designed without regard to the human rights obligations of states; they failed to take into account how human rights violations are obstacles to the achievement of the MDGs; and rigorous standards for reporting based on human rights principles of universality and interdependence have not been applied. The MDG process pays scant attention to progress on human rights goals that, if achieved, would considerably strengthen progress to tackle poverty. The experience of those living in poverty includes deprivation – the lack of those basic necessities essential to a life in dignity, including adequate food, shelter and health care. But it equally includes insecurity, exclusion and a sense of voicelessness. Discrimination shuts the poor out. Violence at the hands of state and non-state actors threatens their lives and livelihoods, keeping them poor and driving them further into poverty. Those who live in poverty are denied a meaningful voice in the design of policies ostensibly meant to improve their well being. So to end poverty, we must do more than tackle deprivation, we must work for inclusion, for security and for effective political participation. We must include Human Rights in the discourse.

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