March 19, 2015

UK government must support governments from the Global Economic South and agree to a comprehensive development agenda, say groups.

UNITED NATIONS—Women’s human rights groups at the UN this week have criticized the continued lack of support by the UK government for the proposed sustainable development goals (SDGs) and targets that were created by consensus by UN member states in July 2014, as a basis for the post 2015 agenda.

The UK argues that there are “technical problems” with some of the proposed 169 targets and is pressuring other governments to re-open negotiations. Yet, a vast number of UN member states, civil society groups, and the UK’s own House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee all support the comprehensive agenda agreed by the UN Open Working Group, noting that each of the targets represents a critical development challenge, and can be improved by adding strong indicators to measure progress.

In fact, the Environmental Audit Committee, in its December 2014 report on the SDGs, explicitly called on the UK government to “respect the wider international consensus established around the 17 Open Working Group goals, in order for the process to have national ownership and legitimacy,” emphasizing that “any continued argument for a smaller number of Goals, in the face of the [UN] Secretary General’s recent guidance, risks creating unnecessary divisions between countries when it should be seeking to build support for ambitious action.”

The Women’s Major Group, which led 600 women’s organizations from more than 100 countries in ensuring the SDGs included a goal on gender equality and addressed women’s human rights throughout other goals and targets, warned that the UK’s aggressive stance could undermine progress achieved in the SDGs.

“New sustainable development goals and targets based on human rights provide a powerful tool to hold our governments accountable and promote economic justice for all, especially women and girls,” said Sascha Gabizon, Executive Director of Women in Europe for a Common Future and co-facilitator of the Women’s Major Group. “Women and girls have much to gain from strong development goals and targets for achieving gender equality. The UK’s push to reduce the scope of the SDGs could seriously undermine efforts to improve the lives of women and girls around the world.”

The Women’s Major Group noted that re-opening negotiations on goals and targets could result in a loss of important commitments, including efforts to promote equitable trade and combat climate change. So far, however, the crucial bloc of G77 countries has rejected the UK’s push to scale back on targets, and instead wants to move on to discuss indicators and means of implementation.

“The Sustainable Development Goals are the strongest consensus we have in recognizing women’s rights and addressing the root causes of gender inequality and poverty,” said Shannon Kowalski, Director of Advocacy and Policy at the International Women’s Health Coalition and co-facilitator of the Women’s Major Group. “The proposed goals are not perfect, but this agenda can be truly transformative if governments commit to rights-based targets and a detailed monitoring system to track progress.”

Concerns also remain regarding the UK government’s lack of support for a focus on inequality in the agenda. Unashamedly, the UK government, in response to the Environmental Audit Committee report, rejected the call for the SDGs to address inequality alongside poverty.

“Inequality and poverty are indivisible,” said UK-based activist Mari-Claire Price of Realizing Sexual and Reproductive Justice (RESURJ), a member of the Women’s Major Group. “This is true across the world, including within the UK, where the government’s experimental and long impacting austerity measures continue to deepen already profound gaps between the poorest and the wealthiest of our society. For the UK government to speak of ‘leaving no-one behind’ in this agenda, then refuse to prioritize inequality and therefore people, is unjustifiable.”

Price added, “The time has come for the UK to support governments from the South in their push for a comprehensive, people-centred agenda. The time of neo-colonial tactics, pressure, and dynamics is over. The people and governments from the South are calling for a transformational agenda that shifts the focus to peace and security, reducing inequality, ending conflict, and addressing climate change. It’s time for the UK to focus on how it to plans to meet these targets.”

Governments will reconvene at the UN on Monday, March 23, to continue discussions on the SDGs.

Photo: Arron Hoare/The Prime Minister’s Office/Flickr