The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development vows to “leave no one behind”. In doing so, it reaffirms “the importance of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, as well as other international instruments relating to human rights and international law.” It also emphasises “the responsibilities of all States, in conformity with the Charter of the United Nations, to respect, protect and promote human rights and fundamental freedoms for all, without distinction of any kind as to race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth, disability or other status.

The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable development mirrors many aspects of international human rights law. Even where specific international human rights principles, instruments and provisions are not explicitly stated, the linkages are clear. Analysis by the Danish Institute for Human Rights indicates that 156 of the 169 targets for the 17 Sustainable development Goals (SDGs) are directly linked to specific principles of international human rights and labour law. In many cases, however, the right to food, housing, education, political participation and other rights associated with the specific SDGs and their targets are not explicitly referred to as rights in the text – something which would have strengthened the document and aligned it more explicitly with the international human rights standards and supervisory mechanisms. There are currently 230 agreed indicators to measure progress against the Goals.

One of the areas where the previous Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) did not deliver to their fullest possible extent was in addressing the issues of discrimination and inequality as root causes of lack of progress in development. These issues were not adequately addressed in the goals, or in their associated indicators and means of data gathering for measuring and monitoring the situation of specific social groups, meaning that the MDGs did not serve to reduce inequalities in the development process to the extent that the SDGs have the potential to do.

In developing a set of Goals, Targets and Indicators that are amenable to disaggregation on the basis of the grounds of discrimination enshrined in international human rights law, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) have the potential to go much further in addressing the disparities in the development process that are caused by inequality and discrimination. Given the extent to which inequality and discrimination can hamper development efforts, discrimination and inequality are issues of relevance to most of the Goals.

A number of specific human rights are referred to or inferred throughout the Agenda and its Goals and Targets, including right of self-determination, right to development, land rights, labour rights, right to water, health and reproductive rights, the right to an adequate standard of living. The realisation of all of these bears a direct relation to equality and non-discrimination. Further, and in accordance with the basic principles of international human rights law, human rights are universal and inter-dependent. Economic and social progress can also not be dissociated from the effective recognition of civil and political rights. This is clearly recognised in instruments such as, for example, the UN Declaration on the Right to Development, and reflected in the key human rights principles of indivisibility and inter-dependence. A lack of ability on the part of states to respect, protect and fulfil civil and political rights may hamper development efforts. The link of civil and political, and economic, social and cultural rights is also recognised in the 2030 Agenda, which clearly recognises their underpinning of the development process (in particular Goal 16). This implies that specific aspects of the Agenda relating to economic and social rights cannot be seen in isolation from those relating to civil and political rights.

However, do the proposed indicators for the SDGs really go far enough in ensuring that data disaggregation that can bring out the key disparities between different sectors of the population, and forms of discrimination that are hampering the development process?

In the current general absence of adequately disaggregated data on the disparities in development progress of specific groups (the level of disaggregation varies widely from country to country), including women and girls, minorities, and indigenous peoples, among others, it is necessary to consider further how a genuine strategy that “leaves no one behind” can be developed – one that is relevant to all groups. “While the listed prohibited grounds of discrimination may not always easily translate into operational definitions and characteristics for producing disaggregated data in all instances, they constitute a universally accepted legal standard, and an obligation to which governments are already committed to. As such they provide authoritative guidance for data disaggregation efforts at global, regional, national and sub-national levels.”[1] By virtue of their accession to, or ratification of, international human rights treaties and other instruments in which specific grounds of discrimination are enunciated, States have agreed to abide by these standards, and accepted principles and grounds of non-discrimination enshrined in them.

Numerous key UN and other international organisations have pointed to the importance of disaggregating data in order to be in a better position of understanding the barriers to development faced by specific groups or groups of individuals. Data disaggregation is essential in order to:

  • Collect baseline data to capture or document the situation of the most vulnerable and marginalised populations, and any differences in their situation in relation to sustainable development.
  • Understand the phenomenon of discrimination and how this impacts on, or hampers the development process, including, inter alia, in the areas of education, access to services, decent work, and the reach of national poverty reduction programmes.
  • Address the root causes of discrimination in the development process through the use of a human rights-based approach and ensuring full participation of rights-holders through this process.

In its resolution 70/1, the General Assembly requested that the Goals and targets be followed up and reviewed using a set of global indicators. Since then, a significant amount of work has gone into producing a set of indicators focused on measurable outcomes.

The Chapeau text of the list of the Targets and Indicators for the Final list of proposed Sustainable Development Goal indicators[2] clearly indicates that “Sustainable Development Goal indicators should be disaggregated, where relevant, by income, sex, age, race, ethnicity, migratory status, disability and geographic location, or other characteristics, in accordance with the Fundamental Principles of Official Statistics (General Assembly resolution 68/261).”

However, to date, a number of the indicators put forward do not go far enough in addressing the level of disaggregation required to really tackle inequality in the development process. Despite the Chapeau text outlining a number of grounds on which data should be disaggregated, most of the indicators that follow do not directly propose disaggregation on the basis of all of the grounds of discrimination prescribed by international law. This risks that from the outset, we do not have a complete picture of how specific groups are faring upon which to base strategies and programmes to address their development challenges.

One area, for example, where proposed indicators may fail to enable an adequate analysis of the situation of the most vulnerable groups is in respect of indigenous peoples. Indigenous peoples are habitually left out of, or left behind in, development efforts. Baseline and monitoring data that includes indigenous identifiers to capture their specific situation are essential if their situation is to be fully understood, and their specific challenges are to be met by sustainable development efforts. In particular, this also implies ensuring a particular attention to the related international human rights framework that is specific to these groups. These international instruments include, among others, the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and ILO Convention No. 169; and the OAS Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Ensuring adherence to the principles of these instruments when implementing the sustainable development agenda is essential because specific rights cannot be seen in isolation. The Outcome Document of the 2014 World Conference on Indigenous Peoples recognises this, noting all the rights of indigenous peoples as intrinsic to their development.  “We note that indigenous peoples have the right to determine and develop priorities and strategies for exercising their right to development. In this regard, we commit to give due consideration to all the rights of indigenous peoples in the elaboration of the post-2015 development agenda.”[3]

Of the 230 indicators agreed so far, however, only two currently refer specifically to indigenous peoples:

Target Indicator
2.3 By 2030, double the agricultural productivity and incomes of small-scale food producers, in particular women, indigenous peoples, family farmers, pastoralists and fishers, including through secure and equal access to land, other productive resources and inputs, knowledge, financial services, markets and opportunities for value addition and non-farm employment 2.3.2 Average income of small-scale food producers, by sex and indigenous status
4.5 By 2030, eliminate gender disparities in education and ensure equal access to all levels of education and vocational training for the vulnerable, including persons with disabilities, indigenous peoples and children in vulnerable situations 4.5.1  Parity indices (female/male, rural/urban, bottom/top wealth quintile and others such as disability status, indigenous peoples and conflict-affected, as data become available) for all education indicators on this list that can be disaggregated

Given the range of issues addressed in the SDGs that are of direct relevance to indigenous peoples, reference to indigenous peoples in only two of the 230 agreed indicators currently seems inadequate to develop the kinds of special measures required by international law to protect the rights of indigenous peoples, and support their development. The indicators also fail to capture the collective aspects of the rights of indigenous peoples, a fundamental principle recognised in international law, indigenous peoples’ rights to land and resources, as well as the differences in aspirations for development that indigenous peoples may have.

As data collection moves to the national level, it will be crucial for states with indigenous populations to include an “indigenous identifier” in official data collection efforts to ensure adequate disaggregation of data that can better capture the situation of indigenous peoples, including the collective aspects of their rights. The same principle applies to other groups or categories of persons that fare less well in development processes. Target 17.18 explicitly calls for an enhancement of the capacity of developing countries to produce high quality and reliable data disaggregated by relevant characteristics, including ethnicity and other characteristics relevant in national contexts. This is crucial. The further development of data collection and monitoring work in relation to the SDGs has the potential to be strengthened and improved by the development of more adequate indicators to capture the specific situation of indigenous peoples in all areas of relevance to them. In line with the recognised rights of indigenous peoples, these efforts should be undertaken in consultation and collaboration with indigenous peoples themselves.  Such efforts could also draw on the experiences and capacity of existing human rights monitoring mechanisms (UN and regional treaty bodies, ILO supervisory bodies, etc.) in order to strengthen their links to international human rights law.

The UN Statement of Common Understanding on Human Rights-Based Approaches to Development Cooperation and Programming sets out an approach whereby the aim of all UN development cooperation, policy and assistance should not only contribute incidentally, but rather should contribute directly to, or further the realization of human rights, without discrimination on a number of key grounds. This principle should serve to guide the implementation of the SDGs to ensure that they further the human rights of all, including indigenous peoples.

[1] OHCHR, SDGs Indicator Framework: A Human Rights Approach to Data Disaggregation to Leave No One Behind, Draft background note (25.2.2015).

[2] E/CN.3/2016/2/Rev.1, Annex IV

[3] Paragraph 37.