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Social Watch: Sustainable development is the right to a future

arton3767.jpgSocial Watch, a network of civil society organizations concerned with social development and gender discrimination, recently published its annual flagship report. Featuring thematic chapters, various development indexes (e.g. the Basic Capabilities Index, the Gender Equity Index, and the Social and Economic Rights Fulfillment Index) and national reports, the report aims to demonstrate ongoing global challenges for achieving sustainable development.

The 2012 report, entitled ”Sustainable development: the right to a future,” produced with the support of civil society organizations from 66 countries, cautions that current approaches to economic growth and stability as well as growing inequalities have a negative impact on sustainable development. Although governments adopted a set of principles and obligations to enhance sustainable development during the 1992 Rio Earth Summit, the industrialized countries have failed to adequately implement them. Instead, their economic growth approach has drawn disproportionally on the planet’s non-renewable natural resources, the report notes. To address this unsustainable situation, the Social Watch report calls for a radical and urgent change in the dominant mindset, in particular with regard to finance, human rights, measurement indicators, and citizens’ participation.

Human rights and sustainable development:

A significant outcome from Rio 1992 was the affirmation of the indivisibility of human and environmental rights. According to Social Watch: “Any formulation of Sustainable Development Goals that does not adequately address the human rights aspects and the sustainability aspects simultaneously and in a balanced way risks derailing the comprehensive sustainable development agenda without any compensatory gains.” The report also underlines that the internationally community should not focus on establishing any new development goals, “since all have already been agreed upon.” Instead, it suggests that governments should start focusing on how to progressively achieve them and to establish a monitoring and accountability system that will hold all governments accountable. Moreover, Social Watch proposes a set of eight principles as the foundation for a new sustainability rights framework, entitled the “Charter on the Right to Sustainable Development.” These already existing and generally accepted principles and values are interconnected and include:

• Thesolidarity principle: this principle is often used as a basis to govern the relationship of citizens within a country. It implies equality of citizens and their shared responsibility for the common good.
• Thedo not harm principle: the commitment to implement policies in a way that they do no harm to people or nature.
• Theprinciple of common but differentiated responsibilities: governments recognize that their present and historical contribution to environmental degradation differs widely. Consequently they have a differential obligation to pay for its remediation and mitigation.
• Thepolluter pays principle: in continuity of the previous principle, the costs of pollution have to be borne by those who have caused it.
• Theprecautionary principle: this principle states that the implementation of potentially non-harmful policies and actions should not be postponed, even though there is no scientific certainty with regard to the threats of serious or irreversible damage of such actions or policies. The burden of proof that it is not harmful falls on those in favour of the action or policy.
• Thesubsidiarity principle: any decision should be taken at the lowest administrative or political level, to be as close to the citizens as possible and to ensure their full participation.
• Theprinciple of free, prior and informed consent: communities should have the right to give or withhold their consent to proposed projects or actions that will directly affect their livelihoods and lands.
• Theprinciple of peaceful dispute settlement: all international disputes should be settled by peaceful means without endangering peace, security and justice.

According to Social Watch, the four essential values that should go hand in hand with these principles are: freedom, equality, diversity and the respect for nature. Moreover, Social Watch notes that the proposed Charter should also refer, inter alia, to the World Charter for Nature (1982) and the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (2007), and update and upgrade the Declaration on the Right to Development from 1986.

Binding commitments, policy coherence and sustainable development:

As mentioned in the previous section, the Social Watch report cautions that the sustainable development debate should not be about already agreed goals. It should be about the “when” and the “maximum available resources” (including those of international cooperation) to ensure their progressive realization. So, in order to convert these agreements into practical policies at national level, the report recommends governments to adopt binding commitments that will guarantee policy coherence for sustainability; and to harmonize local and national laws with international human rights and environmental standards. Moreover, it encourages governments to strengthen the rule of law to promote sustainability; redirect fiscal policies; reallocate their spending in order to reduce social inequalities and discrimination; and support sustainable production and consumption patterns.

Economic considerations, innovative financing and sustainable development:

The report notes that a “green economy” can improve human well-being and social equality while significantly reducing environmental risks and ecological scarcity. However, it also warns for unwanted consequences. For example, the creation of “green” jobs to replace “brown” ones will have negative consequences for those working in the latter. So, “during the process of transformation towards a green economy some individuals, groups, communities and countries will lose whereas others will win,” the report cautions. This will promote inequity unless other fundamental changes are made in terms of production and consumption patterns, social and political rights and economic practices, the report explains.

Within the framework of redirecting fiscal policies towards sustainability, the Social Watch report does not only propose the “greening” of taxes or measures to combat tax evasion, but it also supports the call for the implementation of innovative financing mechanisms, such as the financial transaction tax (FTT). It explains that such a tax – to be levied on trading shares, bonds, derivatives and foreign currency on the stock exchange, at trade centers and over the counter (OTC) transactions – can contribute to a fairer distribution of burdens. The report further explains that a substantial part of the revenues gained through e.g. an FTT, will be earmarked for environmental, development and rights purposes and distributed through a fund under the auspices of the United Nations.

Besides from trying to increase revenues, the report also encourages governments to reallocate their spending by abolishing harmful subsidies, promoting sustainable consumption and production, cutting military spending, and introducing a social protection floor for all, to name just a few examples. Moreover, the report calls for a reform of the official development assistance (ODA) framework, which it argues, should no longer be based on traditional paternalistic relationships and “charity.” Instead, it should embrace rights and burden sharing on the principle of solidarity.

Measurement of progress and sustainable development:

The Social Watch report explains that the indicators currently used to measure sustainable development are not able to picture the reality of the challenges faced by society today. For example, Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is still considered as the overarching indicator to measure development progress. However, this indicator does not measure, for example, environmental sustainability or social inclusion.

The report therefore recommends the promotion of research on alternative metrics at national and international levels, within a specified timeframe and with the broad participation of civil society. It proposes that all stakeholders would jointly develop a shared set of indicators that have institutional and social legitimacy. This process could build upon already existing initiatives, such as Measuring Australia’s Progress (MAP), or Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness Index. The report also refers to the existing Basic Capabilities Index (BCI), created by Social Watch, as an alternative non-monetary measure of poverty.

For more information and to access the various chapters of the report, clickhere.

The UN Non-Governmental Liaison Service (UN-NGLS) is an inter-agency programme of the United Nations mandated to develop constructive relations between the UN and civil society organizations.


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