by Philani Mthembu

This content was originally published at the Southern Voice website.


The COVID-19 pandemic has revealed and amplified many vulnerabilities in societies across the world. As a result, it is becoming increasingly challenging to achieve the targets set out by the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). One of the critical goals negatively affected by the pandemic has been SDG 16, which aims to ‘promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels.’

For the first time since the introduction of the Human Development Index (HDI) by the United Nations (UN), human development indicators have mostly stagnated. They had even gone backwards in 2020. It poses a severe threat towards efforts to eradicate extreme poverty. But also, civil liberties are in danger.

Building a resilient human rights architecture

The post-pandemic world needs a resilient human rights and international development architecture. It needs to link national priorities and programmes with international norms enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR).

It is time to invest considerable energy and resources in regional cooperation mechanisms. These can bridge national practices with international norms. It is essential to safeguard the implementation of established international agreements at a national and regional level. Robust systems of cooperation should be driven by established global norms of human development and human rights. They play an integral role in ensuring the entrenchment of a human rights culture that considers the needs of individuals and those of society. It will foster greater accountability amongst state and non-state actors entrusted with ensuring that their practices align with international human rights treaties. It could include strengthening the agency and capacity of regional structures. In Africa, those would be the African Peer Review Mechanism (APRM), the African Commission of Human and Peoples Rights (ACHPR), and the Pan-African Parliament (PAP). The mechanisms would inculcate a culture of holding each other accountable when agreed norms and practices are violated.

Global state and non-state actors will also have to enshrine socio-economic rights into national, regional, and international frameworks to advance human development and human rights. It would guarantee their citizen’s interests for improved livelihoods and to “leave no one behind”.

SDG 16 is vital for human rights and development

The objectives outlined in SDG 16 have become even more important during the pandemic and for what will be needed to recover from its health, socio-economic, and governance effects. This SDG is an essential pillar of existing human rights frameworks at a national, regional, and global level. The linkage between human development and human rights is crucial, and a multilateral system with development at its centre is resilient and progressive.

The pandemic has also brought to light the importance of solidarity within and across societies, which is necessary to build resilience, justice, and inclusion. It is imperative during a pandemic. Unfortunately, many states trampled on citizens’ rights with the excuse of restrictions to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Indeed, societies that lack access to justice may often revert to destructive means of resolving societal grievances.

An inclusive and honest dialogue on the enhancement of development and human rights is critical at this point. It holds true for the United States of America and China. Both bear essential responsibilities in ensuring a world committed to common objectives instead of being divided along stark geopolitical lines.

A human rights architecture split along geopolitical lines will certainly not bode well for development and SDG 16 in particular. Maintaining a commitment to universal principles and objectives remains paramount to an inclusive multilateral system of cooperation if it is based on solidarity and the advancement of human development and human rights.

Time for the right reforms

Currently, much of the discussion about the United Nations reform centres around the Security Council. But it is equally vital for countries in the General Assembly to focus on strengthening UN agencies such as the Human Rights Council and regional human rights bodies.

In recent years, human rights matters have become increasingly politicised within the UNSC to the detriment of the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC). As a result, these bodies have not always been given the space to conduct their work based on independent investigations and evidence-based recommendations. The result is an erosion of confidence in the structures established to oversee the operationalisation and interpretation of human rights treaties.

Civil society actors and the research community will also have to ramp up their advocacy and research efforts.  It is also their task to strengthen the human rights architecture to fit the 21st century while ensuring that development remains at the centre of the multilateral order.

With human development at the centre of the 2030 Agenda for sustainable development, it is time that nation-states, regional and international organisations, and civil society recommit themselves to the SDGs and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). Encouraging an inclusive conversation on their continued relevance to contemporary challenges is more urgent than ever.