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Is encouraging governments to sign up to SDGs more effective than ratifying and acting upon human rights conventions, or should there be a combination of both?

When writing and analysing my dissertation on human rights and mental health in Ghana and South Africa I found that despite ratifying all of the relevant human rights conventions, no real progress had been made around ensuring human rights were maintained in this area. This was in simple terms mainly because they were not being held to account for their commitments and also lacked the money to invest in this area.

I am interested in people's experiences and knowledge surrounding WASH and human rights and whether ensuring governments sign up to commitments such as the SDGs would generate more change in a country than ratifying conventions, or whether there needs to be a combination of both?

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Dear Emma,

This is an interesting question - but one which may have been answered by the people who were responsible for agreeing the final draft of the Sustainable Development Goals. Last week it was decided to include the human rights to water and sanitation in the preamble to that document, and human rights permeate goals 5 and 10 on achieving gender equality and reducing inequality within and among countries.

Recognition of the human rights to water and sanitation at international and national level, the adoption of the Optional Protocol to the Convention on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which establishes a complaints and inquiry mechanism, and inclusion of the rights in SDG 6 bring together political will, and, hopefully, mechanisms and funding to ensure that these rights become reality.

Human rights are not realised without specific government commitment at national and local levels, or without the engagement of civil society, of the rights holders. I believe (and I think that we are beginning to see this in projects that WaterAid is piloting) that the most effective way of ensuring that governments are held to account for their obligations with respect to the rights is to make civil society aware and well-informed of their rights. They are then in a position to proactively demand their rights. This may be achieved through demonstrations and legal confrontation, but is more likely to take place through active engagement with local government. We have to bear in mind that local government often also requires training and capacity building to understand their role in realising human rights.

For me, recognition of the rights at the international and national levels gives power to individuals, households, communities and villages to engage local government. The SDGs, also agreed at international and national level, give the rights an additional, perhaps more comprehensible platform.

In essence - yes, a combined approach, human rights and SDGs will give us the tools to ensure universal access by 2030, with a focus on marginalised and vulnerable individuals and groups. But governments will need to be held to account for both the realisation of the rights and meeting the SDGs, and civil society as well as development professionals need to understand how to use these tools effectively to have their greatest impact.

Neither the rights nor the SDGs will have the desired impact if the people who are to benefit from them are not informed of their rights and the commitments that their governments have made to the SDGs on their behalf. Perhaps one of the greatest tasks that we have is to bring the rights and the SDGs home to the individuals who need them most, so that they can actively engage with the state to realise them.



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There is a need for both on the part of government. Governments must sign up, ratify and then enact conventions into law, which is the foundation of responsibility and accountability - supply side. It is only when this is done that citizens will be able to demand and claim rights to WASH.

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I can't speak to the realisation of human rights in connection to mental health in Ghana or South Africa, so this only refers generally to human rights law and development commitments such as the MDGs/SDGs. In short, a combination of both is important, as they can complement each other. Here are a couple of points why I think this is the case:

  • Human rights law is binding, but (internationally) somewhat difficult to enforce. Universal political declarations such as the MDGs/SDGs are arguably supported by more political will than the realisation of human rights. There is more "buzz" around them and so there is more momentum behind the 'we end poverty' slogan of the SDGs than the comparable 'we realise an adequate standard of living' slogan that human rights law makes. This may (or may not) be the case because the MDGs/SDGs are political declarations that are not technically legally binding. Arguably, governments prefer and put more political will behind political declarations to TRY something than behind legally binding commitments.

  • However, the legally binding nature of rights is crucial. And South Africa is an important example of that. South Africa has one of the strongest Constitutions in terms of economic, social and cultural rights (e.g. food, water, sanitation, housing, health, education) and there is very important jurisprudence on these rights from the South African Constitutional Court. This is important for the individuals/groups whose rights have been violated – they can get a remedy because of the constitutional protection – and it is important because the cases provide guidance for the Government on how these rights should be interpreted and what Government needs to do to realise them. There is actually quite a lot of case law from many countries where the rights to water and sanitation have been used in court successfully. See this link.

  • Also, international human rights law in itself (even if it is not 'translated' into national legal systems) can be used side by side with the SDGs, especially now that the SDGs (contrary to the MDGs) commit to universality and equality. Human rights law says that all people have rights (=universality) and that economic, social and cultural rights need to be realised as expeditiously as possible with a focus on the most vulnerable and marginalised (=overcoming inequality). This provides a good basis for holding governments to account on how they are making progress: Do they really ensure that efforts focus on the most vulnerable and marginalised? Do they ensure that other important human rights principles are used, such as sustainability, accountability, participation, access to information? In my view, human rights law can provide many of the "how tos" for the goals and targets of the SDGs. To what extent this will happen will also depend on the extent to which all actors (not just government) are aware of what human rights demand and use rights.

  • Last but not least, a clarification that all countries have already committed to the right to water and ...
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I agree with idea that there should be a combination of both ratification of human rights conventions and signing up to SDGs.

I would like share the example of Nepal: the country has ratified most international human rights conventions and most of their optional protocols, but it was the MDGs which seem to have motivated our Government to set a national targets on water and sanitation - that of universal coverage by 2017.

This might have been because MDGs / SDGs, besides other commitments, have a defined timeframe as well, where states can evaluate their own progress - whereas ratifying conventions obliges country to submit reports once in few years, which they can get out of (as far as I know). Just sharing my personal opinion.

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Thank you for all your responses, really insightful and interesting!

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