Where do feminists stand after the First High Level Political Forum on the Implementation of the 2030 Agenda: What is being Left Behind?

RESURJ members and allies from DIVA for Equality and the YP Foundation participated in the High Level Political Forum (HLPF) from July 11 to 20 in New York. The HLPF, tasked with the global follow up and review of the 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda, was the first global meeting since the adoption of the SDGs in September of 2015. Under the theme of “Ensuring that no one is left behind”, the 2016 HLPF included panels on stock-taking a year after the adoption of the SDGs, discussions on mainstreaming the SDGs into national policies and their means of implementation, plans and strategies for integrating the social, environmental, and economic dimensions of sustainable development. The forum also included the voluntary reviews from 22 countries1, and thematic reviews of progress on the SDGs. The final segment of the elaborated HLPF 2016 was the adoption of a Ministerial Declaration, which was expected to provide political leadership, guidance and recommendations on the 2030 Agenda’s implementation and follow-up. At the end of the HLPF it was clear that the expert and thematic panels as well as the Declaration fell short of its expectations.

The goals of the 2016 HLPF were ambitious but its structure was poorly planned and too soon after the adoption of the SDGs to take stock. The Ministerial Declaration, adopted at the very end of the last day of the HLPF on July 20th and after a vote on the climate change paragraph (19), provides little guidance with regards to the political will and political coherence required – let alone what sort of commitment is necessary for the Means of Implementation of the Agenda. The General Assembly Resolution guiding the management of future High Level Political Forums also misses the mark by proposing a fragmented review of hand picked goals.

The 2016 HLPF left much to be desired from a political standpoint. While many expected the HLPF to in fact play a political role in addressing the obstacles in achieving the SDGs, it limited itself to being a technical and information-sharing space. The expert-led panels and presentations, were a case in point, offering limited insight from the ground on the practicality of implementing the SDGs. Thematic experts’ discussions were almost never linked to the national voluntary reports or summaries submitted by countries under review, which resulted in high-level discussions with a global focus. This took place despite countless governments acknowledging last September that the real work of implementation will necessitate a shift away from New York. The discussions provided limited or no insights on how to re-structure the systems at national, regional and global levels from which the SDGs will be implemented. While many alluded to the comprehensiveness of the agenda and the interlinkages between the three dimensions of sustainable development, Member States and UN agencies throughout the HLPF continued to fragment people’s lives into selected targets and indicators. While the discussions focused on those being left behind, there was little acknowledgement of those who continue to profit at the expense of the ‘poor, vulnerable and marginalized.’ The reminder repeatedly echoed from the halls of the UN with this process is that people and planet continue to be at the margin of this debate.

National Voluntary Review Reporting

We commend countries that volunteered for the first reporting as it indicates willingness and desire to engage in the process. Since this was the first round of reports from Member States, those of us following this process expected disparities in the way each country would approach the review presentation. However, calling the country reports given at the HLPF a review is not accurate. The 2016 HLPF review process ended up being yet another meeting where many member states issued long statements and vague explanations of how difficult it will be for them to implement the SDGs in its entirety. Common across the countries reporting was the fact that states failed to effectively engage civil society both from an implementation and reporting perspective. Few reflected on the structural barriers their own country faces in implementing the 2030Agenda, and many glorified their achievements by sharing actions that were already happening at the national level regardless of the 2030 Agenda (many of these likely undelivered commitments from the MDGs framework).

From a structural viewpoint, by the end of the first week of the HLPF, it was clear that allocating only two days out of the eight days of the Forum for 22 countries to share their national experiences in implementing the SDGs was not sufficient nor did it allow for proper peer review and dialogue or civil society participation. The time allocated was not enough for countries to deliver a meaningful oral presentations; many opted to deliver broad, often celebratory charismatic statements instead of taking the opportunity to share lessons learnt and vocalize the real challenges they are facing to start implementing the 2030 Agenda.

The second set of challenges emerged from the fact that Member States had two loose guidelines and options from which to chose to present their reports: Either as part of a five-country grouping with an interactive dialogue at the end of all countries presentations’; or giving individual presentations followed by an immediate interactive dialogue. The former enabled the reporting countries to evade challenging questions by selectively responding to questions that were posed to their cohort (no Member State actually raised questions for the reporting countries; the questions and comments almost always came from the Major Groups and others stakeholders when they were granted time to speak). This was not possible to do with the individual reporting since questions were entirely and fully addressed to the one country on stage. The latter process allowed for far more accountability and countries should be encouraged to choose this more direct interactive dialogue format.

It was clear that national reviews are the most relevant section of the Forum and should be at the center of the programme in upcoming HLPF sessions. This would give more time for each country to present on progress and challenges at the national level, and to make the interactive dialogue genuinely interactive and constructive. Even though reporting is voluntary, countries should follow the comprehensive spirit of the Agenda by delivering presentations that are reflective of that full breadth of the Agenda and Member States not reporting should provide constructive feedback to those reporting.

Civil Society and many stakeholders, including some Member States, recommended that the HLPF reporting process draw from best practices of the treaty bodies such as the CEDAW, ICCPR, ICESCR, Committees and the UPR. Bodies like UNW and OHCHR, which have been supporting Member States to prepare their review processes in Geneva, could support countries for their HLPF reporting, ensuring that the process is participatory and that shadow reporting is also supported and featured in the process. Finally, it seems that agencies like UNDP, the Commonwealth, la Francophonie and regional bodies like the African Union and the European Union have already developed a framework for reporting on the SDGs, which should serve as an example for other regions in an attempt to seek the highest standards for a comprehensive review.

Common themes raised from the country reporting included the call for political will as a pre-requisite to move the 2030 Agenda forward; the challenges presented by the need for domestic and international resource mobilization; the impact of conflict and humanitarian crisis on sustainable development; the involvement of the private sector and the importance of civil society participation. While interlinkages and policy coherence were often alluded to during country reporting (as well as the thematic debates), the economy and climate dimensions of the Agenda were discussed in isolation from achieving social justice and respecting and fulfilling human rights. Few presentations focused on health, education, young people and adolescents. Gender equality and women’s and girls’ empowerment were often mentioned but without the full reference to the realization of the human rights of women. Only a few countries brought up these

issues. Samoa’s statement and its commitment to “undertaken legislative and policy reforms to ensure equality for all under the law” including for those of diverse sexual orientation and gender identities, was a welcomed and much needed step in the direction of leaving no one behind. Finland and Switzerland emphasized the centrality of gender equality, human rights including respect for sexual and reproductive health and rights, and the elimination of violence against women and girls as key to achieve sustainable development.

Regional Experiences:

Regional Forums on Sustainable Development (RFSDs) are the platforms for regional follow-up and review of the SDGs and have been organized by the United National Regional Commissions – ECA, ECE, ECLAC, ESCWA and ESCAP. All regions held preparatory meetings ahead of the HLPF and issued reports on their engagement on follow up and review. Only ECLAC reported having fully involved civil society as an equal partner. All the other regional bodies explained that they hoped to do better in “leaving no one behind” for the regional consultations. They explained that they see their role as facilitating access for countries to regional data for reference and analysis and that they also must work closely with regional bodies such as AU and EU Commissions, ASEAN and their equivalent in Latin America and the Caribbean and Arab States, to encourage more Member States to volunteer and make sure that frameworks for reporting at the national level are harmonized. They all pledged to provide more capacity-building and technical support to Member States to equip them with the skills to better report and deliver on the implementation of the SDGs.

Regional bodies play an important intermediary role between the global development agenda and national development policies and can influence both implementation and review processes through the exchange of regional experiences and perspectives. In the context of the 2030 Agenda, regional cooperation will be essential for countries of similar circumstances to elaborate on public policy effectiveness vis-à-vis country politics and circumstances.

National Civil Society, Major Groups and other Stakeholder Participation

Participation of civil society in the planning, implementation, monitoring and evaluation to strengthen countries’ effective follow-up and review of the SDGs was referenced a number of times during the HLPF. However, this came without clarifying the model for participation or concrete commitments. For instance, most of the 22 countries reporting had omitted civil society from the reporting procedure until the very last minute, at which point their input was superficial and tokenized. This shows the lack of interest and respect given to the institutional mechanisms established for CSO’s participation and voids the principle of meaningful participation for those who will be holding governments accountable at the national level.

This dynamic of cursory representation became further apparent during the country-reporting segment, when the Major Groups and other Stakeholders (MGoS) were invited to speak not on ‘equal footing’ but only if time permitted, after all the country representatives and INGOs had finished making their interventions. This was, once again, counterproductive to facilitating a much needed interactive ‘peer review’ of progress and ensuring accountability through a critical analysis of the process. The phrase “due to time constraints” became a refrain that limited MGoS participation to one intervention per session wherein Member States were presenting. The challenge here lay in asking diverse civil society and other stakeholders to consolidate one voice to speak on behalf of the group, but also that the moderators held the power to decide whether to give the opportunity to even that one collective spokesperson. Major Groups and other Stakeholders were denied speaking slots several times during the reporting sessions.

On the other hand, side events made room for healthy cross-movement dialogues between a multiplicity of actors including Member States and looked at short and medium term strategies to ensure that the HLPF does not become an empty space. Many side events looked at national civil society reports, and how to ensure inclusive, coherent and relevant reporting processes based on human rights practices and principles. Others tried to define who was left behind. The stakeholder Group of Persons with Disabilities made history by bringing their own sign language interpreters to official UN meetings and side events and raising a great deal of attention to the need for all involved (including Major Groups and other Stakeholders) to walk the talk by ensuring equal access to SGDs processes to all at global, regional and national spaces.

It is important that this model of participation is accessible and ‘open’ to all civil society without being selective – one that enables ‘meaningful’ engagement of a comprehensive cross-section of list of civil society, on genuinely equal footing, especially of those who have been traditionally marginalized on the basis of gender, sexuality, race, class, ethnicity, disability amongst other statuses.

Ministerial Political Declaration:

At the very last hour of the HLPF, an overall very weak Ministerial Declaration, which had been previously negotiated behind closed doors and submitted to Member State under silence procedure2, was adopted. The contentious points of the negotiations included the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities (CBDR), foreign occupation, sovereignty, language on climate change and the Paris Agreement, financing for implementation, and the role of civil society in the High Level Political Forum. However, reference to the Paris Agreement was what kept the document open until the very last moment.

During the plenary, Nicaragua proposed to vote on paragraph 19 of the Declaration, which contained language from the Paris Agreement; Nicaragua, had not signed the Agreement because it argues that it is insufficient for global average temperature to remain below 1.5 degrees and therefore proposed language that would maintain the guidance more general guidance on this. Beyond the actual language procedure Nicaragua’s complaint was grounded in the more structural critique that ‘powerful countries’ had dismissed its request for flexible language and actual negotiation of the Ministerial Declaration.

After the voting many countries took the floor to explain why they voted in favor (141 votes) of adopting Paragraph 19 as presented in the Declaration or abstained (3 votes) and voiced concerns about setting a dangerous precedent that would leave a huge set of the population behind referring to the voices of developing countries being ignored in negotiations practices at the UN.

The Ministerial Declaration does contain some positive reiteration of the 2030 Agenda including reaching “the furthest behind and most marginalized first” (Paragraph 4) and “ensuring the inclusion and participation of those who are furthest behind…” (Paragraph 5). Although these are worthy efforts, the list under Paragraph 5 continues to be far from complete without the mention of peoples of diverse sexual orientation and gender identity. Paragraph 8 and 10 emphasize “universal respect for human rights and human dignity, peace, equality and non-discrimination, is central to our commitment to leave no one behind…” elimination of all forms of violence against children and youth and call for realizing gender equality and the empowerment of all women and girls (Paragraph 10) – although were are disappointed that there was no reference to human rights in this context. We welcome Paragraph 7 and its emphasis on peace and security as well as listing some of the factors that contribute to violence, injustice and insecurity “such as inequality, corruption, poor governance and illicit financial and arms flows…”

While these are welcomed mentions, albeit submerged under the usual rhetoric, there is little on how these will become a reality on the ground as the Declaration contains neither real guidance nor concrete commitments on how countries can realize human rights and equality, address systemic and structural barriers, inequalities, hold government’s accountable and combat climate change and ecological damage.

The way forward:

The 2016 HLPF confirmed what civil society has known all along – that the global-level follow-up and review will be irrelevant if not supported by strong national and regional level review mechanisms supported by an engaged and diverse civil society at the national level. Moreover, the 2030 Agenda cannot be realized if it does not take a comprehensive approach to development by ensuring coherence and commitment amongst the various pieces of this agenda (Paris Agreement, 2015 Addis Ababa Agenda, the UNCTAD agreements, etc). The HLPF can play an important role in the politics of sustainable development but it cannot be the only space where we hold our governments accountable.

Women with different identities, priorities, policies and principles continue to engage with the 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda with one mission: to ensure the inclusivity of women in all their diversities and that gender, social, economic and environmental justice becomes a reality where it matters most – at the local level. Everyday we negotiate new ways to hold our leaders and head of states accountable to their commitments, including ensuring our effective participation in all processes for implementing the SDGs. We clarify our demands for inclusion and meaningful engagement of diverse actors at equal footing, especially those who have been traditionally marginalized on the basis of gender, sexuality, race, ethnicity, health status, and disabilities amongst other differences that make us powerful. Challenging the systems is never an issue for feminists or activists working for real transformation. So for us, the 2016 HLPF was all about raising a feminist political voice to hold people and governments accountable, pushing for real participation and refusing to occupy preconceived molds of representation that depoliticize our agenda.

1 China, Colombia, Egypt, Estonia, Finland, France, Georgian, Germany, Madagascar, Mexico Morocco, Montenegro, Norway, Philippines, Republic of Korea, Samoa, Switzerland, Sierra Leone, Togo, Turkey, Uganda, Venezuela

2 UN procedure under which the facilitator of the meeting submits the outcome document with a certain time frame and if no Member States respond, it is taken to agree to the document and therefore it is ready for adoption. In the case of the Ministerial Declaration the silence was broken by Nicaragua on Climate change and Morocco on foreign occupation.