The Rush for Land Indicators
One of the challenges to monitoring progress toward the 2030 Agenda’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) is the agreement around performance indicators. Although this exercise has advanced for many indicators for tracking progress, the performance indicators against Targets related to land remain incomplete. In this third year of the Agenda’s implementation, the need for states’ agreement on the indicators is urgent, but the relevance of those indicators are equally important.
A review of the indicator development so far suggests that a rush toward consensus may have compromised on quality and coherence with the 2030 Agenda promises.
In the spirit and promise of the 2030 Agenda and the UN Development System (UNDS), the efforts to achieve the SDGs and to develop corresponding performance indicators should uphold the integrity of the UN Charter and the UN System built on three purposeful pillars: (1) peace and security, (2) progressive development and (3) human rights. It is difficult to find that integrity across the targets and the more-specific indicators.
Meanwhile, fully 11 out of the 17 SDGs variously involve land and its administration, potentially enabling the defragmentation of UN approaches to land through the UNDS. The transversal issue of land poses a particular challenge—and opportunity—to harmonize methods and fill normative and operational gaps in alignment with prevailing standards related to land.
The evolving normative framework on land combines both policy commitments and legal obligations of UN Member States, as well as peremptory norms that apply to States, in general, including non-Member States. The standing commitments are expressed in the Committee on World Food Security (CFS) Tenure Guidelines (2012) and Framework for Action in Protracted Crises (2015), as well as certain principled commitments of 2016 New Urban Agenda (NUA).
However, above these are State obligations embodied in treaty law and its authoritative interpretation such as the CEDaW General recommendation No. 34 on the rights of rural women and states’ corresponding obligations, and CESCR General Comment No. 24 on States’ economic, social and cultural rights obligations in the context of business practices. However, no such norms are cited in the metadata on SDG land indicators.
Alignment with already-existing treaty-bound reporting standards and related indicators also should not require reinvention or further negotiation. Nonetheless, with the 2030 Agenda’s pledge to an integrated vision and approach to the SDGs, their indicators should go far to complement the UN Human Rights System by providing greater specificity in implementation techniques based on proven technical good practice. One way would be for 2030 Agenda efforts to support states in filling their typical gaps in statistical data already required in state reporting under treaty.
For example, the CESCR reporting and review system requires states parties to report every five years on the impact of forced eviction in their jurisdiction. Meeting this treaty-based performance indicator already would fill a current gap in the indicators adopted for SDG 11 on human settlements development. Likewise, the specific actions required of the states to ensure women’s access to, and control of land and productive natural resources under C EDaW also remain without reflection in any related SDG 5.a indicators.
Similar gaps remain despite treaty body guidance for developing such indicators that long precede the SDGs (, e.g., HRI/GEN/2/Rev.6, HRI/MC/2008/3, E/C.12/2008/2 and Human Rights Indicators: A Guide to Measurement and Implementation). The treaty system already has devised structural, process and outcome indicators toward similar ends, but the SDG indicator development has overlooked these tools and assets already in the UN System.
Notably, some Treaty Bodies and specialized UN organizations have analyzed the link between the obligations under their treaties and the SDGs (e.g., OHCHR, CEDaW, CRC, UNICEF and UN Women). Particularly useful also is the new, online Human Rights Index that aligns the standing recommendations and observations on each state’s human rights treaty performance as they relate to each SDGs.
However, the UN Human Rights System efforts at Geneva to align with the SDGs are not sufficiently reciprocated by the SDG-related processes at New York, neither through the specialized UN organizations as custodians of the Goals, nor the High-level Political Forum (HLPF), nor in the UN Statistical Commission.
This is particularly alarming as we see the SDG processes attract the lion’s share of global political attention and other resources. Meanwhile, the UN Human Rights System, the main and most-enduring locus for monitoring state performance, is undergoing marginalization, including serial budget cuts, hampering its capacity and indispensable role within the wider UN System.
The static nature of SDG indicators already developed also mostly omits measures of process and outcome (i.e., progress and change). Added to this is the already-demonstrated weakness of the HLPF methods and Voluntary National Review contents. Notable is the absence of parallel reporting by non-state actors, which is well-established in the UN Human Rights System, the principal locus of monitoring and reporting experience within the UN System.
Promising, however, is the prospect of developing SDG indicators on land to fill gaps between certain promises of A/RES/70/1 and the (voluntary) Goals or Targets. For example, the resolution claims to address factors giving rise to violence, insecurity and injustice such as corruption, illicit financial flows and obstacles to the full realization of the right of self-determination of peoples living under colonial and foreign occupation (para. 35). The gap left by no corresponding Goal or Target could be partially filled with responsive land indicators that reflect corresponding treaty-bound obligations and peremptory norms in the wider UN System.
The 2030 Agenda’s promise also to enlist all assets across the UN Organization so far has not been realized. Indicators are still needed for land-relevant SDGs, especially Goal 1, indicator 1.4.2 (tenure security), indicators for Target 5.a (women’s access to, and control of land and productive resources), Goal 11 (human settlements) and Goal 15 (life on land). We join with others in the UN System and global civil society affirming that, however welcome and important, the SDGs are not enough without the needed system-wide pooling of assets and normative integrity. Before progress toward the Goals can happen, we need to get the methods right, while living up to the pledge to achieve complementarity and an integrated approach.