Last month’s session of the UN Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) provided a critical preview of the key areas of consensus and contention that are likely to shape the post-2015 development agenda. The priority theme of CSW was “Challenges and achievements in the implementation of the Millennium Development Goals for Women and Girls”. Member States therefore reviewed progress in relation to the broad range of issues encompassed by the MDGs, including poverty, health, education, the impacts of climate change, and gender equality.

The outcome document—the Agreed Conclusions—embodies a number of victories for advocates of women’s human rights: importantly, States agreed that the next development agenda should contain a stand-alone goal focused specifically on gender equality and women’s human rights, and that gender-specific targets and indicators should be integrated across all goals. Further, States acknowledged the structural causes of gender inequality and recognised that the MDGs omitted several issues that fundamentally affect women’s enjoyment of human rights, including violence against women; unpaid care work; women’s access to decent work, land, and other productive resources; women’s sexual and reproductive health and reproductive rights; child, early, and forced marriage; and women’s full and equal participation in decision-making. States also noted the particular vulnerability of women facing multiple and intersecting forms of discrimination, such as indigenous women and women with disabilities; the disproportionate burden of environmental degradation and climate change-related impacts borne by women; and the need to protect the rights of migrant women and domestic workers.

Although much of this language is commendable, the broader context of the Agreed Conclusions illuminates the deep inconsistencies and disagreements that threaten to derail the next development agenda. At the heart of this is the issue of an “enabling environment” for the realisation of human rights.1 The existence of an enabling environment depends on factors that affect the ability of States to use their resources—whether generated domestically or via official development assistance (ODA)—to achieve their social and development goals. The most significant of these factors is the international trade and finance architecture, which frequently undermines the capacity of States to fulfil their human rights obligations, whether by reducing the resources available to a State or limiting the policy space for States to spend their resources according to national priorities. The deeply inequitable and unsound policies and practices that comprise this architecture are too numerous to list here, but include financial deregulation that has led to a massive expansion in speculative financial flows; trade liberalisation that has led to falling real wages and a reduction in revenue from tariffs; loans by international financial institutions that are conditional on the implementation of austerity measures; trade and investment agreements that infringe on domestic policy space and disproportionately empower corporations; and international tax havens that annually deprive developing countries of trillions of dollars.2

While States committed to reducing poverty, ensuring women’s right to decent work, and the provision of key social services such as universal social protection, there was a clear resistance to addressing the systemic impediments to these goals. For example, although there are multiple references in the Agreed Conclusions to the negative impact of the global economic crisis on human rights, no commitments are made to addressing the underlying causes of the crisis, despite international consensus that these include a failure to appropriately regulate the financial sector and an overall lack of transparency and financial integrity.3

While States committed to “work towards ensuring that global trade, financial and investment agreements are conducive to the promotion” of women’s human rights and “address systemic fragilities and imbalances”, there was little elaboration on how this might be done and who would be responsible. This is despite previously agreed upon language that gives more content to these aspirations: for example, given the crippling effect of sovereign debt on the ability of States to provide essential social services4, developed countries have previously committed to assisting developing countries through coordinated policies aimed at debt financing, relief and restructuring.5 No such commitment was made at CSW, despite a reference to long-term debt sustainability. International tax cooperation, which is desperately needed to address the net outflow of capital from developing countries, was also omitted, despite previous commitments to strengthen such cooperation.6

Even if countries were reluctant to develop detailed language so as not to pre-empt the outcome of parallel intergovernmental discussions on the post-2015 development agenda, at a minimum, there should have been an in-principle commitment to a global economic system premised on equity, democracy, participation, transparency, sustainability, and inclusion (again, drawing on previously agreed language7 ). This may have gone a small way to alleviating the legitimate concerns of countries from the global South that, despite rhetoric of transformation, the new development agenda will do little to challenge the core of an international system that has precipitated unprecedented economic, environmental, and social crises, including extraordinary levels of wealth inequality, the burden of which is borne by developing States.

In other fora, the bloc of G77 countries plus China has consistently and stridently demanded a more equitable world order that addresses the structural failures of the international financial, trading and monetary systems and centres on sustainable development. A critical element of this is a renewed and strengthened global partnership for development—another issue effectively omitted from the Agreed Conclusions—that is guided by the principle of “common but differentiated responsibilities”8. In the face of clear resistance from the US, Australia, the UK, Canada, and EU (at CSW and elsewhere), a number of developing States at CSW firmly asserted their right to development as a necessary element in any negotiations around human rights.

While the negotiations at CSW still produced an outcome document—albeit one that was inconsistent and in many respects incomplete—it clearly illustrated the polarisation of States around the issues that are at the heart of the new development agenda, namely whether the new agenda will replace fundamentally inequitable global structures with a system that supports development and human rights for all.


[1] Notwithstanding the obligation of States to use maximum available resources to progressively realize economic, social and cultural rights, as stated in Art. 2(1) of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. Despite recommendations from civil society, this clause was also omitted from the Agreed Conclusions.

[2] Note that the Expert Group report for the 58th Session of CSW concluded that “the prevailing neo-liberal economic model is incapable of supporting gender-equitable sustainable development”: UN Women, Report of the Expert Group Meeting on Structural and Policy Constraints in Achieving the MDGs for Women and Girls (2013) 17

[3] See, e.g.  A/RES/63/303, Resolution adopted by the General Assembly on 9 July 2009, Outcome of the Conference on the World Financial and Economic Crisis and Its Impact on Development. para. 9

[4] Report of the Independent Expert on the effects of foreign debt and other related international financial obligations of States on the full enjoyment of all human rights, particularly economic, social, and cultural rights (2012) UN Doc. A/67/304

[5] See, e.g. Rio+20 Outcome888 Document, para. 263; Monterrey Consensus on Financing for Development, Section E.

[6] See, e.g., Monterrey Consensus on Financing for Development, para. 64.

[7] See, e.g. Monterrey Consensus on Financing for Development.

[8] For recent statements to this effect by the G77 plus China, see e.g. Statement on behalf of the Group of 77 and China by Ambassador Sacha Llorentty, Permanent Representative of Plurinational State of Bolivia to the United Nations, Chairman of the Group of 77, at the Special High level Meeting of ECOSOC with the Bretton Woods Institutions, the World Trade Organization, and the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (New York, 14 April 2014); Statement on behalf of the Group of 77 and China by Minister Luis Alberto Arce Catacora, Minister of Economy and Public Finance of the Plurinational State of Bolivia, at the Ninety-first Meeting of Ministers and Governors of the Intergovernmental Group of Twenty-Four on International Monetary Affairs and Development (Washington, DC, 10 April 2014); Statement on behalf of the Group of 77 and China by H.E. Mr. Sacha Llorenti, Ambassador, Permanent Representative of the Plurinational State of Bolivia to the United Nations, Chairman of the Group of 77, sat the 10th session of the Open Working Group on Sustainable Development Goals (SDGS) (New York, 4 April 2014);  Statement on behalf of the Group of 77 and China by H.E. Mr. Sacha Llorenti, Ambassador, Permanent Representative of the Plurinational State of Bolivia to the United Nations, Chairman of the Group of 77, at the 10th session of the Open Working Group on Sustainable Development Goals (SDGS) (New York, 31 March 2014)