Expert Speak Raisina Debates
Published on Dec 23, 2020
The enhancement of the SDG framework in line with the human rights norms and indicators should not be onerous, given the voluntarism of the SDG process, that the SDGs aim at core human rights objectives, that all BIMSTEC members have accepted the SDGs and that they are all bound by international human rights law to begin with.
Towards values-based connectivity in BIMSTEC: Enhancing the rights dimensions of SDG 8

This article is part of the series — Post-Pandemic Development Priorities.

The ravages to economic growth and employment caused by the COVID-19 pandemic obviates the need for a rights-based approach to recovery. In pursuit of Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 8, the interlocking goals of achieving economic growth and providing decent work will be well served by an enhanced values framework rather than mere functional lines of cooperation.

The Sustainable Development Goals, especially Goal 8, focus on promoting sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth and full and productive employment and decent work for all. BIMSTEC members had made some progress towards achieving SDG 8, according to the 2020 ESCAP report on the SDGs.

The COVID-19 pandemic, however, has adversely affected the achievement of SDG 8, and indeed many other indicators, as BIMSTEC economies came to a standstill. In India, for example, a “historic fall” in GDP figures (-23.9% in Q1) may have caused long-term damage to pre-existing jobless growth. Some 21 million salaried jobs were lost and millions returned home to rural areas amidst a draconian lockdown. Unemployment has soared to historic levels, thus, imperiling millions in precarious work, including migrant workers and the poor.

The pandemic has imperiled the achievement of SDG 8 targets.

This dismal picture is repeated across the BIMSTEC area, which is home to 1.5 billion people (21 percent of the world’s population). Bangladesh’s economic growth is reportedly in “dire straits” as it copes with the Rohingya refugees and the percentage of people below the poverty line is expected to double to 40 percent by the end of 2020. Myanmar’s economy, amidst civil conflict in various parts of the country and a turbulent transition to democracy, is expected to contract severely. Thailand’s economy, amidst protracted nation-wide student protests, is expected to contract by 5 percent in 2020, one of the sharpest declines in Asia and the Pacific, resulting in major job losses, particularly in the tourism sector, which comprises 15 percent of GDP. The impact on household welfare is severe, with household debt standing at worrisome levels. Other members, Bhutan, Nepal and Sri Lanka suffer likewise.

Globally, the United Nations (UN) expected some job losses for 1.6 billion workers globally in the informal sectors and a slow down in GDP per capita, which had already slowed to 1.5 percent in 2019. The pandemic, has thus, imperiled the achievement of SDG 8 targets.

In its COVID-19 Guidance (May 2020), the UN’s human rights office has noted that “respect for human rights across the spectrum, including economic, social, cultural, and civil and political rights, will be fundamental to the success of the public health response and recovery from the pandemic.” The SDGs, endorsed by all BIMSTEC members, embodies a move towards a values-oriented foundation for cooperation and connectivity.

The 17 SDGs aim at core human rights objectives. For example, achieving employment for all and decent work are directly related to the fundamental human right to work. General Comment 18 (2005) of the Committee on Economic Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR), an authoritative statement on the related international convention, stipulates the right to work as a fundamental right and notes its intimate connection with, inter alia, the right to decent, freely chosen and secure work according to international labour standards.

The SDG process allows for localisation and improvement on the SDG indicators.

BIMSTEC as an organisation may guide its members in better steering, framing and mainstreaming a rights-based approach. BIMSTEC members would do well to recall the conceptual framework for human rights and poverty reduction published by the UN in 2004. In the Foreword to the conceptual framework, the then UN High Commissioner for Human Rights noted that human rights may seem distant if your family is starving, if you cannot protect yourself or them from preventable illnesses, or provide your children with basic education. “Yet it is in circumstances of crisis and extreme deprivation that human rights assume their greatest importance.” He continued that a human rights approach to poverty reduction is increasingly being recognised internationally and is gradually being implemented. Asking, “What is a human rights approach to poverty reduction?” he answered: “It links poverty reduction to questions of obligation, rather than welfare or charity. It compels us to look behind national averages and identify the most vulnerable people and design strategies to help them.” He continued: “A human rights approach is grounded in the United Nations Charter.”

In this vein, one effective way of achieving this is to engage gradually in the process of refining and improving on the indicators for SDG 8 and bring them in line with more comprehensive rights-based indicators. The SDG process allows for localisation and improvement on the SDG indicators.

In relation to the right to work, for example, the BIMSTEC Secretariat may draw upon Human Rights Indicators: A Guide to Measurement  (2012) for guidance.  The Guide, in Table 8 on page 71, distinguishes between structural, process and outcome indicators for the right to work. Put together, the illustrative indicators for the right to decent and productive work would comprise, inter alia:

• International human rights and ILO treaties relevant to the right to work ratified by the State. • Date of entry into force and coverage of the right to work in the constitution or other forms of superior law. • Date of entry into force and coverage of domestic laws for implementing the right to work, including regulations to ensure equal opportunities for all and eliminate employment-related discrimination as well as (temporary) special measures for target groups (eg., women, children, indigenous persons, migrants). • Number of registered and/or active NGOs (per 100,000 persons), including trade unions, involved in the promotion and protection of the right to work. • Time frame and coverage of a national policy for full and productive employment. • Date of entry into force and coverage of regulations and procedures to ensure safe and healthy working conditions, including an environment free of sexual harassment, and establishing an independent monitoring body. • Maximum number of working hours per week stipulated by law. • Minimum age for employment by occupation type. • Duration of maternity, paternity and parental leave and leave entitlements on medical grounds and proportion of wages paid in covered period.
• Proportion of received complaints on the right to work, including just and safe working conditions, investigated and adjudicated by the national human rights institution, human rights ombudsperson or other mechanisms (eg., ILO procedures, trade unions) and the proportion of these responded to effectively by the Government. • Proportion of target population receiving effective support to (re)enter the labour market. • Annual employment growth (job creation rates) by education level. • Average time spent on unpaid domestic or family care work as well as on unpaid work in family business by women, men and children. • Proportion of requests by parent or guardian for certified childcare arrangements (eg., kindergarten) reviewed and met in the reporting period. • Average number of job applications before being invited to an interview, by target group (eg., ILO discrimination testing surveys).
• Employment-to-population ratios, by sex, target group and education level. • Proportion of voluntary part-time workers to total part-time employed population. • Share of women in wage employment in the non-agricultural sector. • Proportion of workers in precarious employment (eg., short-, fixed-term, casual, seasonal workers).

In the post-pandemic world, a values framework must guide a sustainable recovery. The enhancement of the SDG framework in line with the human rights norms and indicators should not be onerous, given the voluntarism of the SDG process, that the SDGs aim at core human rights objectives, that all BIMSTEC members have accepted the SDGs and that they are all bound by international human rights law to begin with. India, as one of the Asian drafters of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, can play a leading role in this endeavour.

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Robin Ramcharan

Robin Ramcharan

Dr. Robin Ramcharan is Executive Director of Asia Centre a think-tank based in Bangkok that conducts policy-oriented evidence based research on regional issues. He lectures ...

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