SDG SERIES: What Might the SDGs Mean for Health and Human Rights? An Introduction to the Series

SDG Goal 3: Good Health
SDG Goal 3: Good Health

By Carmel Williams and Alison Blaiklock

This month world leaders gather at the UN Summit in New York to finalise and adopt the new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The development of the SDGs has been a far more global and participatory process than happened with the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). If accepted as currently presented, there will be 17 goals and 169 targets tasked with “transforming our world” to overcome the tyranny of poverty and “heal and secure our planet” by 2030.1

The preamble to the final text Transforming Our World: The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development (Agenda) pledges that no one will be left behind.2 In 2000 similar sentiments were expressed in the Millennium Declaration.3 Yet, the subsequent goals and indicators selected for the MDGs were not rights-based and thus did not promote equity and equality. There were also unintended consequences arising from a strongly numeric-driven selection of indicators.4

Although human rights are acknowledged in the Agenda, there is no consistent rights-based approach to the goals and targets. The right to health, for example, is not in the text, nor within any of the targets. The SDGs offered opportunities to reinforce international legal human rights obligations in, for example, development aid, climate action or even trade agreements—unfortunately these were not taken.

The breadth of the new goals is welcome, but there is no cohesive or integrated framing of them. This means that the risk of vertical interventions continues, especially with the prominence given to the private sector and new international financing arrangements.

This HHRJ series: SDGs, Human Rights and the Right to Health is exploring what the SDGs might mean for health and human rights. Contributors have looked at whether the SDGs will enhance people’s right to health and how the pursuit of SDGs could advance human dignity and the right to health. Their responses are complementary and contrasting. They identify difficulties and opportunities. As health and human rights advocates and scholars, contributors have analysed the issues and identified essential actions to operationalize human rights in the next stages, including the deliberation on indicators, prioritising actions, planning, resourcing, implementation, follow-up and review.

A repeated theme is the pivotal importance of accountability. So the series will begin tomorrow with a perspective essay by Paul Hunt on how the health sector might lead the way with a robust, effective and independent process of SDG accountability.

We welcome further contributions and comments. Please send them to

Carmel Williams, PhD, is Executive Editor of the Health and Human Rights Journal and Fellow at the FXB Center for Health and Human Rights, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health| Harvard University

Alison Blaiklock, MBChB, MPHTM is a public health physician and Honorary Senior Clinical Lecturer, Department of Public Health, University of Otago Wellington, New Zealand.



1 Transforming Our World: The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development – Finalised Text for Adoption (1 August), available at:
2 ibid
3 UN Millennium Declaration (2000); available at:
4 S Fukuda-Parr, AE Yamin, J Greenstein (2014) “The Power of Numbers: A Critical Review of Millennium Development Goal Targets for Human Development and Human Rights”, Journal of Human Development and Capabilities: A Multi-Disciplinary Journal for People-Centered Development, 15:2-3, 105-117, (2014)