Contributing to the Accountability Web: The Role of NHRIs and the SDGs

Alison Hosie

National Human Rights Institutions (NHRIs) are independent bodies set up with a mandate to promote and protect and human rights in their country. There are over 100 of these institutions in the world and each acts as a bridge between its own country and the international human rights system. NHRIs also support existing international accountability mechanisms through their role in treaty monitoring and shadow reporting on state compliance, including the Universal Periodic Review process. It is the independent nature of most NHRIs and their experience in monitoring the implementation of standards which places them in the perfect position to be at the heart of what Kate Donald calls the Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) ‘web of accountability’.1

Recognising this potential, the International Coordinating Committee of NHRIs (ICC) focused its 2015 international conference on the role that NHRIs can play in the SDGs. The Mérida Declaration, which arose from this conference, identified several important roles for NHRIs in this agenda.2 These include: knowledge exchange; impact assessment; facilitating partnership working; enabling participation; collecting data; promoting human rights based approaches; monitoring; conducting inquiries; and facilitating access to justice.

A particular role was identified for NHRIs when it comes to measuring progress towards the implementation of the SDGs in their home countries. This could involve:

  • Promoting human rights based approaches to national and local governments, to people whose rights are affected in practice, and to other stakeholders
  • Helping develop effective national indicators and ways of collecting data
  • Engaging with all stakeholders to raise awareness, build trust, and promote dialogue around taking a human rights based approach to implementing and monitoring the SDGs
  • Safeguarding space for people whose rights are affected by the SDG agenda (“rights holders”) and the civil society groups that work with them.

In practical terms, this means that NHRIs are well placed to carry out a range of activities. They can:

  • Support national and local governments, rights holders, and others to understand the principles of human rights based approaches (participation, empowerment, non-discrimination, accountability, and legality) and how to apply them in practice
  • Support the integration of the SDGs into national and local strategies, service delivery plans, and national human rights action plans
  • Support the development of human rights based outcomes and indicators as part of national processes for measuring a State’s progress on SDGs, which also enables them to measure compliance with their international human rights obligations3
  • Support rights holders, civil society groups, and government to draw direct links between SDGs and international human rights obligations through human rights treaty reporting and shadow reporting processes. This is particularly important now that it seems unlikely there will be an official channel to submit shadow reports within the SDG review process. The Danish Institute has produced a comprehensive human rights guide to the SDGs, setting out the human rights anchorage of each of the 17 goals and 169 targets. This guide can help states to incorporate the SDGs into their human rights reporting and civil society in their shadow reporting.
  • Ensure, as NHRIs, that their own shadow reporting to human rights bodies systematically makes explicit links with the SDGs
  • Encourage those responsible for data creation and/or collection to improve the availability of disaggregated data. The Danish Institute guide can also help support human rights based indicator selection for the SDG targets and support capacity building on taking a human rights based approach to the realisation of SDGs.

Case study: SDGs, human rights, and monitoring in Scotland

When Scotland signed up to the SDGs in September 2015, a commitment was made to reflect those goals within the Scottish Government’s National Performance Framework (NPF). This commitment was extended to Scotland’s National Action Plan for Human Rights (SNAP) in December 2015.4 Integrating these three mutually supportive frameworks was seen as a key mechanism to truly put human rights at the heart of how Scotland assesses its national performance as a country.

Scottish Human Rights Commission (SHRC) is working through the Monitoring Group set up as part of SNAP to develop a framework for measuring SNAP’s progress towards putting rights into practice. As part of that process, the framework draws explicit links between SNAP, the SDGs, and Scotland’s NPF.

On the eve of International Human Rights Day in 2015, Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon addressed a major international conference facilitated by SNAP, which explored “how to put the justice into social justice.”5 In her keynote speech, she stated, “the key challenge for progressive governments is not finding ways to avoid human rights responsibilitiesit is finding ways to embed those responsibilities across different areas of policy.”6 She explained that human rights were central to the government’s own concept of inclusive growth and actively welcomed the growing interest that human rights, including economic, social and cultural rights, could play in achieving a fairer society.

Critically, the First Minister acknowledged that scrutiny is needed to examine the relationship between what countries say and what they do. In other words, talking about the importance of human rights is great, but demonstrating how it is applied in day-to-day policy making is critical.

As a result of the passing of the Community Empowerment (Scotland) Act 2015, Scottish Ministers (whatever the government in power) must review the national outcomes at least once every five years. SHRC will support whichever government is in power with this process. If re-elected in May 2016 the current Scottish Government plans to review (during 2016) the way in which all public services are delivered, putting a focus on the outcomes they produce for individuals and for society more generally. SHRC will offer support in applying a human rights based approach to this monitoring and measurement.

This approach has the potential to greatly improve accountability for human rights, changing the way that progress is measured in Scotland. This will also improve the way Scotland fulfils its reporting obligations under international human rights treaties and the SDGs. Learning from this process could support other NHRIs to contribute to the SDG ‘accountability web’.

Dr Alison Hosie is Research Officer, Scottish Human Rights Commission


  1. See: Kate Donald, Promising the World: Accountability and the SDGs, 2016. and Breaking the Accountability Taboo in Sustainable Development Negotiations, CESR, June 2nd, 2015
  2. In October 2015, the International Network of NHRIs (ICC) met in Mérida, Mexico, to discuss the potential roles for NHRIs in supporting the realisation of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.
  3. Drawing on the work of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) Human Rights Indicators: A Guide to Measurement and Implementation;