On 19 September 2023, the UN High-level Political Forum on Sustainable Development – also known as the SDG Summit – concluded in New York. The UN Secretary General António Guterres convened head of states and top leaders to discuss a ‘big rescue plan’ to scale up progress towards achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) at the halfway mark to 2030, when these goals are due to be met. The Summit culminated with UN Member States adopting the Political Declaration, reflecting their commitments to the implementation of the 2030 Agenda on Sustainable Development. Unfortunately, these commitments were not secured, and the right to freedom of expression in the sustainable development agenda was completely ignored during the Summit.
ARTICLE 19 advocated for protection of the right to freedom of expression and information in sustainable development in the lead-up and during the SDG Summit. Prior to the Summit, we published our assessment of the progress made to meet SDG 16.10, which concerns the right to freedom of expression and includes two targets on, respectively, the number of attacks against journalists and legal protection of the right of access to information. We also issued a set of recommendations for states and a broader international community on what had to be done to make the most out of this moment and take stock. We closely followed the negotiations for the Political Declaration and the dialogues between world leaders during the Summit.
Overall, ARTICLE 19 is disappointed that the importance of the right to freedom of expression in the sustainable development agenda was completely ignored during the Summit. World leaders failed to include freedom of expression and the right to information in their statements. As the importance of freedom of expression was completely absent from all discussions, not a single state has committed to better protect freedom of expression and information as the way to meet the SDGs by 2030.
In particular, ARTICLE 19 is concerned about the following:
- The Political Declaration, which recognises that ‘the achievement of SDGs is in peril’, does not include any mention of the importance of freedom of expression and access to information in sustainable development. This is a serious shortcoming and a genuine missed opportunity. World leaders were presented with the opportunity to recognise the critical and enabling role freedom of expression plays in achieving all SDGs. Informed voices are critical to ensure that no one is left behind. Freedom of expression empowers people to move from being passive recipients of development efforts to active participants. This, in turn, makes that development stronger and more sustainable.
- Transparency and access to information: ARTICLE 19 appreciates that, in their statements, several leaders acknowledged the importance of transparency or referenced transparency as a key approach to fight against corruption. We also welcomed Latin American countries that highlighted the Escazu Agreement, which gives individuals the right to access environmental information and ensures indigenous groups can participate publicly in decisions that have an environmental impact. Several countries that have ratified the agreements stressed the importance of this legal framework in addressing the growing impacts and challenges of climate change. However, we are disappointed that no state currently without an access to information law committed to adopt one, as set out in SDG 16.10. In addition, states that have such a law in place failed to commit to implement it more effectively. Despite the continuous references to the importance of protecting human rights during crises, there was not a single statement emphasising the importance of maintaining the right to information during disease outbreaks, natural disasters or armed conflicts.
- Attacks against journalists: We regret that not one leader denounced in their statements the growing trend of attacks against journalists, human rights defenders, whistleblowers and protesters involved in the development agenda. Some states committed to strengthening the protection of human rights, gender equality and education, but none made more specific commitments to better protect freedom of expression and reduce violence against journalists, as per the SDG 16.10. ARTICLE 19 highlights that impunity for violence against journalists remains very high. Addressing impunity for these crimes should be a state priority as much as preventing these attacks from happening.
- Lack of meaningful participation of broad civil society: The UN Secretary General acknowledged the key role civil society plays in the implementation of the SDGs multiple times throughout the Action Weekend and during the opening of the Summit. Antonio Guterres repeatedly called on states to work closely with civil society organisations (CSOs) as a way to ensure faster progress to meet SDGs. He emphasised how this collaboration is even more crucial for SDGs that concern the protection and advancement of human rights. Unfortunately, these positive statements directly contradicted the actual ability of many CSOs to take part in the Summit. The UN administration imposed last-minute registration requirements and restrictions on the number of participants,y creating serious obstacles for participation of a broad range of groups –especially those from the Global South and excluded many accredited organisations, preventing them from taking part. Recognition of the role of civil society is important but the UN should actively support the meaningful participation of civil society starting from allowing them to access the physical space where discussions take place.
Overall, ARTICLE 19 concludes that the SDG Summit was a missed opportunity as far as freedom of expression and access to information in sustainable development are concerned.
We therefore call on states to reaffirm and reflect the integral role of the right to freedom of expression, information and participation to achieve SDG 16 and all the other SDGs (including education, health, water and sanitation, land, gender, climate action, infrastructure and connectivity) in the second half of the implementation of the 2030 Agenda.
States must include thematic discussions on SDG 16.10 in the upcoming consultations that will lead up to the Summit for the Future in September 2024 when world leaders will meet again to take stock of progress in achieving the SDGs.