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Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs): What role for freedom of expression?

Your State has committed to "ensure public access to information and protect fundamental freedoms". This is what the Sustainable Development Goal 16.10 affirms. Is your government holding up to its commitment? You can help to monitor its progress - and contribute to it! Check out this 5-minute guide to learn how.

This is part of a series of IFEX explainers aimed at strengthening the ability of civil society to engage in global spaces for free expression advocacy. To visit the hub page and see the whole set, click here.

Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed (right) with Alison Smale, Under-Secretary-General for Global Communications, at the SDG Media Zone, United Nations, New York, 18 September 2017
Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed (right) with Alison Smale, Under-Secretary-General for Global Communications, at the SDG Media Zone, United Nations, New York, 18 September 2017

UN Photo/Cia Pak

What is the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development?

In 2015, the General Assembly of the United Nations (UN) agreed on the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development (Resolution 70/1), a set of 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), including 169 targets, to realize the diverse goals of human rights for all, strengthening peace and freedom, eradicating poverty, achieving gender equality and protecting the planet.

While not legally binding, the SDGs are internationally-agreed upon commitments that all UN Member States have agreed to make progress on.

Who is responsible for implementing it?

States are the primary actors with the responsibility to implement the SDGs at the national level. The 2030 Agenda calls on States to develop national plans and to provide the necessary human and financial resources for success. States also count on the support of the UN system. More importantly, States are encouraged to implement the SDGs in partnerships with other actors, including civil society (Resolution 70/1, paragraph 17.17).

What do the SDGs say about freedom of expression?

Many of the 17 SDGs have links to the right to freedom of expression and access to information. See the full list here.

SDG 16 is the most relevant, as it aims to "promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels".

SDG 16 includes 10 targets. SDG 16.10's goal is "to ensure public access to information and protect fundamental freedoms, in accordance with national legislation and international agreements".

Some explicit links to freedom of expression are included in the indicators used to measure progress and are explored further below.

So, how is progress measured?

A set of indicators to measure progress for each target was approved by the UN General Assembly in 2017 in Resolution 71/313. See the full list of indicators here.

There are two indicators to measure SDG 16.10:

• Indicator 16.10.1. Number of verified cases of killing, kidnapping, enforced disappearance, arbitrary detention and torture of journalists, associated media personnel, trade unionists and human rights advocates in the previous 12 months
• Indicator 16.10.2. Number of countries that adopt and implement constitutional, statutory and/or policy guarantees for public access to information

For these two indicators, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) is the UN agency responsible for coordinating collection of data within the UN system - in cooperation with UNESCO, on information related to journalists, and the International Labor Organization (ILO), for data on trade unionists.

• For 16.10.1. UNESCO is responsible for collecting data on journalists. Currently, it is gathering information on the killing of journalists only through the UNESCO Director General's report on the safety of journalists and the danger of impunity. Data for unionists and human rights advocates is collected by the International Labour Organization and the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights respectively. For more information, check who to contact at UNESCO.
• For 16.10.2, UNESCO is developing a methodology to help States measure it. It also plans to prepare a biennial report to measure progress. The first report will be released in November 2020.
• For more information contact the Secretariat of UNESCO's International Programme for the Development of Communication (IPDC).

While the OHCHR is responsible for coordinating the collection of data for the above two indicators, the UN's Statistics Division is responsible for coordinating the collection of all SDG data. Check out their database here.

See the full list of indicators here.

And how is progress monitored and shared?

Progress is tracked at the national and international level.

At the national level, States are responsible for ensuring implementation of the SDGs - and they should be held accountable. The UN Agenda 2030 calls on States to establish their own concrete national and sub-national indicators for tracking improvements, as well as to establish national review and accountability mechanisms. Civil society can play a crucial role in monitoring and advocating for progress. For example, in some countries, implementation plans are developed with civil society; in others, civil society prepares alternative monitoring reports.

At the international level, there are two ways progress on the SDGs is reported and shared:

Voluntary National Review (VNR) reports. Every year a number of States volunteer to report to the UN on the SDG implementation progress.
Sustainable Development Goals Report. Every year, too, the UN Secretary General prepares a global report informing on the progress made, based on global data compiled by the UN system.

About the Voluntary National Reviews (VNRs)

Every year about 40 States volunteer to report to the UN. The decision has to be announced one year before the High Level Political Forum, (HLPF, explained below).

The UN has published a handbook on how to prepare for the VNRs, calling on States to launch a participatory consultation process, including with inputs from civil society groups. Check the list of countries that volunteer each year here. You can advocate for your country to volunteer next time!

About the Sustainable Development Goals Report

The Sustainable Development Goals Report summarizes global progress for each of the SDGs and further develops the set of SDGs prioritised for each year. Information included in this report comes from the UN system.

The OHCHR is the custodian UN agency charged with monitoring progress on indicator 16.10.1 (with UNESCO as a contributing agency for data concerning journalists and associated media personnel, and the ILO for data concerning trade unionists), while UNESCO is the custodian UN agency for monitoring progress on indicator 16.10.2.

Check who to contact at UNESCO for more information.

Stay informed.

Both monitoring mechanisms, VNRs and the SDG Report, are presented and discussed at an annual High Level Political Forum (HLPF) on sustainable development.

About the HLPF

The HLPF is an annual meeting that takes place over eight days, including a three-day ministerial segment, under the auspices of the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC). It is held at the UN headquarters in New York in the months of July and August. Its aim is to share progress on the achievement of the SDGs.

Every year, the HLPF discusses a set of about six SDGs out of the 17. For example, in 2019 the focus is on SDG 4, 8, 10, 13, 16 and 17.

The meeting ends with an SDG Ministerial Declaration.

In preparation for the HLPF, the UN Department for Economic and Social Affairs (DESA) organizes two types of preparatory events: Expert Group Meetings for each of the SDGs to be reviewed, and Regional Preparatory Meetings in cooperation with UN regional commissions.

Check the calendar of events here. Participation is by invitation, so it is important for civil society organizations engaging in the SDG process to raise their profile and to advocate with the UN in their countries to have a spot at these events.

Additionally, every four years there is a two-day HLPF at the level of Heads of States during the UN General Assembly (2015, 2019, 2023, 2027, 2030). Civil society groups with ECOSOC status can attend the HLPF and organize side events.

Can civil society contribute to the Voluntary National Review and the Sustainable Development Goals reports?

The answer is yes, but… there is no direct, formal procedure for civil society groups to provide data to these reports. This is why it is important for civil society to know how the SDG process works and to find the most effective ways to have your contributions taken into account.

Here are a few options…

1. Voluntary National Review Reports
• VNRs are voluntary (for about 40 States per year), so check if your country has volunteered, and if it has not, you can advocate for this to happen. Check the list of volunteers per year here.
• VNRs are prepared by States following the UN Handbook for the preparation of VNRs. Check the handbook to learn about the process.
• The UN has called for States to engage relevant stakeholders, including civil society, in the preparation of the VNRs. Therefore, you can advocate for your government to consult with civil society to provide inputs on the progress towards the SDGs. You can find examples on how this has been done in the UN handbook.
• If you have relevant data on indicators 16.10.1. and 16.10.2, make sure you make them available during the preparation of the VNRs.
• If you are a press freedom monitoring group, think about including the types of attacks against journalists that are measured by indicator 16.10.1 in your reports. Do not forget to disaggregate data by gender too!

2. Sustainable Development Goals Reports
• The UNSG Report is based on data generated by the UN system. This could include from UNESCO, reports to special mandates, Universal Periodic Reviews (UPR), the Human Right Council and Treaty Bodies. So it is good practice to make sure you include data on indicators 16.10.1 and 16.10.2 when presenting information to these mechanisms.
• Currently, data for SDG 16.10.1. is based on the UNESCO Director General's report on the safety of journalists and the danger of impunity. This report only includes data on killings. Find ways to have your data included in this report, but you can also advocate to have UNESCO collect data on the other types of violence included in SDG indicator 16.10.1.
• UNESCO is also developing a methodology to measure indicator 16.10.2. In 2018, the Council of the UNESCO International Programme for the development of Communication (IPDC) invited UNESCO to prepare a biennial report on the progress of SDG 16.10.2. The first report would be available in November 2020 and can be used to assess your country's progress, and push for improvements.

Can I advocate for the implementation of the SDGs in other ways?

Sure! Here are some tips:

1. Be strategic. This is more than a decade-long process; make sure you have a long-term action plan to advance the SDGs in your country.
2. Does your country have an implementation plan? If not, advocate for it; if not, participate in the process of developing such a plan.
3. Advocacy is everything. As there is no formal procedure for civil society groups to participate, it is important to advocate for multi-stakeholder processes at the national level and engage in international fora.
4. Build coalitions in your country and alliances at the regional level. Join other civil society groups to ensure your voice is heard in the SDG process, as well as to ensure comprehensive monitoring and reporting.
5. Engage in the HLPF. Hold side events and prepare alternative (shadow) reports to be launched and disseminated around the HLPF. You can choose to do shadow reports on freedom of expression-related issues only, or join other groups to prepare a full national SDG report. You can also prepare regional reports (see Transparency International example in “Resources”)
6. Do not forget to include a gender dimension to your reports and contributions! Disaggregate your data to show how progress is being achieved for women and gender-marginalized groups, highlighting disparities or unique impacts.
7. In need of funds to monitor progress? Link your projects to the SDGs and you might increase your chances of securing funding.


Website "Sustainable Development Goals. Knowledge Platform"

UN General Assembly Resolution 70/1 on "Transforming our world: the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development". UN

"Handbook for the preparation of Voluntary National Reviews. The 2019 Edition". UN DESA

"Goal 16 Advocacy Toolkit. A practical guide for stakeholder for national-level advocacy around peaceful, just and inclusive societies". TAP Network

"Shadow report on the implementation of SDG 16 in the Americas". Transparency International

"Implementing the Sustainable Development Goals to advance women's rights and gender equality: An advocacy guide". WomanKind

"How 11 countries perform on SDG 16.10 in Asia-Pacific"

Check more ways to defend and promote the right to freedom of expression on the IFEX 5-minute explainers hub page

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