Human rights accountability in the post-2015 development agenda


What is accountability in Governance?

“Accountability in governance ensures actions and decisions taken by public officials are subject to oversight so as to guarantee that government initiatives meet their stated objectives and respond to the needs of the community they are meant to be benefiting, thereby contributing to better governance and poverty reduction”. In other words, accountability exists in a situation where individuals, or bodies perform a task that is subject to oversight, direction, or justification.

In order for accountability to be possible, two distinct stages need to be involved in the concept: answerability and enforceability. Answerability means that individuals or bodies that perform a task need to provide information and justification for their actions to the public as well as to institutions that are supposed to provide oversight of these actions. Enforceability means that the public as well as the institutions responsible for accountability can sanction the offending party or remedy the contravening behaviour.

So why is accountability important to Governance? Accountability is a way for the people to make sure that governments, public officials, multinational firms, are performing in adequacy with the needs of the community and that their actions do not impede on the public benefit. Accountability instils confidence between those who decide, who perform, and those they are meant to be serving.

Horizontal VS Vertical accountability

Institutions of accountability such as parliament and judiciary are the key institutions of horizontal accountability. In short, horizontal accountability is the capacity of certain state institutions to check abuses by other public agencies or branches of government. Vertical accountability, on the other hand, refers to any means through which citizens, mass media and civil society seek to enforce standards of good performance on officials. Although parliament is recognized as a key institution for horizontal accountability, it also has its importance in vertical accountability as citizens or the civil society can seek its support to intervene in case of inadequate action by the government.

So what type of accountability can we refer to regarding the post-2015 development agenda? There are a number of limitations and challenges to the application of the concept at the international level. Indeed, at the national level there exists a number of horizontal and vertical accountability modalities which are absent at the international level. For example, intergovernmental organizations do not have these types of mechanisms for the international agreements that have been signed by member states. There is generally no ultimate mechanism of accountability, enforcement at the international level as the international commitments by member states are voluntary thus non-binding. Furthermore, at the international level, responsibilities of the different actors are much more unclear than at the national level.

We can therefore conclude that at the international level, the only dimension of accountability that is fully operational is answerability. That said, progress can be made to implement the responsibility dimension, and that is one of the core dimensions of the new development agenda. Who is responsible and how can we delineate their responsibility. Human rights law seems to be an efficient tool to do so.

Human rights law to delineate responsibility for governments and duty-bearers

According to the Center for Economic and Social Rights, “human rights law, as an action-oriented normative framework, sets out measurable standards of conduct and operational principles which in turn delineate what governments and duty-bearers are responsible for, evaluating their conduct, and incentivizing continuous and participatory reassessment of progress towards agreed targets”. In other words, any future development framework should be anchored in the essential human rights principles of universality, interdependence, equality, participation, transparency and accountability and it is the duty of states to guarantee minimum essential floors of rights enjoyment, to use all available resources to do so and to engage in international cooperation for that purpose.  

Although governments are obliged to abide by these principles under international human rights treaties they have agreed to be bound by, in practice, they have often been overlooked and have been misperceived as irrelevant or too politically-sensitive for inclusion in a global partnership like the post-2015 development agenda. That is where change is needed. Indeed, human rights principles can provide a concrete guidance on how to frame goals and targets and how to define responsibilities. Also, they provide parameters for how the new commitments are implemented and resourced, how progress can be measured and how accountability for the new development agenda can be ensured.  

Furthermore, human rights norms can strengthen the two other dimensions of accountability that are answerability and enforcement. On one hand, placing them at the heart of the new agenda and ensuring compliance with them fosters active participation of the most vulnerable and deprived which in turn increases the responsiveness of those who have to answer to them. On the other hand, they provide additional means for promoting accountability by ensuring that marginalized groups are in position to enforce their rights and seek redress when they are violated.

Why the Millennium Development Goals were not enough

In 2000, the world’s leaders agreed to recognize the essential linkages between human rights and development. Despite their apparent good will, the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) that were set did not adequately align with human rights as they didn’t pay sufficient attention to discrimination and inequalities in the process. Ten years later, the UN General Assembly organized a High-level Plenary Meeting (The MDGs Summit) placing values such as freedom, equality, solidarity, tolerance, respect for all human rights, respect for nature and shared responsibility in the centre of the discussions as absolutely necessary in order to achieve the MDGs.

In 2012, in the Rio+20 Conference Outcome Document, Member States reaffirmed their responsibility “to respect, protect and promote human rights and fundamental freedoms for all, without distinction of any kind as to race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth, disability or other status”. Moreover, they stressed the importance of reducing inequalities and fostering social inclusion as well as acknowledged that democracy, good governance and the rule of law, at the national and international levels, are “essential for sustainable development, including sustained and inclusive economic growth, social development, environmental protection and the eradication of poverty and hunger”.

Despite these human rights commitments, weak accountability was one of the key factors impending progress towards the fulfilment of the MDGs. Therefore, embedding accountability in the post-2015 development agenda seemed critical to ensure the new agenda will bring political commitments made at the international level to actually result in policy changes on the ground.

Human Rights accountability in the post-2015 agenda: Key recommendations

Accountability and human rights are essential for the next generation of development goals. There is hope that the weak set of political commitments that had been made for the MDG’s be transformed into a more robust global social contract. Identifying a clear, ambitious, specific and manageable set of goals as well as indicators of when they are reached, explicitly aligned with existing international human rights treaty standards, can be seen as a way to determine who is responsible for what, and by when. Once the responsibility is clearly defined, answerability is improved which strengthens incentives for sustained progress.

The new set of goals that has been adopted by UN Member States on 29 September 2015 needs to be backed by accessible and effective accountability mechanisms which in turn should use human rights as the normative frame of reference. Furthermore, steps need to be taken to enable the most vulnerable to have access to judicial and other accountability mechanisms and to claim and enforce their rights, including their economics, social and cultural rights.

On the question of answerability, the international system does not have appropriate mechanisms to address the shortcomings of State actors, international financial institutions as well as non-State actors who have an influence in development policy. Regarding this problematic, it seems important that existing accountability mechanisms for the MDGs be strengthened, adapted and expanded for the newly adopted set of goals, without replacing them completely. Moreover, such an accountability system should explicitly refer to international human rights standards, ensure rigorous independent review, effective civil society participation and high-level political accountability.

Finally, Member States should do everything to ensure that they pose no barriers to the reviewing and reporting of their human rights obligations on the international scene. Their national reviewing and accountability mechanisms should therefore mutually reinforce and not necessarily duplicate one another. Only by doing so can we assume a good quality and impact of the recommendations of international human rights mechanisms.

That being said, there subsists a major problem regarding accountability at the international level which is the enforcement dimension which cannot be ignored as it represents the final stage of any accountability mechanism. Without enforcement, there is little incentive to follow-up on commitments.

A multi-layered accountability system to overcome its weaknesses at the international level

Accountability at the international level, being a voluntary exercise, will only work with countries who have expressed their willingness to participate. Moreover, international accountability processes also need to take into account how specific countries have integrated the global agenda in their own domestic development agenda.

As noted previously regarding accountability at the national level, parliaments should be a central agent in national consultations. Therefore the Inter-Parliamentary Union, a global inter-parliamentary institution composed of 163 national parliaments which has a general consultative status with the United Nations Economic and Social Council, should be an essential partner in the consultations. Regional and local governments need to be included in the process, especially if they have major competence in the issues discussed, as well as civil society and private sector actors.

The regional layer of the accountability mechanism should act as a framework for peer review among participating countries. It has also been argued that regional commissions foster a collaborative spirit and “encourage countries to share information, knowledge and experiences, strengthen their respective capabilities and define coherent regional policies and approaches”. In addition, “the regional level is also the natural platform to address regional or trans-boundary challenges which have an important role in sustainable development”.  That being said, the multi-layered accountability system should not be an end in itself, but rather a means for effective development results. In that scope, results in progress towards achieving the goals set by the post-2015 development agenda should, therefore, be a guide to national, regional and global processes, as well as a guide for the analysis of the effectiveness of the different means of implementation, especially financing.

Finally, the accountability framework for the post-2015 development agenda should aim at creating credible incentives to comply with international commitments. Currently, the OECD-DAC peer review is the only accountability mechanism that uses peer pressure and strong surveillance as credible incentives to comply with agreed commitments and standards. But experience has shown that it is not enough. A number of recommendations on the subject have been made by the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs in their August 2015 background paper No. 27.


Throughout this essay, we can see the importance that human rights accountability be included in the post-2015 development agenda. Human rights accountability has the ability to fill in the accountability gaps that impede the realization of the goals set by the global agreement. Human rights, as a normative and binding framework, embody the minimum requirements of a dignified life, promoting universal values that the post-2015 development agenda should strive to prioritize and protect. At the same time, they give us essential features of a road map to achieve the new set of goals.

But, as mentioned previously, human rights accountability at the international level lacks the important dimension of enforceability. It is a voluntary exercise for States and depends on their willingness to abide by the rules they have agreed upon. Therefore, a multi-layered accountability system seems to bring part of the solution to the problem. A linkage between international, regional and national development interests must be created. Fully including all actors of development in the process, defining their respective responsibilities through a human rights normative frame of reference and fostering a positive environment for answerability are just some of the imperatives that need to be imposed in order to see results. Now it seems that the last barrier to overcome is enforceability. If actors of development do not agree on a number of mechanisms that would prevent them from evading their obligations, there is little hope that the ambitious set of goals that United Nations Member States adopted through the post-2015 development agenda will bet met in 2030.


Alexandre Binz

Research assistant at CIPADH


World Bank, Accountability in Governance (PDF), , accessed on 03.10.2015

OHCHR website, WHO WILL BE ACCOUNTABLE, Human Rights and the Post-2015 Development Agenda (PDF),, accessed on 03.10.2015

Center for Economic and Social Rights, A Matter of Justice, Securing human rights in the post-2015 sustainable development agenda,, accessed on 03.10.2015

Center for Economic and Social Rights, Sustainable Development Goals, accessed on 04.10.2015

OHCHR website, Human Rights and Post-2015 Development Agenda,, accessed on 04.10.2015

UN Department of Economic & Social Affairs, A Post-2015 Monitoring and Accountability Framework,, accessed on 04.10.2015


Inter-Parliamentary Union website,, accessed on 21.10.2015