Freelance Journalist and Editor
Le Monde Diplomatique. September 24, 2014.
To Central American leaders, it’s good news that the focus of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals, which take effect next year, is inequality. This will help reverse the push factors that are the driving force behind child migration, experts say. “Inequality is the foundation of the engines behind the crisis. It’s not rich kids who join gangs. It’s the poor robbing from the poor, and that’s the real tragedy,” said Ruben Zamora, the Salvadoran ambassador to the United Nations. “El Salvador still has a very unequal society.”
The 69th Session of the U.N. General Assembly runs from September 16 until October 1, 2014. The theme of this year’s assembly will be the Post-2015 Sustainable Development Goals, which replace the Millennium Development Goals next year.
The Millennium Development Goals focused on diminishing global poverty. Three of the eight goals—improving access to potable water, halving the quantity of people living in extreme poverty and lowering the number of slum residents—have been accomplished, the U.N. says. But, although these goals helped lessen poverty, officials say they ignored inequality. Thus, the Post-2015 Sustainable Development Goals will focus on inequality. “The MDGs popularized the powerful message that development is more than free markets and economic growth,” said, new U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, in a September 8 speech in Geneva. “However, the MDGs were blind to inequity and incomplete,” the Commissioner said. “The SDGs have the potential to transform the very notion of development.”
Ambassador Zamora represented his government in the writing of the SDGs, which began 18 months ago in Rio de Janeiro. He says that part of the new focus on inequality reflects a shifting view of which economic policies are most effective in development. “The problem of inequality is central in the entire set of goals,” he said. “In the earlier goals, inequality was taken as something natural, but since neoliberal policies have so clearly failed, it’s now easy to see that approach was blind to inequality.”
In January 2014, Oxfam America reported that the world’s wealthiest 85 people have as much money as the bottom 50 percent of the global population, and the gap is still growing.
Maria Rubiales de Chamorro, the permanent representative of Nicaragua to the United Nations, says that drugs and organized crime are an important push factor for child migrants: “Nothing happens without peace and security. Our two biggest threats are narcotrafficking and organized crime. Our countries are the bridge between the south of the continent where the drugs are created, and the north, where they are consumed.”
Inequality is also a factor here, says Zamora. “Drug trafficking is made up of the wealthiest transnationals in the world,” he said. “Los senores de la droga buy off politicians (they buy influence) and this generates more inequality.”
Sr. Mary Jo Toll, the Chair of the NGO Committee on Migration at the United Nations, says the U.N. is an essential forum for finding solutions to unaccompanied child migration, because politics make long-term solutions difficult to achieve from within the United States. “It’s complicated because we’re (the U.S.) the ones selling the arms to Latin America, and we’re also the ones buying the drugs. And, our trade agreements have really made poverty much more prevalent.” Sr. Toll said. “But people representing those lobbies are pushing the agenda in congress, so politicians don’t end up doing much. And that repeats itself in parliaments all over the world.”
In his Geneva address, U.N. High Commissioner Al Hussein signaled that the Post-2015 Sustainable Development Goals will address migration. “From the Mediterranean to the Indian Ocean and the deserts of the United States of America, we continue to see countless avoidable deaths of migrants,” the Commissioner said. “The detention of asylum seekers and migrants should only be applied as a last resort.” Commissioner Al Hussein made special mention of his “concern” about the U.S.’ detention of migrant children.
Unaccompanied child migration is a problem far beyond the Americas, Sr. Toll said. In her role on migration committee, she has spoken with Afghani and Syrian children whose parents are helping them escape because “they’re getting desperate to keep their children alive. These kids are running for their lives,” she says. “Migrants in crisis in transit is becoming much more of an issue. Kids are collateral damage when it comes to conflict and poverty.” Experts say that combatting economic inequality through the new goals will help ease this crisis around the world. “It’s not a controversial topic to protect children,” Sr. Toll said. “It’s just a question of whether we have the political will to do what’s needed.”
Women’s rights are another area in which the Sustainable Development Goals seek to address inequality. This is especially important for diminishing the violence in Central America that migrants flee: The region has the world’shighest rate of femicides, or women who are murdered for being women.
Women’s rights are a particularly thorny issue in El Salvador, which also is running for membership on the U.N. Human Rights Council during the General Assembly. The country maintains a controversial total ban on abortions, through which 17 women are imprisoned because of suspicion of having an abortion.
The UN has asked El Salvador several times to review its total abortion ban, calling it “a form of discrimination against women that affect(s) poor, uneducated and otherwise vulnerable women most of all,” states a 2014 report from the United Nations Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural rights. “In addition to violating the right to health, the ban (constitutes) a failure on the part of the State to provide for those most in need.” U.N. groups made similar recommendations to the country in 2013 and 2010.
The human rights group Amnesty International agrees this is an important aspect of the new development goals, but they anticipate strong debate about it. “Sexual and reproductive rights (are) so central to gender equality, but comprehensive sexuality education is considered sensitive by some states and religious groups, which try to stop it from moving forward,” says Nicole Bjerler, the Deputy Representative for Amnesty International at the U.N. in New York. “There are many misperceptions being thrown around about what (sexual and reproductive rights) means. It’s portrayed as meaning teaching 5 year olds to have sex (or) promoting homosexuality.”
The 193 UN member countries meet every year for the General Assembly. Bjerler says the discussions at the Assembly indicate main priorities and concerns, and reflect “where the world community sees the road ahead. [But] the General Assembly isn’t a quick fix.” Even when member countries are able to agree on resolutions (which often are stymied by debate around controversial social and political issues) resolutions are only “soft law” instruments, meaning they don’t force member states to take any certain action. They do set a moral precedent, however, and help move the international community forward together toward agreed-upon goals, Bjerler said.
The SDGs will be presented and debated at the General Assembly, and finalized by September 2015. Objectives like the SDGs are effective at the local level, Zamora says, because “when governments know their progress on these things will be measured and published, they know they have to follow through.” It’s also easier to justify channeling international aid money toward U.N. priorities, Zamora said. In the case of Central America, this will enable leaders to focus efforts on the inequality driving the child migrant crisis.
After the MDGs, “We have less poverty now than we did 15 years ago, but the world is more unequal now than it was at that time,” says Zamora. “I hope we can look back after the next 15 years, and see the progress we’ve made.”