Dignity Over Dictators -- To Truly Sustain Development

Co-authored with Mark P. Lagon

Shawna Bader-Blau is executive director of Solidarity Center; Mark P. Lagon is president of Freedom House

Economic development is about dignity. And dignity requires people having democratic rights: free and fair elections, transparent institutions, and voice and justice. All of the 193 nations that commit to the Sustainable Development Goals this week thus have work to do--ending inhumane treatment of migrants from Latin America, North Africa and the Middle East to ending repression of dissent and impunity for corruption in nations rich and poor.

Nations need to support fair and democratic institutions. Otherwise development will be, simply, unsustainable.

What enables dignity are democracy, human rights, and good governance--values all deserve and crave. The most powerful calls in support of those values are voiced by human rights defenders in places like Bahrain, Kazakhstan and Swaziland. That's why Goal 16 falls short. The drafters established a foothold for rule of law and inclusion, but explicit references to human rights and participatory decision-making were blocked by hostile autocratic governments and the unfortunate acquiescence of democratic nations, too.

At a time when faith in democratic institutions is wobbly, "honest and responsive government" was one of the top four development priorities identified by more than 7 million people in the U.N.'s 2014 My World survey. The world has a stake in building upon Goal 16.

We recognize the need for tangible benchmarks for rule of law, social inclusion and access to justice, in order to hold governments accountable for not just putting these notions on paper in multilateral accords and domestic laws--but for implementing them. In addition, any serious effort to achieve sustainable development will need to focus on nurturing more resilient civil societies and developing institutions that respond to the demands of citizens.

Rwanda has enjoyed steady economic growth that has led to a 13 percent drop in the poverty rate. But nearly half the population remains impoverished, and about one-quarter is mired in extreme poverty. President Paul Kagame threatens the economic engine he helped build since the 1994 genocide with bloodthirsty punishment and murder of dissenters. Economic gains are overshadowed by a widespread fear of arrest.

Bahrain, home to the U.S. 5th Fleet, packs its jails with human rights and democracy activists, and has a propensity for torture. Doctors and nurses who were fired for caring for protesters injured in the bloody crackdown on dissent in 2011 remain without jobs, denying them the dignity of work and the means to feed their family.

Citizens deserve the dignity that comes when one's rights are respected. Goal 16 is the cornerstone for achievement of all the other development goals. It is vital that the United States and all nations recognize that the path to human dignity is built on democracy and justice.