To Achieve Sustainable Development Goals, Leaders Must Focus on Human Rights

The UN General Assembly is upon us, and discussions will focus squarely on ratifying the Sustainable Development Goals. However, another document should be front and center in the minds of global leaders as they descend upon Manhattan this September: the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

The truth is this: we will only achieve the development goals we share as a global community if we ensure the dignity and security of every human life. In other words, we can't achieve the SDGs unless we recommit to the Universal Declaration.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was established in 1948 to prevent a repeat of the atrocities experienced during the two world wars. Its goal was simple: define on paper the basic rights and freedoms that should be afforded to all members of the human family.

But since its ratification 67 years ago, many of the Declaration's principles seem to have faded from view. Nation-states around the world continue to grapple with a number of humanitarian issues. The historical challenges that drove leaders to establish the Universal Declaration back then are alive in the contemporary tragedies we face today.

Just look at the headlines.

More than half of Syria's population is either displaced across borders or searching for safety within their own, war-torn country. Europe is engrossed in a migrant crisis that is full-fledged and rapidly growing. Meanwhile, the Rohingya face a human trafficking and humanitarian emergency in and around their home in Myanmar.

That is to say nothing of the chronic injustice and violence that goes unreported each day, in places like the Western Sahara, Ukraine, and cities across the United States.

The 30 articles included in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights are as relevant today as they were in 1948. In fact, they are essential building blocks of the SDG ratification process the UN is about to undertake.

Consider Article 13 of the Universal Declaration. It says that "everyone has the right to freedom of movement and residence within the borders of each state." However, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees reports that, at the end of 2014, there was a record 60 million people displaced from their homes by war, conflict, or persecution.

38 million of them were displaced within their own country.

The SDGs raise a number of laudable ideals and aspirations. But how can we achieve any of them with so many people on the run, in danger, and far from home? How, in other words, can we achieve the SDGs without also achieving Article 13 of the Universal Declaration?

Or Article 14?

Article 14 of the Universal Declaration says "everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution." But in the same report mentioned above, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees tells us that, at the end of 2014, 20 million of the world's displaced people were refugees - individuals who had fled their home country due to fear of persecution or violence.

Half of these refugees - ten million - were children.

Unfortunately, on the plight of refugees, the SDGs are, despite their best intentions, silent. How can we achieve our shared development goals when 20 million and rising of our fellow humans are barred from living peacefully in their own home country? Who will shelter and care for the burdened families and the wounded children if leaders at the highest table of power will not make commitments directly related to their struggle?

The list of unaddressed issues goes on.

Consider Article 15 of the Declaration of Human Rights, which addresses another humanitarian crisis straight from the headlines: that of Myanmar's Rohingya people.

Article 15 of the Declaration states that "everyone has the right to a nationality," and that "no one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his nationality nor denied the right to change his nationality." And yet, in the Rohingya, an entire people have been denied basic rights of citizenship for decades, forced to live without basic healthcare, education, or employment. They have time and again risked everything - including life and livelihood - to find a better existence in countries that do not welcome them. The Rohingya are, in essence, a stateless people.

SDG 16 calls for the promotion of just, peaceful, and inclusive societies. But what does it say - and, more importantly, what will it do - for people, like the Rohingya, whom are not considered part of the inclusive societies that governments commit to create? If Article 15 of the Universal Declaration remains an unenforced ideal, SDG 16 risks remaining hollow, if well-meaning, words.

As global leaders prepare for UNGA, they have an opportunity to shape the course of history. The world has made tremendous development progress in recent years, and the objectives set forth in the SDGs offer a broad and ambitious roadmap for taking those achievements to the next level. However, building the world we want - one in which all people can live with dignity, security, respect, and hope - requires something more: focusing squarely on ensuring the human rights of every person, everywhere, all the time.

My father, the late Robert F. Kennedy, once said that the principles that underpin the Universal Declaration of Human Rights "embody the collective hopes of men of good will all around the world."

He was right.

The SDGs and Universal Declaration should be a packaged deal. At UNGA, leaders will commit themselves to the former. But for that commitment to bear fruit, they must also rededicate themselves to the latter.