UNDP Adopts New Social and Environmental Standards: A Welcomed Cut Above the Rest

UNDP Adopts New Social and Environmental Standards: A Welcomed Cut Above the Rest

The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) has adopted and made effective (as of 1 January 2015), new Social and Environmental Standards (SES or Standards).  They are accompanied by a revised Social and Environmental Screening Procedure (SESP) and two new compliance and accountability mechanisms: the Stakeholder Response Mechanism and the Social and Environmental Compliance Mechanisms (and "Unit" known as SECU).

The SES are anchored by three principles and seven standards.   The three principles comprise:  Human Rights, Gender Equality and Women’s  Empowerment, and Environmental Sustainability.  They apply to all programmes and projects and the seven standards include:  (1) Biodiversity Conservation and Sustainable Natural Resource Management; (2) Climate Change Mitigation and Adaptation; (3) Community Health, Safety and Working Conditions; (4) Cultural Heritage; (5) Displacement and Resettlement; (6) Indigenous Peoples; and (7) Pollution Prevention and Resource Efficiency.

In many ways, UNDP deserves applause. Its new documents strived to ensure not only that its standards did not fall below any other safeguards adopted already by international financial institutions, but also to properly expand the concepts of applicable social and environmental safeguards where advances in international law and practice have so warranted.

As an agency of the United Nations, the UNDP has centred the SES in respect of the very human rights and environmental standards adopted within the UN system and embraced by its member states.  The SES aim to adhere to the (UNDG) Statement of Common Understanding of the Human Rights-Based Approach to Development Cooperation and Programming.   It is the first safeguard of its kind that expressly affirms that the hosting institution -- here the UNDP -- will refrain from providing support for activities that may contribute to violations of a state’s human rights obligations and the core international human rights treaties. 

The SES specifically state that "UNDP will not support activities that do not comply with national law and obligations under international law, whichever is the higher standard."  The latter is particularly important to indigenous peoples given that all too often the national legal framework does not support indigenous rights, certainly not in a manner consistent with the rights and duties of states under international law.  Moreover, Standard 6 related to Indigenous Peoples (the "IP Standard"), expands this required compliance to include all state duties and obligations under the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

Also, while a key objective of the SES is to ensure UNDP’s projects do not adversely affect indigenous peoples, the SES go beyond the traditional and all too familiar "do no harm" approach.  Together with the SESP, the SES also aim to support governments in efforts to fulfil their obligations under international law.  The objective therefore is not just to avoid human rights violations, but to enhance the respect for, and the enjoyment of human rights. 

While each of the seven standards are relevant to indigenous peoples, it should be noted that the IP Standard recognises indigenous peoples' rights to lands, resources and territories (including respect and support for demarcation and titling). It also ensures against involuntary resettlement, and recognises the requirement that culturally appropriate consultation must be carried out with the objective of achieving agreement and free, prior and informed consent (FPIC).  The IP Standard specifically prohibits the undertaking of any project activities that may adversely affect the existence, value, use or enjoyment of indigenous lands, resources or territories unless agreement has been achieved through FPIC.  The IP Standard further requires the development of an Indigenous Peoples Plan and demands respect and support for state recognition of the legal personality of indigenous peoples consistent with their own norms, values and traditions. The Standard respects and supports indigenous peoples' cultural heritage, intellectual, religious and spiritual property, and recognises the requirement of participatory monitoring and transparency.

As with all safeguards, their true test will be in the implementation.  While it is believed that those responsible for drafting and advancing the SES at the UNDP headquarters level have the proper intentions to see the SES and SESP implemented in full, much will depend on the capacity and political will of both UNDP staff at the country level and the main project implementing partners: the states themselves.   This means that indigenous peoples must familiarise themselves with the content of the Standards and SESP, ensure their application, and insist as required on the full and effective participation of affected indigenous peoples.

UNDP Social and Environmental Standards (PDF)