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The High-Level Political Forum and Voluntary National Reviews

Adopted in September 2015, the UN Sustainable Development Goals are a framework for fundamental change in environmental protection and for promotion of human rights for future generations. The 2030 Development Agenda of 17 global goals and 169 transformational targets are significant to the realization of Indigenous Peoples’ rights in the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Voluntary National Reviews conducted at the UN High Level Political Forum are the reporting procedure and review process that stakeholders can use to ensure governments create policies and practices that leave no one behind. In 2013, the High Level Political Forum replaced the UN Commission on Sustainable Development to ensure effective followup of the Earth Summit UN Conference on Environment and Development in 1992 and Rio+20 in 2012. The first three sessions of the Forum in 2013–2015 shaped the creation of Sustainable Development Goals and charted a path to achieve the 2030 Agenda with partnerships for action and accountability procedures to keep course for social change. In subsequent years, the Forum has included focus on specific goals and actual reviews of States.

The High Level Political Forum happens annually at the UN Headquarters in New York in July. Every year a theme is selected on a core aspect of the 2030 Agenda with a group of goals to be prioritized for the eight days, including the three-day ministerial segment where the Voluntary National Reviews are conducted. This year’s theme is transformation towards sustainable and resilient societies with a focus on Sustainable Development Goals, and will host 47 Voluntary National Reviews. Followup and review mechanisms are crucial to the success of the Sustainable Development Goals. The Voluntary National Reviews take place during the second week of the Forum under the auspices of the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC). For the reviews, each state should initiate preparation and organization of deadlines and deliverables for national and local agencies and actors; engage with stakeholders; prepare for the review; present at the Forum in New York; and incorporate observations into National Action Plans.

There are four steps for a full and effective review, which must include stakeholders from the initial preparation stage to implementation.   

Step One: Preparation (July–January)

The first step begins with a State volunteering to report at the Forum. At the community level, stakeholders should educate and encourage civil society to share about challenges relating to rights enshrined in each development goal. It is imperative to prepare first drafts of spotlight reports covering the 17 Sustainable Development Goals. At the country level, stakeholders should mobilize to create a national network and should remind their government that this is a national report rooted in inclusivity. The multistakeholder coordination must encourage wide participation, and the first draft should be prepared after an initial set of consultations. There should also be coordination with the UN Country Team and UN Development Programme.

While the majority of activism in the Preparation step is at the community and country level, it is important to begin work at UN headquarters in New York and the UN regional offices. Connecting with major NGOs based in New York that are focused on human rights and sustainable development will be valuable closer to the actual review. It is important to research and review which states raise issues, questions, and recommendations related to your priorities. Webcasts of prior reviews are available for viewing on UN Web TV; these will provide a basis for conversations with country, as will the website of the Danish Commission on Human Rights website where the Universal Periodic Reviews recommendations are linked to the Sustainable Development Goals. You can also utilize the UPR-INFO database to identify which states champion which rights.

Step Two: Interaction (January–July)

The second step is a shift from community to country, and at the United Nations, global and regional levels. There are deadlines for reports regarding the national reviews, so it is important to regularly check the UN Sustainable Development Goals website. At the community level, the focus is on advocacy and reporting. Spotlight reports and summary rights statements with issues, questions, and recommendations in a simple 1–2 page format are drafted and submitted. At the country level, the national movement should propose policy coherence among all actors as well as methodology for the preparation process. More institutional inclusion in the national multistakeholder mechanism is imperative, with a focus on implementation of economic, social, and environmental aspects of sustainable development rooted in a human rights approach.

Civil society should meet with national agencies responsible for the achievement of the 2030 Agenda. Civil society should also work with parliamentarians and engage with committees responsible for the 2030 Agenda, while also encouraging creation of a Parliamentary Advisory Council on Sustainable Development to coordinate post-review at the country level. Civil society can also meet with UN Country Teams and partner with UN agencies. After drafting the spotlight reports and summary rights statements, it is important to host meetings in capitals with embassies and invite them to attend fora where people directly impacted will speak about their recommendations to realize human rights and reach the global goals. At the global and regional level, it is important to follow the global preparatory workshops. These take place from December to the weekend in July prior to the national reviews. The regional preparatory workshop, as well as the Regional Forums for Sustainable Development, also take place in March and April.

There are two documents due with deadlines prior to the review: Main Messages and Final Reviews. Main messages include principal findings and emerging conclusions, should be submitted in mid-May, and should not exceed 700 words. These will be posted online for the public to prepare for the review. The Final Reviews are submitted a month prior to the Forum in mid-June, are posted online, and have no word limit. Civil society can also submit a consolidated report on the theme and goals under review at the Forum. During the Interaction step, it is essential to share the spotlight reports and summary rights statements with member states so they can better understand the situation and raise questions and recommendations during the review. This can occur in direct meetings with missions at panels, briefings, side events, and other fora.

Step Three: Consideration (July)

The third step is the actual review of the State regarding the Sustainable Development Goals. Community members can view the country consideration and hear the national report and various member states’ comments. During and immediately after the review, the community can coordinate social media strategy to raise awareness for the review of the development goals and commitments agreed to by the State. At the country level, a viewing party can be hosted in the capital, bringing together all actors that participated in the creation of the national report. Following the review, it is important to have a national forum for those not participating in New York. The forum can bring together national agencies, members of parliament, civil society, and academia to have a National Review that assesses the voluntary review and propose new initiatives for national campaigns around the development goals.

The Forum is an intensive 8-day opportunity to organize at the highest level for human rights and sustainable development, so it is important to connect on every level with major actors. One should continue the conversation with the Global Policy Forum and present during the Spotlight Reports side event. It is also essential to engage with national networks and participate in national side events. When possible, one should have followup meetings based on earlier discussions with diplomats of the UN member states and provide updates regarding the progress of the development goals. The days during the Forum require early morning meetings to discuss priorities and participation in the review. Upon conclusion of the review, civil society should request to host a joint press conference with all stakeholders sharing perspectives and potential paths forward.

Step Four: Implementation

The final step is returning back to home to local communities. At the community level, reporting back results allows for reconnecting with stakeholders and also recruits new rights defenders that have become aware of the goals and review process. New campaigns can be launched to implement the issues raised during the review. Coordination of committees or working groups to support engagement at the local level are essential to implement what was decided at the national review. A new innovation are Voluntary Local Reviews, with the first one to take place in New York City in 2018.

At the country level, coordinate followup meetings with national multistakeholders and agencies to continue the conversation inspired by the review process. It is crucial to schedule consultations to propose improvements to the National Sustainable Development Council structures. Policy dialogue and participatory decision-making are key to citizen-led initiatives to realize human rights. At the global level, maintaining connections with peoples’ movements and coordinating campaigns to achieve each development goal is important. Stakeholders should continue to participate in civil society meetings to share their stories to assist stakeholders in future reviews.

The results of the Voluntary National Review create a roadmap for all participants to continue to advance and achieve the 2030 Agenda. To realize the human rights reinforced in the language of the Sustainable Development Goals, we must refine the procedures, generating guidelines for governments and the major groups to enhance participation based on the first cycle of reviews. The Sustainable Development Goals can be linked directly to articles in the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. The 2030 Agenda must reinforce the Declaration to respect land rights; realize cultural understanding of nature into national policy; and reinforce an environmental priority rooted in Indigenous cosmology, taking care of all people and our common planet.


To find out more about the High Level Political Forum and Voluntary National reviews, visit:


—Joshua Cooper is lecturer at the University of Hawaii at Manoa Center for Pacific Island Studies and director of International Network for Diplomacy & Indigenous Governance Engaging in Nonviolence Organizing for Understanding & Self-Determination (INDIGENOUS).

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