The Legal Mechanisms of ‘Leaving No One Behind’ – International Law’s Role in Achieving the Sustainable Development Goals

Guest Blogger Inna Amesheva, Doctoral Researcher, The University of Hong Kong

Sustainable development

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), adopted in September 2015 marked a watershed moment in consolidating global governance and citizenship. The SDGs evidenced that the international community can come together when faced with unprecedented challenges such as tackling the social exclusion of the most vulnerable and environmental degradation. Yet, the Goals represent largely a ‘soft’ instrument of international law, meaning that they are non-binding and that there are no concrete legal mechanisms that can promote or encourage their implementation. Despite their aspirational and non-legally binding character, however, the Sustainable Development Goals have the possibility to spur momentum and achieve a tangible impact by mobilizing a range of stakeholders such as governments, businesses and civil society. Indeed, it is recognized that the greatest effort in realizing the SDGs’ agenda is yet to come.

Global Governance concept, 3D renderingGiven their scope, the SDGs’ focus naturally falls on bettering the situation of the world’s most vulnerable, evident through the slogan of the endeavor: ‘leave no one behind’, meaning deprived individuals in both developed and developing countries. However, there is immense difficulty in implementing this colossal effort in practice, given that the 17 goals are to be gauged against 169 further, more specific, sub-targets. The degree of mobilization by the international community this project will require is unprecedented and could only be compared to an ‘Apollo Programme for the Earth’. What is more, the breadth of the SDGs poses the danger that some of the goals could be mutually conflicting, if not interpreted or applied consistently. Thus, the adequate monitoring and implementation of the SDG process cannot be overemphasized, if they are to leave the realm of the aspirational and achieve their intended outcomes.

It is noteworthy in this respect that 7 out of 17 Goals explicitly or implicitly involve environmental-related targets, namely:

  • Clean Water and Sanitation (Goal 6)
  • Affordable and Clean Energy (Goal 7)
  • Sustainable Cities and Communities (Goal 11)
  • Responsible Consumption and Production Patterns (Goal 12)
  • Tackling Climate Change (Goal 13)
  • Protecting Oceans and Marine Resources (Goal 14)
  • Safeguarding Biodiversity and Land Management (Goal 15)

depositphotos_8009199_originalTherefore, the main international legal instruments and mechanisms that underscore the imperative of sustainable development comprise of International Environmental Agreements, such as the 1992 UN Climate Change Convention (UNFCCC) with the recently adopted Paris Agreement (2015), the Addis Ababa Agenda on Development Financing adopted in July 2015, as well as the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction, introduced in March 2015. All of these legal provisions, together with the SDGs, are geared towards the achievement of a more resilient and sustainable post-2015 international order. In addition, all refer to the need to achieve environmental sustainability and halt climate change, stressing the interconnectedness between the mandates of sustainability, financing and resilience, which stand at the heart of realizing the Global Sustainable Development effort.

Still, there are some major challenges that remain before achieving the mandate of truly inclusive and sustainable development. Among these are:

  • Achieving an equilibrium between resource exploitation and responsible conservation
  • Engaging in a deep rethink of the current consumer-driven society and free market system
  • Shaping a more integrated approach of global institution-building and policy-making
  • Engaging in an integrated, socio-environmental pathway for achieving economic progress
  • Finding a consistent and coherent interpretation of the SDGs to avoid conflict
  • Adequate Monitoring and Review of the overall SDG process.

It is also important to note that while the SDGs are intended to be the international community’s ‘Global Goals’ and benchmarks for action, their implementation to a large extent depends on national policies, which fall outside the remit of international law and policy-making. The national and the international stages of SDG execution thus need to be united so as to reach the optimal level of actionable outcomes for a sustainable post-2015 future.

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