The backroom deals and pressure campaigns at the end of SDG negotiations call into question the legitimacy of the goals, says Bhumika Muchhala
On Sunday 2 August, the 193 countries which make up the UN agreed to a document that will shape the next 15 years of international development policy and action.
Hailed “the people’s agenda” by UN secretary-general Ban-Ki moon, the sustainable development goals (SDGs), have taken some two years to negotiate. The SDGs in their final form will be agreed to by all governments at a special summit this September.
Yet, the final 48 hours leading up to this milestone moment were marked by closed-door deals and bad faith, I believe.
As a civil society advocate working on the SDGs, I have been witnessing the negotiations since March 2013. The negotiations had, until the evening of Friday 31 July, been a genuinely open and inclusive process. They were open to observers, included opportunities for civil society and the private sector to speak directly to the governments and were webcast on the UN’s own live TV channel.
But that weekend, as the 17 goals and 169 targets were being debated for the last time, observers were kept out and information was relayed by a small handful of specific negotiators to a small handful of civil society advocates such as myself.
After the negotiations stalled, the US delegation laid down an ultimatum, asking for changes to the language of the final outcome document, without which they refused to adopt the SDGs.
The US asked to replace the word “ensure” with the word “promote” in two targets (2.5 and 15.6, both about equitable benefits from natural resources) which, when applied would see rich nations – whose corporations and research institutions extract the vast majority of world’s natural biodiversity – share fairly the profits and patents reaped from those resources with the countries and communities from which they are extracted.
The legal agreement on biodiversity, published in 2011, clearly uses the word “ensure” but by insisting on the much weaker word “promote”, the US has diluted hard-won legal language and replaced it with something that is nebulous at best, and unenforceable at worst.
In response, a statement was delivered from the countries of Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, India, Indonesia, Jamaica, Mexico, Nicaragua, Peru, Philippines and Trinidad and Tobago. These countries stressed that the legal language was vital to maintain, as it is an international commitment stipulated in the Nagoya Protocol that must not be weakened.
This last minute, take-it-or-leave-it deal – proposed despite the fact that countries had repeatedly stressed that the goals must not be reopened to debate – filled the air of the UN conference room with distrust and tension.
A second alteration was made on Saturday 1 August, this time by the EU, which negotiates as a block in the UN. They inserted the following text into the specific paragraph that addresses debt management: “Maintaining sustainable debt levels is the responsibility of the borrowing countries … ”
It is plainly obvious why this language is harmful and, given the situation in Greece, callous for the EU to even propose it. If debt is the sole responsibility of the borrower, then the role of the lender in exacerbating the debt burden and setting countries up to default and crisis, as has been evident in Greece’s financial meltdown, is undermined. Talk of debtors and creditors simply “working together” ignores existing UN agreements, dating back to 2002, that clearly recognise the joint responsibility of both the lender and borrower.
It was particularly disappointing to see human rights and non-discrimination, a cornerstone of the global goals, become a bargaining chip in the final hours. African and Arab countries (who negotiate within blocks called the African Group and the Arab Group) attempted to delete language on human rights and non-discrimination.
While the specific words “human rights” were thankfully kept in the final document, “discrimination” was demoted to “distinction” and “fulfil” was reduced to “promote”. In both instances, these words are vague and inconsistent with established international human rights language, which will make it difficult to monitor progress and change.
Mention of discrimination on the basis of categories such as ethnicity, migration status, culture, economic situation or age as a protected status were also scrapped from the document, in an attempt to appease the African and Arab groups. However, race, colour, sex, language, religion, political opinion, national or social origin, property, birth, disability or other status managed to survive.
The way in which the SDGs have been adopted leaves a sour taste in the mouth and mirrors the bullying and blackmailing I witnessed at the Financing for Development conference in Addis Ababa.
The UN is supposed to be the a democratic and universal institution, one in which every nation has a vote, unlike the rich country-dominated IMF or World Bank. Backroom deals and pressure campaigns inevitably throw the legitimacy and fairness of international negotiations – not to mention the political will of governments to take the sustainable development goals seriously – into question.
The new global development agenda has captured the imagination of civil society, international institutions and many governments – rich and poor – because they have the potential to make ambitious and universal change to our economies, societies and environments. But the process by which we arrive at this new deal is important.
What transpired in the first weekend of August should cause all who are serious about the mantra to “leave no one behind” to reflect on the reality of vested interests and the unequal power between negotiating governments. If we cannot address this, we are left with the same system under a different name.
By: Bhumika Muchhala a senior policy analyst at the Third World Network.