Wed, Aug 19, 2015 - Page 9 News List

Last-minute lack of transparency weakens UN sustainability goals

Pressure campaigns and take-it-or-leave-it deals to change specific wording to benefit rich and powerful nations undermined a years-long process that was until that point open and inclusive

By Bhumika Muchhala  /  The Guardian, NEW YORK

Illustration: Mountain People

Hailed “the people’s agenda” by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, the sustainable development goals (SDGs), have taken about two years to negotiate. The SDGs in their final form are set to be agreed to by all governments at a special summit next month.

However, the final 48 hours leading up to this milestone moment were marked by closed-door deals and bad faith.

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 July 31, 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 broadcast online via the UN’s own live TV channel.

However, that weekend, as the 17 goals and 169 targets were being debated for the last time, observers were kept out and information was relayed only 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 document, without which they would refuse to adopt the SDGs.

The US asked to replace the word “ensure” with the word “promote” in two targets, 2.5 and 15.6, in regards to 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 fairly share the profits and patents reaped from those resources with the nations 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 issued by Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, India, Indonesia, Jamaica, Mexico, Nicaragua, Peru, the Philippines and Trinidad and Tobago. The statement said 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 nations 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 Aug. 1, 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 — it is 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 recognize the joint responsibility of both the lender and borrower.

It was particularly disappointing to see human rights and nondiscrimination, cornerstones of the global goals become bargaining chips in the final hours. African and Arab nations — who negotiate within blocks called the African Group and the Arab Group respectively — attempted to delete language on human rights and nondiscrimination.

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