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.
Illustration: Mountain People
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.
While the specific words “human rights” were thankfully kept in the final document, “discrimination” was demoted to “distinction” and “fulfill” was reduced to “promote.” In both instances, these words are vague and inconsistent with established international human rights language, which is set to 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, color, 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 on display at the UN’s Financing for Development conference in Addis Ababa.
The UN is supposed to be a democratic and universal institution, one in which every nation has a vote, unlike the IMF or the World Bank, which are dominated by rich nations. 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. However, 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.
Bhumika Muchhala is a senior policy analyst at the Third World Network.
For the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), China’s “century of humiliation” is the gift that keeps on giving. Beijing returns again and again to the theme of Western imperialism, oppression and exploitation to keep stoking the embers of grievance and resentment against the West, and especially the US. However, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) that in 1949 announced it had “stood up” soon made clear what that would mean for Chinese and the world — and it was not an agenda that would engender pride among ordinary Chinese, or peace of mind in the international community. At home, Mao Zedong (毛澤東) launched
With a new White House document in May — the “Strategic Approach to the People’s Republic of China” — the administration of US President Donald Trump has firmly set its hyper-competitive line to tackle geoeconomic and geostrategic rivalry, followed by several reinforcing speeches by Trump and other Cabinet-level officials. By identifying China as a near-equal rival, the strategy resonates well with the bipartisan consensus on China in today’s severely divided US. In the face of China’s rapidly growing aggression, the move is long overdue, yet relevant for the maintenance of the international “status quo.” The strategy seems to herald a new
To say that this year has been eventful for China and the rest of the world would be something of an understatement. First, the US-China trade dispute, already simmering for two years, reached a boiling point as Washington tightened the noose around China’s economy. Second, China unleashed the COVID-19 pandemic on the world, wreaking havoc on an unimaginable scale and turning the People’s Republic of China into a common target of international scorn. Faced with a mounting crisis at home, Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) rashly decided to ratchet up military tensions with neighboring countries in a misguided attempt to divert the
Toward the end of former president Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) final term in office, there was much talk about his legacy. Ma himself would likely prefer history books to enshrine his achievements in reducing cross-strait tensions. He might see his meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) in Singapore in 2015 as the high point. However, given his statements in the past few months, he might be remembered more for contributing to the breakup of the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT). We are still talking about Ma and his legacy because it is inextricably tied to the so-called “1992 consensus” as the bedrock of his