By Dr Michelle Lim, Griffith Law School Lecturer

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‘Bold’, ‘ambitious’, ‘unprecedented’ and ‘visionary’.

Or in the words of United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon: “universal….transformative….integrated” and “an historic turning point for our world”.

If the rhetoric and the Secretary-General are to be believed, the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and its Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) will ensure that across the world in 15 years:

“poverty will be eradicated, prosperity shared and the core drivers of climate change tackled.”

Can the 2030 agenda live up to the hype and its own ambitions? What could the SDGs mean for the development of international sustainable development law? Could the imperfect international law and SDG frameworks complement each other to set humanity on a path towards sustainability?

The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development

The finalised text for adoption of the 2030 agenda was released on August 2, 2015. It is unlikely that the text will differ significantly, if at all, when adopted at a high-level plenary meeting of the 69th UN General Assembly in September 2015.

Despite claims of integration, there is unnecessary disconnect between and within the goals. Marine (Goal 14) and terrestrial (Goal 15) issues are addressed in separate goals while the management of water resources is awkwardly combined with sanitation (Goal 6). Worryingly, the SDGs fail to recognise the trade-offs that will be required between goals.

Griffith Law School’sDr Rak Kim has emphasised that the creation of a “mutually supportive relationship between the SDGs and international law will be critical for effective implementation of the post-2015 development agenda.” Despite this, only three conventions are explicitly included in the SDGs.

There is ringing endorsement of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (Goal 13) and the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (Target 14.c). Though the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control was deemed worthy of inclusion (Target 3.a) neither the UN Charter nor human rights conventions have made it into the SDGs. Reference is made to “World Trade Organisation agreements” (Target 10.a) but only in terms of special and differential treatment for developing countries. Further, none of the 31 targets of the ‘justice’ and ‘implementation’ goals (Goals 16 & 17) make any reference to international law.

Outside the SDGs, the agenda’s declaration includes a scattered collection of international instruments. This includes the UN Charter, the Convention of the Rights of the Child, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and ‘other international instruments relating to human rights’.

Neither the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights nor the International Covenant on Cultural, Social and Economic Rights are referred to explicitly in any part of the agenda.

Despite recognition in the agenda’s declaration of the ‘positive contribution of migrants’ to ‘inclusive growth and sustainable development’ and ‘the humane treatment of refugees and of displaced persons’, neither the 1951 Refugee Convention nor the principle of non-refoulement or indeed international law are mentioned in relation to migrants or refugees.

None of the biodiversity-related Multilateral Environmental Agreements are included in the SDGs. The only reference to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) is commitment-phobic language in the declaration which merely states that “we look forward to” the next Conference of the Parties of the CBD. Glib attestations in the declaration such as ‘full respect for’ and ‘commitment to’ international law gloss over the fragmented and conflicting reality of the international law framework.

Sustainable Development and International law

Despite significant academic discourse and jurisprudence surrounding sustainable development and its potential customary international law status, it remains unclear whether ‘sustainable development’ is a binding principle of international law or merely an objective or a concept. At the same time, implementing sustainable development and reconciling and coordinating legal regimes across social, economic and environmental spheres presents significant challenges.

Sustainable development law concepts, however, do hold much potential for guiding implementation of the SDGs. Intergenerational equity for example, provides essential direction in relation to temporal considerations. This concept underlines the importance of implementation of the SDGs which looks far beyond the 15-year horizon of the 2030 agenda.

What next?

Neither the SDGs nor sustainable development law are sufficient for ensuring human and planetary well-being in the short or long term. Considered together there is the possibility that each framework may address gaps in its counterpart, but greater coordination between the two is needed.

International law needs to bridge human rights, economic and environmental law divides. Greater ties also need to be established between international law, international decision-making and other disciplines.

The enormity of the challenge of reconciling interacting legal regimes means that there is also the need to look beyond the traditional tools of the international lawyer to systems-based approaches such as conceptual modelling and network analysis.