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A new Treaty for a Sustainable and Just Future?

Development 2024-07-09, 11:48pm


The theme of the 2024 High Level Political Forum (HPLF) is “Reinforcing the 2030 Agenda and eradicating poverty in times of multiple crisis.

By Simone Galimberti

KATHMANDU, Nepal, Jul 8 2024 (IPS) - A High-Level Political Forum – described as one of the most important events of the year for discussing the implementation of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)—will take place at the United Nations through July 18.

Will this year edition be covered by global media? Will the international community and the people in general pay attention to it?

The HLPF was envisioned as an exercise in accountability, the only way to hold the member states of the United Nations, accountable to the Agenda 2030, the global blueprint in force since 2015 with its actionable SDGs.

Taking stock of the lack of serious commitment towards the implementation of the SDGs’ predecessor, the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), the international community came up with a different, tighter approach.

After strenuous negotiations, the member states managed to hammer out a stronger mechanism to keep a check on nations would fare in implementing their SDGs.

Despite the divisions, the idea of the HLPF emerged as an acceptable compromise for both sides.

On one side, there was those countries who wanted a loose, “bottom up” approach where the governments would be in charge to set their own plans and targets without legally binding provisions.

These nations would sign up to the Agenda 2030 on condition that they would remain their own masters in devising the plans to achieve the SDGs. In doing so, they also wanted no real and meaningful oversight on their work, accountability was established to be light by purpose during the negotiations.

On the other hand, other nations wanted a much more vigorous enforcing mechanism with real accountability powers. This explains how the HLPF ended up to be a peer-to-peer mechanism where member states would be invited, every two years, to present their national reviews, the so called National Voluntary Reviews or NVRs.

In a concession to those calling for a strong accountability framework, it was agreed that, every four years, the HLPF would entail two official sessions, one of which would be branded as the SDG Summit at the level of the Heads of State and Governments.

Despite the good intentions, the HLPF never achieved the aims it was devised for.

It struggled to get traction and garner the visibility it was hoped it would be able to garner and basically it has become a very technical mechanism for a relatively limited circle of experts and civil society activists.

Most seriously, it was never be able to register with the governments that would see it either as a minor inconvenience or as a missed opportunity. Both sides still saw worthwhile giving the HLPF a pretense of an being an important event.

There is no doubt that having member nations voluntary presenting their VNRs would be better than having no platform at all to understand what nations are doing to implement the SDGs.

Moreover, the HLPF with its rich program of side events has established itself as an important learning and capacity building platform.

Yet it is high time the international community started to rethink the whole exercise.

As it occurred when drafting a new plan replacing the MDGs, also in this case, the degree of ambition must rise.

The recently released Sustainable Development Goals Report 2024, the only official UN publication tracking the status of implementation of the goals, once again portrays a very challenging scenario.

The entire international community is falling well short of their responsibilities and whole humanity is far off in ensuring the wellbeing and sustainability of the planet in the years to come.

Perhaps we should not only fault a weak framework that allows governments off the hook in upholding their pledges.

The whole international system based on cooperation among states is under stress with several ongoing geopolitical crises and perhaps others, even more serious and consequential, are about to emerge.

Despite this worrying scenario, the international community must rise to the challenge

That’s why it is essential to start devising an even more audacious post Agenda 2030 plan.

It needs to have much stronger enforcing mechanisms while maintaining some of its innovations, real improvements relatively to the MDGs.

For example, we should not hesitate at reaffirming the validity of having the 17 SDGs in place.

Over the years, important steps were met in terms of devising the indispensable data for planning their execution and tracking the outcomes.

Plus, the idea of the SDGs somehow got traction in the people’s imagination even though now it requires some brand revamping. The real problem now is the way SDGs should be reported and tracked and the HLPF is simply unfit for the job.

A bold proposal: the international community should work on devising an international binding legal instrument, in simpler terms, a treaty. Such a tool would do a better at creating, among the member nations, more ownership, accountability, and a sense of urgency compounded by a new legal responsibility towards the implementation of the SDGs.

It is now imperative to have much robust oversight mechanisms and such radical changes would be at the foundation of a revamped future post Agenda 2030 process. We need new instruments in order to ensure that governments will really do whatever they can to achieve the SDGs.

The current national reviews cannot continue to be the way they are: voluntary exercises that are implemented and presented just because of a moral obligation of the signatories of the Agenda 2030.

Instead, they must be transformed into real accounting on what each government is doing according to fixed mandatory parameters, including the type and quality of data and information to be included.

Moreover, what I called the future Mandatory National Reviews or MNRs, should also make space to insert data and information of what local governments are doing. Basically, the new MNRs should also contain what are now the unofficial and almost informal Local Voluntary Reviews or LVRs that are still conveniently seen as “add-ons”.

Such reporting should be made on annual basis with no option of derogation nor any flexibility.

Yet in designing it, the unique circumstances of the member states must be taken into account, with significantly simplified reporting obligations for, say, small island developing nations.

All these would require enhanced capabilities on the part of the same governments and with them, substantial resources.

The UN Regional Commissions, the UNDP country level offices and the UN Resident Coordinators who now have bigger authority and responsibilities, should play a bigger role in supporting their host countries in fulfilling the requirements that the treaty would entail.

Such new responsibilities on the part of the nations can only be met by allowing the UN to have a much-strengthened role, a real “mandate” at assessing and evaluating their efforts or dearth of them.

At the moment, the UN agencies and programs at country levels, wherever they operate, are essentially partner of their host governments and it is the way it should be. They fund many of their programs and they are themselves co-implementers of others.

In all fairness, they cannot play the function of evaluators and trackers of what the national government are doing. This is the reason why a treaty would establish a new UN entity entirely focused on assessing and tracking the governments’ work.

Such entity should operate entirely independently and be de facto separated from the UN work on the ground. Shielded by design from any political interferences or influences by national authorities and donor agencies, the new UN entity must be free to issue forthright and impartial assessments with a list of recommendations if due.

A would-be treaty must also entail provisions about financing as well. In practice it would mean putting into a legal signature to the pledge to fulfill the SDGs Stimulus as envisioned by the UN Secretary Antonio Guterres.

This is estimated to be $500 billion a year, an amount that, if you also considering the financing required to fight climate change and biodiversity loss, would be considerably bigger. Like for any treaty consultations, it will be up to the officials to reach a compromise on the technicalities of the financing, for example, deciding if existing multilateral entities and programs would be fit for the purpose to deliver such funding.

I am fully aware that many governments would balk at the idea of another binding treaty.

There will be a lot of pushbacks but, after all, this is always what occurs when bold plans are unfolded.

It took many years, for example, to agree on the need of a plastic pollution treaty whose difficult negotiations are reaching the last mile at the end of the year in South Korea even though the road ahead is still very bumpy.

Yet a treaty is the only way forward if the international community is serious to revert and change direction from the dangerous path that humanity is taking. With no action, it is impossible to envision a better, more sustainable and just world. The viability of future generations is at risk.

To assuage those nations that won’t embrace this idea, those governments that, without doubts, would pull a lot of roadblocks on the way to reach a consensus on the need of a binding legal instrument, a reminder: a treaty is always the result of compromises that must be agreed by all the sides.

Even the SDGs are far from being ideal.

Fundamental issues like the rights of LGBTQ+ communities and the same concept of democracy are remarkably absent from the Agenda 2030. I even got a name that could be considered for such bold milestone: the Treaty for a Sustainable and Just Future.

Working only on extending the SDGs to a longer framework, possibly 2045, is simply no more sufficient. It has become totally inadequate.

We need better tools to ensure that governments around the world take the post Agenda 2030 plan seriously. We need some bold thinking and some nations championing such ambitious approach to start a conversation. What at the moment counts is to start a conversation about a treaty.

Hopefully the civil society would push for it. Perhaps, what would be really a global multi stakeholder coalition of hope, would take shape and starts demanding what the planet and humanity truly require.

Simone Galimberti writes about the SDGs, youth-centered policy-making and a stronger and better United Nations.

IPS UN Bureau