World leaders aim high with transformative declaration

WE HAVE seen enough United Nations (UN) meetings of global leaders and state representatives to know that they are largely political theatre and that they end with a declaration in which the participants solemnly express their firm intention to make the world a better place. Although these declarations are often empty rhetoric, they sometimes — for example, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights — turn out to be of historic importance.

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Picture: BLOOMBERG/DANIEL ACKER

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We will be treated to this spectacle again this coming weekend, when representatives of all the UN member states will meet in New York to adopt a declaration, grandiosely titled Transforming Our World: The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. They will declare: “On behalf of the peoples we serve, we have adopted a historic decision on a comprehensive, far-reaching and people-centred set of universal and transformative goals and targets” and will commit themselves to work “tirelessly” for their “full implementation” by 2030.

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The agenda’s 17 goals and 169 targets are organised around five elements:

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• People — the first five goals aim to end poverty and hunger, ensure health and education for all, and achieve gender equality;

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• Planet — goals six and seven and 12-15 deal with water and energy use, sustainable production and consumption, climate change and protection of ecosystems, biodiversity and oceans;

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• Prosperity — goals eight to 11 deal with inclusive and sustainable growth, decent work for all, infrastructure, inequality, innovation and resilient and safe cities;

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• Peace — goal 16 promises peaceful and inclusive societies and justice for all; and

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• Partnership — goal 17 promises a “revitalised” global partnership for sustainable development.

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Taken at face value, this would suggest our leaders have just discovered the path to utopia and in the next 15 years will lead us to this happy destination. Unfortunately, we know this is most unlikely. This does not necessarily mean, however, that the declaration is meaningless.

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In fact, there are two reasons for thinking it has the potential to become more than empty rhetoric. The first is the example of the millennium development goals (MDGs). Following the adoption of the UN Millennium Declaration in 2000, a group of “experts” established eight MDGs to help international development agencies allocate their budgets and monitor their operations in order to promote the objectives of the declaration. The goals, which should have been achieved by the end of this year, focus on eliminating extreme poverty and hunger, and promoting health, education and sustainable environments.

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Following their publication, the MDGs took on a life of their own. Some governments committed themselves to achieving the eight goals and implemented national policies consistent with this commitment. Many civil society organisations began using the MDGs to hold governments and international organisations accountable for their activities and operations. In the end, while the world as a whole will not meet all eight goals, some countries will. In many other countries, significant progress has been made towards reaching the MDGs.

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This experience taught the international community two lessons. First, setting popular goals can positively influence policy making and provides citizens and civil society organisations with a tool they can use in campaigning for governments and international organisations to adopt socially and environmentally responsible policies and a benchmark against which they can hold them accountable.

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Second, if these goals are to be credible, legitimate and sustainable they must, as the declaration says, be universally applicable and must treat all the economic, social and environmental issues confronting the world as “integrated and indivisible” aspects of the goal of sustainable development.

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A few years ago, with this year’s deadline approaching, international officials, civil society activists and government representatives began developing a set of new goals and targets beyond 2015. This effort coincided with the work begun following the UN’s 2012 Rio+20 conference to set goals for environmentally and socially sustainable development. These two processes were co-ordinated and resulted in the Transforming the World Declaration that the leaders will sign this weekend, and in the sustainable development goals (SDGs).

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The production of the declaration has been an unusually participatory and transparent process. It has involved work by high-level panels, the publication and distribution of reports and proposals, public consultations at global and regional levels and in official and nongovernmental settings, and diplomatic negotiations. This has raised the profile of the SDGs, increased the costs to governments and international organisations of failure, and turned many of its government and nongovernment participants into concerned stakeholders in its fate.

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As a result, the declaration has become very ambitious. It eloquently articulates a new vision of the relationship between citizens and their rulers for an era characterised by acknowledgment of the limits on Earth’s environmental carrying capacity and of the links between inequality, poverty, war, social exclusion, overconsumption and lack of sustainable development. In addition, its goals and targets constitute a strategy to implement the international community’s commitment, contained in numerous instruments, to promote environmentally and socially sustainable development for all societies and people.

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In this sense, it is not coincidental that the opening paragraphs of the declaration echo the grand aspirations of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Like that declaration, the Transforming the World Declaration is more an expression of the international community’s hopes than a statement of what it realistically expects to achieve over the next few years. These aspirations can, however, be powerful.

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When the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted, no one thought it would have any real effect. However, over time, the aspirations expressed therein have been incorporated into international treaties, national constitutions and court decisions, thereby playing an important role in shaping the lives of individuals and constraining the power of governments.

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It is, of course, too soon to know if the Transforming the World Declaration will become as important as the human rights declaration. However, it is not too soon to acknowledge that whether its adoption comes to be seen as an historic event in the struggle to advance human wellbeing, or as another example of human folly and of our tendency to confuse false promises and sweet words with genuine action, depends to a significant extent on how we, as individuals, South Africans and members of the international community, use it.

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• Bradlow is professor of international development law and African economic relations at the University of Pretoria

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