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Graham Long

Early academic analysis of the SDGs has focused on the goals and targets themselves. This chapter aims to broaden this focus by identifying three distinctive and significant normative commitments to be found within the goals but also beyond them, in the wider framework of ‘Agenda 2030’ and its institutions. These are (i) that the goals are universal, but should be differentiated in country contexts; (ii) that the goals and targets are interconnected and indivisible; and (iii) that ‘no one should be left behind’. This chapter outlines the content, context and import of these three principles, arguing for their importance in implementation and analysis of the goals.

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Niko Soininen

Rule of law is a Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) seeking to promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels (SDG 16). It enjoys wide global support, and within the United Nations system the rule of law is considered paramount for achieving other sustainable development goals, such as the rights to water, food, and energy. While there is much merit to this view, this chapter argues that the rule of law may at times be the single biggest obstacle for achieving the other SDGs. The chapter starts by highlighting the main rule of law theories from which SDG 16 draws, namely formal, procedural and substantive. All three theories require different kinds of certainty that is at odds with the uncertainty of the socio-ecological ‘real’ world. This uncertainty is caused mainly by the lack of scientific data and understanding of biological systems, economic and social risks, and the dynamic and complex nature of socio-ecological systems. If science cannot be certain of how the socio-ecological world operates or will operate, neither can the (rule of) law that seeks to regulate the human–environment interface. The chapter concludes by discussing two categories of legal mechanisms that may be used to reconcile the (rule of law’s) need for certainty, and the uncertainty of the socio-ecological world. In the first line of inquiry it suggests that environmental regulations should be designed to alleviate scientific uncertainty by being adaptive. In the second line of inquiry it suggests courts are required to exercise their discretion in evaluating evidence and interpreting the law. These two mechanisms to tackle scientific uncertainty require major concessions from the rule of law but they need not be its demise. The rule of law trickles down to questions like how well and openly the decisions are reasoned.

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Sam Adelman

This chapter provides an existential critique of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) based upon two main arguments. First, growth-driven development is intrinsically ecologically unsustainable because it destroys ecosystems and breaches planetary boundaries. The SDGs are the latest incarnation of sustainable development, a concept widely criticised as oxymoronic because it erroneously fosters the illusion of combining endless economic growth on a finite planet, social justice, and environmental protection. Second, the SDGs perpetuate an anthropocentric conception of development and sustainability antithetical to effective responses to the rupture of the Earth system in the Anthropocene. The chapter concludes that the model of development envisaged in the SDGs is unlikely to enhance ecological sustainability and thus threatens to increase impoverishment.

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Lynda M. Collins

The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development is a blueprint for a new world. It is a comprehensive and ambitious vision of development that seeks to eradicate long-standing social ills including poverty, hunger, water scarcity, unemployment, inequality (both local and global), corruption and illiteracy. The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) articulated in Agenda 2030 have arguably become the primary unifying narrative among global actors including governments, international agencies (such as the World Bank), civil society and multinational business. Despite their laudable goals, the SDGs have received a mixed reception amongst human rights advocates. Some see the adoption of global goals as a weaker alternative to human rights that threatens to undermine the robust, legally binding standards embodied in the human rights system. For others, the SDGs represent the world’s best hope of realizing human rights for all, and particularly for the world’s poorest. While much will depend on implementation efforts, this chapter will argue that the SDGs have the potential to advance and even out-perform human rights, especially in the areas of economic, social and environmental rights. While debates may persist regarding the merits of each approach, there can be no doubt that the SDGs and human rights share a common centre in their concern for human happiness and well-being. At least in one respect, the SDGs attempt a crucial task that has so far proven to be beyond the reach of international human rights law; they seek to preserve the natural systems on which all human rights of future generations will depend.

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Louis J. Kotzé

States agreed on and committed to the achievement of 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in 2015. If one accepts that the SDGs are the roadmap for the world to achieve sustainable development until 2030, and if one accepts that the only way human and non-human life on Earth can continue is if demands to sustain all life can never exceed the carrying capacity of the Earth, then the following question arises: are the SDGs appropriate and able to guide humanity along a road of sustainability that is possible ad infinitum? To answer this question, this chapter offers a critique of the SDGs through three contemporary analytical lenses of (i) the Anthropocene, (ii) the planetary boundaries theory, and (iii) the Earth system governance theory. The hypothesis is that the SDGs, when they are critically evaluated through these three new-millennial analytical paradigms, are not a suitable roadmap for the type of truly sustainable present and future development that must ensure the continuation of all (not only human) life on Earth. The main reason for this is because despite their reference to, and shallow alignment with, the three-pillared approach to sustainable development (environmental, social and economic concerns), the SDGs mostly push environmental interests to the periphery of their concern while prioritising human-focused social and economic development at the expense of global Earth system integrity. This simply amounts, at best, to a continuation of the Millennium Development Goals approach and experience, with the SDGs likely to exacerbate Anthropocene-inducing conditions and to push humanity further across planetary boundaries.

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Sustainable Development Goals

Law, Theory and Implementation

Edited by Duncan French and Louis J. Kotzé

Building on the previously established Millennium Development Goals, which ran from 2000-2015, the 2015 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) provide the UN with a roadmap for development until 2030. This topical book explores the associated legal and normative implications of these SDGs, which in themselves are not legally binding.
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Nathan Cooper and Duncan French

As the final Global Goal, SDG 17’s principal function is to establish partnerships in support of the achievement of the other Sustainable Development Goals. It includes targets in such areas as overseas development assistance, debt sustainability, technology transfer, capacity building, and international trade. It reflects a pattern set in the Millennium Development Goals, where the final goal is also the most instrumental, in that case MDG 8, which sought to establish a ‘Global Partnership for Development’. SDG 17 underscores the importance of cooperation in the attainment of global development, recognising more broadly that partnerships are fundamental to the achievement of sustainable development. And yet SDG 17 also reveals many of the contradictions within the primarily voluntarist nature of the international community’s approach to development. SDG 17 is reflective of an approach that possesses strong moral injunction but weak normative commitment. Thus, the chapter provides a critical analysis of SDG 17, focusing on three distinct issues. First, whether on their own terms, the targets within the Goal will contribute to the achievement of effective partnerships, or whether the systemic hurdles towards institutional reform remain as great as they always have done. Secondly, how far SDG 17 weakens still further the normative argument as to the existence of a positive obligation in international law on development cooperation. And thirdly, in the context of seeking to achieve the right to water in a domestic setting, how far SDG 17 provides legal certainty to such partnerships, especially those involving civil society. The chapter concludes that while SDG 17 promotes partnerships it has not given sufficient guidance to states in implementing them. The innate voluntarism of the cooperation that supports the Global Goals ultimately puts at risk their effective attainment, and there thus remains a necessity for the development of supportive legal frameworks.

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Duncan French and Louis J. Kotzé

This chapter provides the context, a broad introduction and the essence of each of the chapters in the book.

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Owen McIntyre

While legal frameworks will inevitably play a central role in shaping the actions necessary for realisation of SDG 6, which commits the international community to ensuring universal availability of adequate water and sanitation services and sustainable management of the water resources on which such services depend, it is equally clear that the values set out in SDG 6 will significantly influence the continuing evolution, development and implementation of relevant legal measures and approaches. In order to illustrate this close, two-way inter-relationship, this chapter explores the mutually supportive approaches embodied in international water and human rights law and in SDG 6. The former fields of normativity have already developed rules and principles intended to promote broad rights to water and sanitation and to require environmental protection of shared international water resources and the ecosystems dependent thereon. However, articulation and formal adoption of SDG 6 represents formal universal political commitment to such values, which can only serve to legitimise and inform such norms.

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Nadia Sánchez Castillo-Winckels

This chapter explores public participation in the governance of marine areas beyond national jurisdiction, also known as ocean global commons or ocean commons. In particular, the role of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) is examined in enhancing public access to information and participation in institutions managing these resources: regional fisheries management organizations (RFMOs) and the International Seabed Authority (ISA). The argument is that the SDGs contribute to developing a new conception of ocean commons governance by emphasizing civil society participation in achieving sustainable development. This argument is based on two reasons. First, the SDGs encourage institutions at all levels to strengthen public access to information and participation in decision making in order to increase transparency, accountability and effectiveness of their administration. Second, the study of public participation in RFMOs and the ISA shows that the existing conception of ocean commons governance primarily involves states and industry organizations and restricts access to civil society. The chapter concludes that the SDGs promote a new understanding of ocean commons governance in which public participation is integral to the governing process and necessary to ensure institutional transparency, accountability and effectiveness for sustainable development.