The two-year process of negotiations and unprecedented civil society engagement conducted by the United Nations on the impulse of the Rio + 20 Conference to shape a new development compact for the next 15 years came to a conclusion in September 2015 with the unanimous adoption, at a Heads of State Summit at the UN, of a Political Declaration and action agenda comprising 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). This has come to be called ‘Transforming Our World: the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development’.
All along this process, IDLO sought – through bilateral engagement, publications as well as conferences and roundtables in New York, Geneva, Rome and The Hague – to provide evidence, based on its field work, of the concrete impact that advances in the rule of law have on economic opportunity, social progress and environmental protection – the three dimensions of sustainable development consecrated at Rio. The organization endeavored to project access to justice and the rule of law not only as outcomes but also as key enablers of sustainable development, thus addressing a false controversy that risked at times to stand in the way of the explicit inclusion of these objectives among the SDGs. This view ultimately prevailed, leading to a consensus on the inclusion in the new Agenda of a goal (SDG 16) that rightly places access to justice and the rule of law in the context of building peaceful societies and resilient, inclusive institutions.
Along with meetings, events and reflections specifically devoted to projecting the place of the rule of law in development, IDLO actively contributed to a large number of advocacy initiatives on a host of issues addressing different dimensions of inequalities and social inclusion. It did so because of its distinctive approach to the rule of law, captured by IDLO’s commitment “to create a new culture of justice”, one that looks beyond process and focuses on the rule of law as an agent of ‘substantive’ justice, seeing the law as a key instrument to affect the conditions that prevent the poor, women, minorities, migrants and other vulnerable groups not only from sharing in the benefits of development but also, importantly, from being active agents to engender and sustain progress.
Beyond SDG 16, the basic approaches to sustainability that emerge from the new Agenda – which encompasses, along with environmental dimensions, the necessities of equity and social inclusion – imply that the capacity development and institution building work of IDLO will be highly relevant to its effective implementation. Another, related feature that distinguishes the new Agenda from its predecessors, the Millennium Development Goals, is the intent to be universally relevant across the North/South divide. The rule of law, and the equity requirements that it serves, are perhaps the dimension of the SDGs that is most obviously relevant in each and every country, irrespective of the level of GDP. The quest for justice knows no borders.
Addressing the UN Summit that adopted the new Agenda, the Director-General of IDLO highlighted the “ground-breaking” acknowledgment in SDG 16 that access to justice and the rule of law are essential ingredients of sustainable development, but also recalled that “the rule of law is about equal protection, accountability and transparency.” In that sense, she said, “it cuts across all the SDGs.”
In the same perspective, meeting shortly after the adoption of the new Agenda, the IDLO Assembly of Parties devoted a large part of its 2015 annual session to a reflection on the place of the rule of law in the new Agenda and on IDLO’s contribution to realizing its “transformative” ambitions – particularly the Agenda’s stated intent to leave “no one behind”.The Assembly saw the rule of law as both an empowering agent and a key instrument of policy integration, in line with the main message of the Summit’s Political Declaration that the SDGs are integrated and indivisible and “seek to realize the human rights of all”.
Among the main themes that emerged from the Assemblydebate were the importance of embedding the principles of sustainable development in countries’ constitutions, and – responding to the presentationof the Agenda in the Political Declaration as a plan for “people, planet and prosperity” that seeks “to strengthen universal peace and larger freedoms” – the need in many situations to deliberately integrate peace building strategies and measures in new laws and policies to be enacted to pursue the SDGs.
In the summer that preceded the adoption of the Agenda, the UN High Level Political Forum (HLPF), charged with the global monitoring of progress in the implementation of the Agenda, began to reflect on the challenges – both in terms of implementation and monitoring of progress – posed by the integrated nature of the Agenda and by the broader political, demographic and socio-economic trends within which these processes will take place.
IDLO contributed to this reflection through a panel discussion on ‘Equity, social justice and the rule of law across the SDGs – from the what to the how: policy choices; measuring impact; tracking progress’ and during the HLPF session itself, where the Director-General was called upon to moderate a ministerial debate on ‘Strengthening integration, implementation and review of the HLPF after 2015 – thinking ahead about emerging issues that will matter for the future.’
How best to approach, in this perspective, the measurement of progress towards the rule of law, and, more generally, how best to reflect in the global monitoring process the “people-centered” nature of the new Agenda across individual SDGs, were some of the key issues that IDLO brought to the table in these discussions. They are likely to remain a main focus of IDLO’s work in supporting countries in framing policies for the implementation of the new Agenda, and contributing to the global monitoring process at the United Nations.
Patrizio Civili, IDLO Permanent Observer to the United Nations, New York