The 17 sustainable development goals (SDGs) and 169 subsidiary targets agreed last September by the 193 member states of the United Nations are a remarkable achievement.
For the first time they bring together social, economic, civil and gender goals with those required to deliver a sustainable future because of climate change. They are universal, applying to all states, and cross-cutting between each other, even though their implementation is legally voluntary and their political accountability ambiguous.
Those who take them seriously now face the task of communicating their message and convincing states, governments and publics that they create obligations to act. That will be helped by the monitoring and progress reviews built into the UN process between now and 2030.
The goals are relevant at global, regional, national and local levels, creating opportunities to act at each of them. They were drawn up after extensive consultation with NGOs and civil society organisations, creating a stakeholder commitment that goes well beyond governments.
Ireland's participation involved Irish Ambassador to the UN David Donoghue who coordinated the final negotiations last year with his Kenyan counterpart.
Former president Mary Robinson is also involved. This week she is in Ethiopia with the heads of Concern, Goal and Trócaire as the UN secretary general's special envoy on climate change on a mission to highlight how the El Niño weather system creates drought there and to help finance regional mitigation.
Robinson was UN high commissioner for human rights from 1997-2002 and UN special envoy for the Great Lakes region of
Throughout her career she has advocated using law to achieve social change and argues for the normative aspect of realising human rights and creating climate justice. She participated in the Paris climate change negotiation in Paris last December which agreed to limit global warming to less than 2 degrees and to aim for 1.5 degrees.
Last weekend Robinson organised a conference with the NUI Galway Centre for Global Women's Studies at the new centre in Ballina which bears her name. It explored how the SDGs dealing with gender equality, reduced inequalities and peace and justice can be implemented.
Items 5, 10 and 16 of the 17 goals were selected to focus attention on how gender and human rights issues cross-cut and reinforce one another. The other goals, in their summary listing, are: no poverty, no hunger, good healthcare, quality education, clean water and sanitation, renewable energy, good jobs and economic growth, innovation and infrastructure, sustainable cities and communities, responsible consumption, climate action, life below water, life on land and partnerships for the goals.
The conference heard important contributions from women involved in the UN on how important the gender equality dimension is to achieve these goals. Noeleen Heyzer, the former UN under-secretary general from
, spoke of how Asian states learned from the 1997-1998 financial crisis to harness policies tackling inheritance, education, health and other inequalities to create developmental growth.
Her work at the UN convinced her that women must aim to be centrally involved in its main power centres if they are to change priorities in these directions. She wants greater transnational involvement of social movements to match that of economic and political elites rather than relying only on law and government to realise rights.
Monica McWilliams made a similar case about UN involvement in Syrian, Bosnian and African peace processes, drawing on her Northern Ireland experience. The three women ridiculed ideas that "women can wait" or that you "grow first and clean up later", bringing together gender and climate issues.
Other speakers linked them to growing inequalities which empower the world’s richest people through market-based globalisation. Solidarity between the losers from such an unfair globalisation is another motivation to act on the SDG agenda.
The human rights approach is not embedded in the UN agenda for the SDGs but is consistent with it. Realising the goals requires an advocacy strategy going beyond human rights.
Robinson said that responding to Ethiopian drought or Africa’s doubling of population by 2050 would help make the world safer for everybody since all are affected.
Such appeals to risk-based precautionary, prudential and preventative principles when asking people to act on climate change, security conflicts or demographic shifts underline the ethical value of these universal goals. email@example.com