The close of the UN Open Working Group (OWG) on Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in July 2014 was a call for celebration for those who had long advocated for a Sustainable Development Goal that recognised the link between peaceful societies and development. The impetus for the goal was the failure of fragile and conflict-affected countries to achieve the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), and the impact of daily violence on the development of some 1.5 billion worldwide. Despite genuine fears it would be dropped, Goal 16 on “peaceful societies” was included in the final OWG outcome document. Without its inclusion in the document it would have been an uphill battle to get it to the negotiation table. This, at least, meant Goal 16, and its targets would be discussed for possible inclusion in the finally agreed upon post-2015 development agenda set to lay the foundation for the next 15 years of development.
Despite strong conclusive links between peaceful societies, conflict and violence prevention and development acknowledged by most UN Member States, Goal 16 was one of the more arduous and controversially discussed Goals during the OWG sessions. Arguments from challengers that Goal 16 would lead to the securitisation of development, that the OWG was the inappropriate forum to deal with peace and security, that the goal challenged national sovereignty, and that the targets on rule of law were not universal, emerged. After numerous discussions, many (but not all) of these arguments were muted with clear explanation of the objectives and development benefits of the goal. This was along with concessions from both sides – including adjustments to the title, language tweaks and more universally applicable targets.
Uncertainty over how the negotiations, between January and June of this year, will play out has led to concerns over the vitality of Goal 16 – Is Goal 16 at threat of being dropped from the final agenda? Yes, it is true that until the final agreement has been penned on paper any of the goals are under threat. Goal 16 is now one of, if not the only Goal, still attracting negative attention. There are already whispers of last minute shuffling even from those who previously supported the goal. Even if the goal remains, should the OWG outcome document open up then some of the Goal 16 targets could be threatened instead.
The debate to include Goal 16 has been long, taxing and full of compromise. Importantly, however, the compromise to date has not been to cut the goal. Instead, the 30 Member OWG, representing 73 states, agreed to include Goal 16 in the final outcome document. The goal has some strong defenders from all over the globe – G7+ (fragile states), a number of African states, and the EU – to name a few. If some states try to remove the goal we would likely see a political game of tit-for-tat as supporters of Goal 16 attack other aspects not pertinent to them – unravelling the entire process. This in itself may prevent any goal being removed.
As a civil society supporter of Goal 16 I ask myself: are we doing more harm by focusing on what we might lose rather than strengthening what we have? Does a football team go into a game thinking of losing or does it strategize on how to score the most goals? Many civil society activists and policy makers took arms in 2014 to fight to get the goal to the table. Now that it is on the table, we can reframe the debate, distancing ourselves from language that implies there is a threat to Goal 16 and instead highlight that the inclusion in the OWG outcome document means it’s a viable and supported goal. Looking at the opportunities allows us to turn our advocacy away from “fight mode” towards what we have and could still gain. What we have right is a proposed Goal, a number of government supporters and negotiations on the SDGs in March. What we also have are opportunities to influence several other aspects of the debate, which could heavily impact the future viability and implementation of the Goal.
By reshaping the focus to other aspects of the agenda we have an opportunity to make this goal truly transformative. As advocates we need to have a Plan A and a Plan B. Plan A assumes Goal 16 is here to stay and thus energy is focused on ensuring Goal 16 has the financial backing, has nationally applicable and measurable indicators, has clear modes of implementation and a future monitoring review system, needed to transform the goal and targets from words to actions. We can do this by playing a role in the various processes on sustainable development, such as Financing for Development, that are taking place over the next year. Plan A also monitors and prepares for potential threats to both the goal and its targets. Plan B acknowledges that the OWG outcome document could open up, and with last minute shuffles Goal 16 and its targets could be at threat from being weakened, or dropped. Plan B outlines what tweaks we want to see if the document opens, and what our strategy, compromise and leverage is should Goal 16 be attacked. Like any Plan B it should be ready but we shouldn’t resort to it until Plan A has failed.
Laura Spano is an Independent Consultant who has been in and around the UN working on peace and security issues for the past 5 years. She was responsible for launching the #peacepost2015 campaign during her role as Conflict Prevention Officer for WFUNA. More on Goal 16 can be found in WFUNA’s “Peaceful Societies: An Essential Element of Sustainable Development” co-written by Laura Spano and Jordan Street.