Where are we now? The SDGs, justice and human rights

September 8, 2023
Six men stand behind three seated women wearing traditional Gambian dress

Local officials participate in a joint UNDP monitoring visit to Gambisara in Gambia where a community policing programme is being implemented.

Photo: UNDP Gambia

As the world stands at the halfway point to 2030 – the date we collectively set to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) – we have already faced greater challenges to this shared commitment than we ever could have imagined at their inception in 2015. This month, we come together for the 78th Session of the United Nations General Assembly and the SDG Summit to reflect on these challenges and identify ways to accelerate progress and course correct to ensure we can keep our shared promise. 

The 2023 UN Sustainable Development Goals Report (Special Edition) clearly showed that the world is lagging in reaching its targets on each of the 17 goals, due to a multiplicity of factors including COVID-19, conflicts, climate change and rising costs of living. SDG 16, an accelerator of the whole framework, is amongst those goals most off track and requires urgent redoubling of efforts, including through both political and financial commitments.

With world peace under greater threat than ever since the end of World War II, how can SDG 16 deliver the aspirations for world peace, just societies and strong institutions? 

Reflecting on my own journey working across three continents since the launch of Agenda 2030, the forthcoming global meetings coincide with my personal journey in supporting the SDG agenda through governance, rule of law, justice, security and human rights. I share thoughts on four key areas, which I believe are foundational in making sustainable transformative change possible.

Firstly, partnerships. Global regional, national, and local level partnerships to deliver on rule of law, justice, security and human rights are more important than ever before. Multilateral cooperation and investment have proven to be key to success. The UNDP, OHCHR and GANHRI Tripartite partnership supported National Human Rights Institutions in 100 countries in 2022, positively impacting their human rights protection and enforcement. The Justice Action Coalition, launched in 2021 and bringing together 19 Member States, UN Agencies and non-state actors, has not only been an important multilateral platform for technical engagement on justice, but also critical for political advocacy and commitment to close the justice gap and support people-centred justice. 

Secondly, robust integrated and politically smart programming is critical to move the needle in this difficult and complex area of development. Through integrated multidisciplinary approaches that uniquely combine rule of law, justice, security, and human rights, UNDP has been able to support positive change in crisis and fragile contexts. In Burkina Faso, despite the political fragility, UNDP worked to build trust between the local government and the communities and to prevent community tensions while supporting community-based dispute resolution mechanisms to address land and artisanal mining conflicts as well as support formal justice systems to deliver justice for victims of crimes. 

Thirdly, to accelerate SDG 16 progress, monitoring, evaluation, learning and innovation must become an integral part of policy and programming. This must be built on robust data and evidence collection, analysis, and use. Data collection on SDG 16 (specifically on SDG 16.3) has been a challenge for most countries. In fact, the biggest data gaps among all SDGs are on SDG 16. The inevitable consequence has been limited understanding and learning of what works and what doesn’t in delivering impactful change on justice, rule of law and human rights, leading to limited innovations. And the vicious cycle continues. 

To halt this, data evidence, learning and innovation need to be integrated; this requires both political and financial investments. In Argentina, to introduce a holistic approach to gathering data on poverty and justice and to uncover links between poverty and legal capacity, UNDP supported the design of an access to justice module and ensured its integration into the poverty survey conducted in 2022. The overarching goal of this initiative was to test the new SDG global indicator 16.3.3 that focuses on the accessibility of civil justice institutions and mechanisms, both formal and informal.  

Most importantly, we must listen to citizens’ voices. The experiences of the past few years, including during the pandemic, demonstrated the positive and transformative impact of populations and citizens voice and engagement. Attaining the aspirations of SDG 16 cannot be achieved by governments alone. We will all need to come together to get it  back on track. 

More on what works for rule of law, peace and justice here.