Conflict zones in the SDG negotiations

A report by Ranja Sengupta (New Delhi), Bhumika Muchhala (New York), and Mirza Alas (Heredia, Costa Rica), Third World Network*

The Open Working Group on Sustainable Development Goals finally reached an agreement on 19 July 2014 after the finish line set for the 18th was passed while Member States still debated Goal 16 and the Chapeau to the list of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and targets.

On the morning of 19 July the Co-Chairs of the Open Working Group (OWG) on SDGs, Ambassadors Macharia Kamau of Kenya and Csaba Korosi of Hungary,placed the final SDG outcome document for adoption by the OWG Member States, to be forwarded to the General Assembly for its consideration in September 2014.

After the room heard both positive and negative reactions by Member States the document was finally adopted by a slightly restless consensus and forwarded by the Co-Chairs for the attention of the UN Secretary-General and the General Assembly. Officially referred to as "The Proposal of the Open Working Group for Sustainable Development Goals," the document is likely to form the basis of negotiations on the Post-2015 process at the General Assembly starting January 2015. The Post-2015 process will shape the future of the United Nations development agenda after the 2015 deadline for the Millennium Development Goals.

The 24 hours preceding the closing plenary of the 13th and final OWG session were frantic.  On Wednesday 16 July, the Co-Chairs had started the second review of the goals and targets. The review of Goals 1 to 7 and part of Goal 8 was covered on Wednesday while Goals 9 to 15 and Goal 17 were covered on Thursday.  Friday began with a review of Goal 16 but this could not be completed due to the persistence of wide differences between the Member States.

After continuing for about two and a half hours on Goal 16, the Co-Chairs moved the discussion to the third review of Goals 1 to 17. (See the note at the end of this report for the list of Goals.)

The Co-Chairs had suggested some group conversations on Wednesday to resolve thorny issues. Accordingly four contact groups were formed on Thursday.  The Ambassador of Palau chaired the one on sexual and reproductive health and rights.  The Ambassador of Peru chaired the one regarding Goal 16, the Ambassador of Norway chaired a group on energy subsidies while the Ambassador of Switzerland chaired a group discussion on trans-boundary issues.

However, only the last of these groups found an agreement on language to be included on the issue. In spite of efforts, the other three groups did not manage to find a resolution and the issues came back to the plenary.

While Means of implementation remained a battleground between the developed and developing countries, and the inequality goal was an early fault line, several other thorny issues were of critical importance during the last days of the OWG.

(MOI as well as inequality have been covered extensively in previous TWN articles. Please see


Goal 16 finally made it to the final SDGs though it appeared to be a potential deal breaker during the last 2 days. The title was however replaced by "promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels". The changes in the title; dropping of "rule of law", inclusion of "access to justice" and "sustainable development" and replacing "achieve" with "promote", a last minute change compared to the 17July version, seemed to have resolved some of the conflicts.

However even the morning of Saturday (19 July) witnessed a number of objections to the way "foreign occupation" was included in the final SDG document. The Group of 77 and China collectively and developing countries individually reiterated their demand for a specific target on ending foreign occupation as opposed to it being mentioned just in the Chapeau of the final SDG document tabled by the Co-Chairs. The developed countries in return, without mentioning it specifically, communicated a veiled threat that "if the document was opened up then other issues will be opened up as well". The other issues presumably would be goal specific Means of Implementation (MOI), or the goals on sustainable consumption and production, or even the mention of foreign occupation in the Chapeau itself.

("Goal specific MOI" refers to explicit MOI listed under each goal.)

Goal 16 was expectedly at the centre of a heated and emotional debate throughout the OWG process. In spite of 3 discussions between Thursday and Friday, the contact group failed to resolve its differences. A sizeable number of developing countries did not want this goal included while the developed countries wanted two goals rather than one, the first on rule of law and a second one on governance. The developing countries who were against this goal area stated a multitude of concerns, including that this theme shifts the focus of the SDGs away from the three dimensions of sustainable development, and includes security issues that are under the purview of the UN Security Council. They had suggested moving these targets to other goals or integrating them into the Chapeau.

Opposing the inclusion of "Rule of Law" in the title and content, Brazil in particular suggested a formulation oriented towards "access to justice". It stressed that the formulation based on peace and rule of law includes a conceptual confusion between violence and conflict. Specifically, there is a disturbing notion that violence and organised crime should be singled out as important impediments to development, and that they are a problem only in developing countries. In response a letter was sent by Austria on Thursday (17 July) on behalf of the "Group of Friends of the Rule of Law" which asked for "reinstating the rule of law at the goal level".

Many developing countries wanted references to rule of Law deleted in the title and supported the concept of access to justice.  Several Member States again wanted that this goal be specifically targeted towards sustainable development as rule of law should be an enabler to sustainable development, not an objective per se and not be given a broad mandate to interfere with national governments' political authority. Difficulties are also perceived in measuring the targets and defining the standards under this goal area, particularly in terms of what is the 'right,' 'correct' or 'ideal' model of rule of law that could represent a yardstick for all countries. The change in the goal title over the course of the week reflects these concerns.

Discussions around Goal 16 continued to show the deep divide among Member States.  The informal group spent many long hours trying to modify the content of the text and present something that would rally consensus from the rest of the group. As they presented their proposal on Thursday morning a long debate took place when divided views were again presented. The morning session was suspended by the Co-Chairs in order for Member States to convene and discuss among themselves. When discussions resumed at night, the polarisation in the room was still palpable over the approach to the goal and over which draft to work on as a basis. The Co-Chairs proposed working on the basis of two alternative goal titles with a set of targets from the latest draft. Goal 16 had clearly occupied the longest time in the third review of the zero draft.


Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights (SRHR) continued to be a persistent area of contention and sensitivities among Member States until the very last minute of negotiations. The main divide was over the inclusion of the phrase, "reproductive rights" under Goal 5, target 5.6. In spite of the Co-Chairs appointing a contact group under the Chairmanship of Palau, the issue was not resolved.

During the session the Co-Chairs brought back the target on sexual and reproductive health (that had been dropped in the revised zero draft) which read "by 2030 ensure universal access to sexual and reproductive health care services, including for family planning, information and education, and the integration of reproductive health into national strategies and programmes".

In perhaps their most bold move, the Co-Chairs retained the reference to reproductive rights in the final document in target 5.6 which read "ensure universal access to sexual and reproductive health and reproductive rights as agreed in accordance with the Programme of Action of the ICPD (International Conference on Population and Development) and the Beijing Platform for Action and the outcome documents of their review conferences".

During the last morning session on 19 July when the final draft document for adoption was presented, several Member States including Nigeria, Iran, Uganda, Egypt, Chad, Saudi Arabia, Iran,  Indonesia expressed a range of opposition (from severe to soft) to the inclusion of reproductive rights in target 5.6.  Pakistan said it would make use of the flexibilities provided in the Chapeau to not implement this target.  Some Member States expressed reservation on this target and indicated that they may open it up at the General Assembly. Though target 5.6 came close to breaking the deal, none contested the final agreement looking at the overall balance of the document. The Co-Chairs highlighted repeatedly that opening the document or changing language in any target at this stage may change the sensitive balance in the document.

SRHR have been a long time ask of the Women's and other Major Groups and have been articulated by several Member States. They also asked that targets on comprehensive sexuality education be included as a target. On the other hand, several Member States have opposed inclusion of SRHR citing the non-recognition of sexual or reproductive rights in their national laws. Some Member States also objected to the inclusion of sexuality education under Goal 4 on Education on the ground that the cultural context in their countries was not conducive to sexuality education. As a result of these sensitivities sexual rights were never included in the document at any point of time, nor was sexuality education.

Sexual and reproductive health had however found mention under Goal 3, target 3.8, while sexual and reproductive health and reproductive rights was included under Goal 5, target 5.9 in the first version of the zero draft, released on 2 June.  But in the revised version of 30June, target 3.8 was dropped while the target under Goal 5, now numbered 5.6, was still included. However during the July session there was continued opposition to including target 5.6.

During the July OWG session, a statement delivered by H.E. Ambassador Nozipho Mxakato-Diseko of South Africaon on behalf of 58 Member States[i]reiterated the demand for 3 targets related to SRHR. The statement said "in order to complete the 'unfinished business' of the Millennium Development Goals, and building on the Programme of Action of the International Conference on Population and Development and the Beijing Platform for Action and related agreements, the respect, promotion and protection of sexual and reproductive health and rights for all must be an essential foundation of a universally-relevant, transformative, high-impact and cost-effective sustainable development agenda across its social, economic and environmental dimensions".

The joint statement called for 3 targets. "Under the proposed goal on Health: 'Achieve universal access to sexual and reproductive health and rights for all, including quality, comprehensive, integrated and affordable sexual and reproductive health information, education and services that include modern methods of contraception. Under the proposed goal on Gender Equality: 'Ensure the respect, promotion and protection of sexual and reproductive health and rights for all'" and "under the proposed goal on Education: 'Achieve universal access to comprehensive sexuality education for all young people, in and out of school, consistent with their evolving capacities'".


In contrast to the debates over the last two issues,differences over a stand alone Climate Change Goal seems to be have been somewhat resolved by the 3rd review on Thursday. However this Goal number 13 also saw major conflicts through the OWG sessions.

Towards the end of the last session, Ambassador Kamau stated that due to the house (OWG) being split again, the goal on climate change will be retained, at least for the time being.

However, he acknowledged that a deeper conversation on this complex topic is still pending, as both sides of the fence are emphatic about either maintaining or removing climate change as a goal area. He noted that in response to the strong requests of developing countries, there will be a proactive attempt to streamline climate change into other goals in a manner that is acceptable.

Many developing countries have repeatedly argued that climate change should not be a focus area; it should be substantively integrated into all the other goal areas. In the 10th OWG session, developing countries stated that the SDGs cannot pre-empt or prejudge the outcomes of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).

As such, they had argued, the SDGs must adhere to the principles and provisions of the UNFCCC, in particular the principles of equity and common but differentiated responsibilities (CBDR), and ensure that the on-going discussions under the UNFCCC are not prejudiced or prejudged. The risk of including climate change as a goal is that it may unduly interfere with on-going negotiations that are independent of the SDG process and conducted under a legally binding treaty.

After the review on Thursday, the revised Goal 13 title read: "Combat climate change and its impacts in accordance with the principles and provisions of the UNFCCC".  However during the negotiations on Friday the developed countries objected to this deference to the UNFCCC in the title. The developing countries also wanted a clear reference to the UNFCCC in the Chapeau but the latter was also challenged by the developed countries.

In the final document, the climate change goal was included as "Take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts *" and the sub-heading preceding the targets reads: "*Acknowledging that the UNFCCC is the primary international, intergovernmental forum for negotiating the global response to climate change."

Reference to the UNFCCC also made it to the Chapeau in Paragraph 8 on climate change which also includes a reference to CBDR. It reads: "[The OWG] recalled that the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change provides that parties should protect the climate system for the benefit of present and future generations of humankind on the basis of equity and in accordance with their common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities." And later in the paragraph it states: "it reaffirmed that the ultimate objective under the UNFCCC is to stabilize greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system."


Another consistent ask of the developing countries reflected in the Chapeau has been the inclusion of Common but Differentiated Responsibilities (CBDR) not only as a principle underlying climate change-related commitments but to the overall SDG framework. This principle has faced severe challenges from the developed countries. Principle 7 of the 1992 Rio Declaration has already laid down CBDR as a basis for climate change and sustainability commitments.  Accordingly, the G-77 and China repeatedly asked that this principle be reaffirmed and applied to the entire set of SDGs, while the developed countries have refused to concede CBDR even to climate related commitments. This, according to the G-77 and China, has actually been a regression of Principle 7 of the Rio Declaration.

(CBDR is also contested in the UNFCCC negotiations where developed countries are attempting a reinterpretation to result in a change in the balance of obligations between developed and developing countries).

In both versions of the zero Draft (released 2 June and 30 June), the Chapeau included a reference to CBDR limited to climate change reflecting a compromise position, and read: "We reaffirm all the principles of the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development, including, inter alia, the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities, as set out in principle 7 thereof."

In the final SDG document, Paragraph 8 refers to climate change and the reference to CBDR finally reads: "… recalled that the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change provides that parties should protect the climate system for the benefit of present and future generations of humankind on the basis of equity and in accordance with their common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities".

(Read more on CBDR in earlier TWN articles at


Goal 12 on "Ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns" had been one to espouse the cause of "universality". This was the one goal which clearly puts the onus on the rich countries as much as it did on the poor countries, though in the 1992 Agenda 21 and Rio Declaration developed countries has committed to take the lead in shifting away from unsustainable consumption and production patterns. Not surprisingly, the developed countries had resisted a stand-alone goal on this topic and had suggested mainstreaming targets across other goals.  But by the time the zero draft came into being this issue had been more or less settled it seems.

However the content within this goal provided an interesting debate and a clear snapshot of the divide between the developed and developing countries. While developing countries persistently stressed that targets should be nuanced with respect to "nationally defined policies and priorities" and to previously agreed upon treaties and outcomes, in particular the 10-Year Framework of Programmes in this goal area, the developed country negotiators were less willing to concede to this. For developing countries "nationally defined policies and priorities" in the context of SCP is of critical importance as their development and economic prosperity are critically linked to national policy framing.

During the last few days of the 13th OWG session, the developing countries also reiterated a call for "developed countries taking the lead" that faced an almost total rejection by major developed countries. The troika of the United Kingdom, the Netherlands and Australia had suggested that "all countries implement the 10-Year Framework of Programmes on sustainable consumption and production (10YFP)" as a target on MOI. However though the 10YFP includes a clear reference to "developed countries taking the lead", developed countries opposed any specific mention of this.

Paragraph 10.b of the 10YFP states: "All countries should take action, with developed countries taking the lead, taking into account the development and capabilities of developing countries, through mobilization, from all sources, of financial and technical assistance and capacity-building for developing countries".

Finally, implementing the 10YFP became a target (12.1) rather than an MOI in the final document while "all countries taking action, with developed countries taking the lead, taking into account the development and capabilities of developing countries" was eventually added under target 12.1.

Target 12.6 to "promote public procurement practices that are sustainable in accordance with national policies and priorities" had also seen its fair bit of conflict.

In the zero draft released on 2 June, target 12.11 read: "by 2030 increase the share of sustainable products and services in public procurement, including through competitive and transparent procurement processes".  This was ostensibly included at the demand of developed countries which have tried for long and without much success to enter the public procurement markets of developing countries. This represents a sizeable 12-20% of GDP in developing countries and offers significant opportunities to western companies for goods and services used by developing country governments including big projects such as construction works.

While the benefit of making public procurement sustainable is undeniable, the problem is that developing countries use this market to give opportunities to domestic industries, small and medium sized enterprises and other small producers, and marginalized groups such as socially weaker classes and women producers. Raising sustainability standards without conditions would take such markets and opportunities out of the grasp of these target groups. In developing countries public procurement is as much a development tool as it is an economic one and this is why developing countries have resisted including it for liberalization under the World Trade Organization. The European Union and the United States still push for including public procurement under their bilateral free trade agreements with developing countries.

After strong concerns voiced by developing countries the revised zero draft dated 30 June saw this target emerge as "12.6: by 2030 substantially increase the share of public procurement that is sustainable". However the G-77 and China as well as countries like Brazil, India, China, and Indonesia wanted language to qualify this unconditional commitment. While some proposed adding "with developed countries taking the lead" at the end of the sentence, Indonesia suggested conditions for preferences for small producers in developing countries. Indonesia also asked for a goal specific MOI in terms of finance and technology to meet this target. This was supported by several other developing countries.

After the initial revisions, the G-77 and China suggested adding "in accordance with national policies and priorities" at the end which would allow space for development-related policies in individual countries. In the final document this language was finally accepted and the target, now 12.7 reads "promote public procurement practices that are sustainable in accordance with national policies and priorities".


It is a feat that in spite of the often head-on conflicts and skirmishes, the SDGs was finally agreed upon by all Member States of the OWG on 19July. While the set of goals and targets are far from ideal, they do reflect the merging of conflicting visions into at least a grudging consensus. Probably the fear of losing more kept some Member States acquiescent while others probably aim to re-open the myriad aspects of the complex Pandora's Box of the SDGs at the General Assembly after January 2015.


*Credits: Third World Network, 6 August 2014

Photo: GERES/Flickr
The 17 Sustainable Development Goals in the Outcome Document of the Open Working Group are:
(1) End poverty in all its forms everywhere;
(2) End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition, and promote sustainable agriculture;
(3) Ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages;
(4) Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote life-long learning opportunities for all;
(5) Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls;
(6) Ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all;
(7) Ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable, and modern energy for all;
(8) Promote sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all;
(9) Build resilient infrastructure, promote inclusive and sustainable industrialization and foster innovation;
(10) Reduce inequality within and among countries;
(11) Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable;
(12) Ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns;
(13) Take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts (with the following words preceding the targets: "Acknowledging that the UNFCCC is the primary international, intergovernmental forum for negotiating the global response to climate change …");
(14) Conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development;
(15) Protect, restore and promote sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems, sustainably manage forests, combat desertification, and halt and reverse land degradation and halt biodiversity loss;
(16) Promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels;
(17) Strengthen the means of implementation and revitalize the global partnership for sustainable development.
The text of the OWG Outcome Document can be accessed at:
[i]The signatory Member States include: Albania, Argentina, Australia, Austria, Belgium, Bolivia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Brazil, Bulgaria, Cape Verde, Chile, Colombia, Cook Islands, Costa Rica, Croatia, Czech Republic, Denmark, Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Iceland, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Japan, Kiribati, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Mexico, Monaco, Montenegro, Netherlands, Norway, Palau, Panama, Papua New Guinea, the Philippines, Portugal, Romania, Samoa, Serbia, Slovakia, Slovenia, South Africa, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Thailand, Ukraine, United Kingdom, Uruguay, Vanuatu.