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Zero Hour for the Zero Draft: The Future of the SDGs

NOTE: This guest post was written by Angelo Piro. Angelo is a student majoring in Diplomacy and International Relations and Economics at Seton Hall University. Angelo’s focus has been on the role of international organizations in development and good governance, recently studying the prevention of electoral violence from an international perspective. He is fluent in English and Spanish, and has a working knowledge of Russian. Angelo has studied at Dubrovnik International University, in Dubrovnik, Croatia, and is currently interning with the Permanent Mission of Honduras to the United Nations. He writes for the Diplomatic Envoy, and is a member of the Seton Hall United Nations Association.


With the close of the High Level Political Forum on Sustainable Development and the launch of the Third Conference on Financing for Development, to be held in Addis Ababa, the negotiations on the so called Zero Draft for the SDG Outcome Document enter a final stage. If the negotiating parties are to reach an agreement by the deadline coming in September, they will need to overcome some significant issues. From negotiations both in the UN and on the sidelines, these seem to be the most pertinent issues facing the Zero Draft.

Cherry Picking Content

While perambulatory and introductory content of typical resolutions within the UN system pass without much fanfare, the preamble and introduction of the Zero Draft have been under intense scrutiny. Everything from the title of the document to the bulleting patterns has been brought up in debate. However, the most contentious issue seems to be the feeling by some states that inclusion of certain principles within these sections was selective, to the detriment of the draft. For example, some states highlighted how a closed list of at risk populations can be seen to ignore certain groups, especially the aging, the disabled, and populations of Small Island Developing States (SIDS), which member states feel should have particular attention in a document that wants to “leave no one behind”. Additionally, others pointed to the list of documents from which principles of the Zero Draft were taken, such as the UN Charter and Universal Declaration of Human Rights, as another example of deliberate selectivity. Calls for more documents to be included to increase the breadth of issues covered have been continuous, with some controversial documents, like the Declaration on the Right to Development, a document not accepted by many states, rising to the forefront.

However the most egregious incident of selectivity, some say, comes in the preamble’s listing of the goals, which condenses the 17 published SDGs down to 9 general principles. While this was framed as an issue of communication and brevity, it was viewed by some as an attempt to reorder and prioritize goals that should be of equal weight. These issues will likely be the easiest to solve. Already drafted proposals have been submitted that address the issues of at risk populations and source documents. The issue of the preamble will, however, require more nuance.

Whose Responsibility Is It?

An emerging problem in the current draft concerns responsibility, specifically the responsibility of developed states compared to developing states. This issue has had the most sway when discussing two key parts of the draft. The first place in which we find this dispute is within the environmental goals of the draft under the goal of creating economies and systems of sustainable consumption and production (SCP). In the SCP debate, developing states wish developed partners to lead the implementation of SCP, while they focus on capacity building and overall industrialization. Conversely, developed states want to apply the universal nature of the declaration to this issue and have universal and equal standards for implementation.

Disagreement on responsibility also emerges on the topic of common but differentiated responsibilities (CBDR), an idea that emerged from debates on climate and is enshrined in the Rio+20 declaration, which is one of those referenced as a foundation for the Zero Draft. Though that document, and its principles, are cited in the draft, developing countries, led by the G77+China, want to see CBDR specifically referenced in the text and moved out from the climate change circle and applied to the development context. Developed countries are vehemently opposed to this, with Japan recently commenting that the only way CBDR will be included is with a reinterpretation of the principle that would severely limit the states that fall under it. On these issues, there is likely to be limited movement. It is likely that through citing the particular situations of SIDS, LDCs, and middle income countries, some of the developing world’s view on SCP will be pieced together. It is unlikely that CBDR will be included, and recent meetings of the G77 seems to accept this as a lost fight.

Role of Financing for Development

One big problem that is left to be answered is the role of the outcome of the Third Conference for Financing for Development in Addis Ababa and how it will fit in with the Zero Draft’s means of implementation. As it stands, the current draft simply has a placeholder clause which has the FFD outcome document as its replacement. What will be the final form of this very ambiguous portion is very much up in the air, and up to much debate. Many states are happy with FFD serving as the means of implementation, while others, led by African states, want a differentiated means of implementation that is complimented and provided structure and direction to FFD. This question will go unanswered until the end of the month, when the outcome of Addis Ababa is known, but additional framework beyond FFD is likely.

Review and Accountability

Questions on follow up and review have also been gaining frequency. As the final work on targets and review emerge, many members feel that the current review process is too prescriptive, and want to move to a more nationally crafted approach for state-level review. On the international and regional review, there is an emerging uncertainty on what form this process will take. Some see the current wording as leaning more towards a punitive and shaming nature. Fears over punitive measures in the draft has reached so far as to have many parties calling for the elimination of the word accountability from the whole section. However, recent work by the HLPF has reframed the international review process, at least, as a knowledge sharing and guidance process, rather than a more negative one. Further adjustment to the review process will allay most concerns on review.

Old Conflicts, New Arena

An interesting development within the negotiations is the emergence of old, contentious issues, within the context of the SDG draft. Some of the more high profile moves have included states like Syria and Iran fighting for the inclusion of language to reprimand Western-led unilateral sanctions, Palestine looking to put in references to ‘persons in occupied territories’ and ‘occupied territories’ in various places in the text, and some Western states’ push for a more binding legal framework on climate change in line with Kyoto. All of these movements have little hope of moving beyond rhetoric. Attempts to address sanctions have gained little traction, even among the more receptive G77 bloc, while the climate change regime is expected to be left to Paris later this year. The push for inclusion of the Palestinian language seemed to have life for a while, but recent meetings of the G77 have shown that they have chosen to compromise on that point and leave it out, in favor of opening up debate on other issues.

One common fight, the push to eliminate global oil subsidies, does seem to have a chance though. Despite the vehement objection of many oil producing states, language addressing oil subsidies continues to survive in the latest draft.

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