Revisiting the Goals of Sustainable Development

On 8 September 2000, full of optimism and resolve, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Millennium Declaration (resolution 55/2)[1], reaffirming that development, together with peace and human rights, constitute the Organization’s priorities for the 21st century.

When the eight Millennium Development Goals[2] (2000 to 2015) were proclaimed by the GA on 14 December 2000, there was hope that the goals would be met. The time was right and the level of political will seemed present.  Much credit goes to SG Kofi Annan and later to USG Wu Hongbo[3].

Unfortunately, on 11 September 2001 the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Centre in New York and a series of wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and throughout the Middle East adversely impacted the world’s priorities and relegated development to the back burner. The road-map to development was lost as the so-called “war on terror” sabotaged the expectations which hitherto we had so fondly harboured.

The crux of the matter is that achieving the MDG’s required financing in the trillions of dollars. Notwithstanding eloquent lip service by most politicians, the priorities were in promoting “colour revolutions” and pushing a neo-liberal economic agenda, which Naomi Klein brilliantly described in her book The Shock Doctrine[4].

Proper financing could have been made available for development, but this would have required that countries possessing the strongest economies, like the US and Germany, shift the paradigm away from military-first to human-security first economies.  Alas, they and other major powers had other budgetary priorities and instead of allocating the necessary funds to achieve development goals, most countries increased their military budgets, to the delight of investors in the war industries, of speculators and war-profiteers.  Humanity was left behind, as Ban Ki-moon deplored in August 2012 “The world is over armed and peace is underfunded.”[5]

True democracies would have put the question to their constituencies – whether they wanted enhanced development or ever-growing military budgets?  Since the answer would be too apparent, no referendum has ever been held on this crucial issue of development. In the US both Democrats and Republicans are committed to the military establishment.

Notwithstanding the many hiccups in the implementation of the MDGs, some optimistic bureaucrats at the UN claimed a number of successes, announcing that

+ the number of deaths of children under 5 years of age had fallen from 12.7 million in 1990 to 6.3 million in 2013 globally;.

+ the percentage of underweight children under 5 years old dropped from 28% in 1990 to 17% in 2013 in developing countries;

+ new HIV infections had declined by 38% between 2001 and 2013;

+ cases of tuberculosis were declining;

+ in 2010, the world had met the MDGs target on access to safe drinking-water[6]

Not having achieved the promise of the Millennium Declaration, a “new” set of 17 Sustainable Development Goals was proclaimed in 2017, with a commitment to achieve them by the year 2030[7]. The new blueprint for peace and prosperity is called the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, and relies on global partnerships and international solidarity.[8] The SDGs build on the work of many UN agencies including the World Health Organization[9] , the International Labour Organization[10], the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development[11], the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights[12] and the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs[13].

Briefly, 17 SDG’s aim at

1) Eradication of poverty
2) Food security
3) Good health and preparedness for emergencies
4) Quality education
5) Gender equality
6) Clean water and sanitation
7) Affordable clean energy
8) Decent work and economic growth
9) Industry, innovation and infrastructure
10) Reduce inequalities, ban discrimination
11) Build sustainable cities and communities
12) Responsible consumption and production
13) Climate action to address global warming, desertification, natural disasters
14) Protection of the oceans and life below water
15) Sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems
16) Promoting Peace, Justice and strong institutions
17) Building effective Partnerships for the goals

Many of these goals are more than just promises, and already exist as treaty-based commitments on the part of 173 States parties to the UN Covenant on Civil and Political Rights[14], 171 States parties to the UN Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights[15], 182 States parties to the International Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Racial Discrimination[16], and 189 States parties to the International Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women[17].

For instance, the right to life, which necessarily includes the right to peace and the right to health, is stipulated in article 6 ICCPR.  The right of self-determination of peoples and the prohibition of looting the natural resources of indigenous peoples[18] are stipulated in article 1 common to the ICCPR and ICESCR.  The right to health, education, water, sanitation, employment etc. are all protected in the ICESCR.  Moreover, transnational corporations, private persons or States must not restrict the policy space of foreign governments, particularly through the “investment protection” chapters of bilateral investment treaties and so-called free-trade agreements. Arbitrations under the investor-state dispute settlement mechanism (ISDS) by-pass the system of public courts, which are transparent, accountable and whose judgments are appealable.  In a very real sense ISDS is contra bonos mores, as incompatible with the very essence of a State, which is to advance the welfare of persons under its jurisdiction, which requires adopting social legislation, which may conflict with the profit interests of investors.  It is unconscionable to privatize profits while the risk of loss is born by the state. The Philip Morris v. Uruguay case became emblematic when Philip Morris[19] sued Uruguay because of Uruguay’s implementation of the WTO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control.[20] ISDS cannot be reformed and must be abolished as contrary to jus cogens, article 53 of the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties.[21]  Alas, ISDS continues to sabotage the regulatory space of States, particularly developing states.

Since the “time of troubles” in the Ukraine, the financing problem of the SDG’s has become ever more tenuous.  In February 2014 the overthrow of the democratically elected government of President Victor Yanukovych launched a new hot war and led to significant increases in military budgets worldwide, thus further marginalizing the SDG’s.

The Covid-19 pandemic, with billions of dollars spent to combat it, further detracted from the overall SDG’s. It also demonstrated how poorly prepared States were to tackle any medical emergency.  The privatization of medicine and the closure of hospitals when they were not generating enough profit led to thousands of avoidable deaths.  Yet, no one in government has been held accountable for pushing the neo-liberal dogmas against their treaty obligations under the ICESCR and other human rights treaties they have ratified – and blithely ignored.

One would think that the World Bank and the IMF could play a significant role in advancing the SDGs,  Alas, although the WB and IMF have association agreements with the UN, they are not subject to the authority of the General Assembly or of the Secretary General.  In essence, the WG and IMF are in the service of the outdated “Bretton Woods” model, which was engendered in 1944 to maintain the US economic hegemony in the world.  Notwithstanding my 2017 reports to the General Assembly and Human Rights Council, or the reports of the rapporteurs on foreign debt, the rapporteur on the right to food, the rapporteur on the right to health, it is evident that the policies of the World Bank and IMF actually hinder the implementation of the SDGs. The Lancet has also documented how the privatization of the health sector has proven devastating to prevent disease or to manage it, once a cholera, Ebola or other pandemic has been declared[22].

Cultivating social justice to arrive at world peace

In the light of the above, it is obvious that the MDGs and SDGs are needed more than ever.  Of course, they did not emerge from a “virgin birth”, but built on the work of UN agencies and civil society, e.g. the June 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Agenda 21, the Johannesburg Declaration on Sustainable Development adopted at the World Summit on Sustainable Development held in South Africa in 2002, the UN Conference Rio plus 20, the outcome document “The Future We Want”, the establishment of the UN High Level Political Forum on Sustainable Development, the Addis Ababa Action Agenda on Financing for Development, the Paris Agreement on Climate change, the creation of the UN Division for Sustainable Development Goals[23], etc.

While the UN has been monitoring progress in the implementation of the SDGs, it appears that the prospects are bleak,[24] especially because of the war in Ukraine[25] and the proliferation of economic sanctions that have upended globalization and dislocated supply chains.[26]

On a happier note, I salute the excellent work of the Columbia Centre for Sustainable Development at Columbia University in New York under the leadership of Professor Jeffrey Sachs, the Special Advisor of the Secretary General on Sustainable Development.[27] For instance the CCSI’s new report entitled “Roadmap to Zero-Carbon Electrification of Africa” shows how African countries can greatly expand access to affordable electricity, create millions of jobs, and future-proof their economies by scaling up investment in renewable energy.  In this context it is worth mentioning Africa’s own 2063 development Agenda, which is being promoted by the Secretary-general’s Special Advisor on Africa, Cristina Duarte.[28]

There is no absence of good ideas, no absence of good minds like Jeffrey Sachs, Joseph Stiglitz, Naomi Klein, Arundhati Roy, the WHO Goodwill Ambassadors like Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, and many others.  What is most needed is intellectual honesty in the governments of rich countries and the political will to build a better world based on equality and social justice.

I have always admired the motto of the International Labour Organization – si vis pacem, cole justitiam.  If we want peace, we must cultivate justice.  This applies system-wide to all UN agencies and to all women and men of good will. It is time to implement “conversion therapy” away from the military-industrial-digital-financial complex to the real world of human beings who have a right to live in peace and dignity.









[8] See the reports of the UN Independent Expert on human rights and International Solidarity.













[21] See my 2015 and 2016 reports to the Human Rights Council and General Assembly.








Alfred de Zayas is a law professor at the Geneva School of Diplomacy and served as a UN Independent Expert on International Order 2012-18. He is the author of twelve books including “Building a Just World Order” (2021) “Countering Mainstream Narratives” 2022, and “The Human Rights Industry” (Clarity Press, 2021).