Can Agenda 2030 change the norm?

If the UN wants to advance sustainable development and achieve the 2030 Agenda it needs to zero in on its normative work.


By Dario Piselli

What are international norms and why do they matter? Why can’t we just ditch the jargon and call them rules or standards? In fact, norms are more nuanced than either of these two words implies. Norms are best described as non-binding guidelines, and they only play a key part in the international order by exerting pressure on a state or non-state actor to conform. It is not hard hitting international law that carries legal weight and consequences, but despite this, norms are often crucial in mobilising the international community around the common challenges that humanity faces.

The best example of this is of course the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, with its 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the 169 targets that go with them. But if an agenda of such magnitude and complexity is to be achieved, then the UN system needs to transform its approach to the development of international norms. Specifically, it needs to pursue a more systematic integration of the work of different agencies, strengthen monitoring and evaluation processes and increase available resources, while also providing adequate assistance for the domestic implementation of norms.

Yet, whilst a consensus exists on the fact that reform is necessary, the debate around the principles which must guide this change has often been sidelined. In other words, we know that international law will have to play a major role in realising the vision laid out in 2030 Agenda (as its implementation will largely depend on the extent to which international regimes are strengthened and/or translated into domestic legal systems), but what, by contrast, will the role of the Agenda be in informing the evolution of norms and international law in the next fifteen years and beyond?

Agenda 2030 – from statement to obligation

As I have already hinted at, the vast landscape of UN resolutions and declarations, a landscape to which the 2030 Agenda belongs, is often depicted as distant from the realms of ‘hard’ international law, having little influence over the establishment of new principles and valid legal rules. Sustainable development, by virtue of the thorny questions and political sensitivities it raises, has mostly been addressed at the UN level through such non-binding instruments, and in this sense the Agenda is no exception. Having had the opportunity to closely monitor the adoption of the 2030 Agenda, as both a researcher in international law and a delegate for the Sustainable Development Solutions Network, however, I do believe that the 2030 Agenda might trigger a profound change in the way this powerful concept is understood in legal circles.

In order to argue this, it is not even necessary to become swamped in the long-standing academic debate about the normative role of non-binding instruments in international law (that is, their ability to prescribe specific norms and behaviours). As a matter of fact, it is widely acknowledged that UN resolutions and similar instruments do have certain effects regardless of their non-binding status, while also carrying a strong value as means of moving other international bodies, states, and private actors towards the achievement of a particular objective.

If we look at the SDGs, which follow in the footsteps of the Millennium Development Goals adopted in 2000 to pursue what Professor Jeffrey Sachs has defined as “goal-based development”, this value is potentially unprecedented. By setting a limited number of goals which are comprehensive, time-bound, measurable, and universally applicable, the Agenda is providing countries with benchmarks for the assessment of progress, promoting long-term perspectives on decision-making, and more generally informing the definition of policymakers’ strategies around complex economic, social and environmental challenges. In addition, from a legal perspective, it shows the potential to innovate and concretise the statements of principles contained in the 1992 Rio Declaration on Environment and Development and other related ‘soft-law’ instruments, effectively posing an obligation upon the international community to achieve sustainable development, rather than merely ‘strive’ for it.

Sustainable Development – from normative to legal frameworks

There is also a tangible objective to the vision of the 2030 Agenda, an objective which commands that the concept of sustainable development be translated into holistic legal frameworks. These frameworks would be focused on promoting action for the achievement of specific, measurable goals. Even more importantly, there are reasons to believe that this process of progressive  ‘appropriation’ of the 2030 Agenda by domestic legal systems will be facilitated by some of the key characteristics of the Agenda itself.

Think, for example, of the inclusive process that led to the Agenda’s definition; its universal applicability and strong emphasis on the idea of partnership and global cooperation; the widespread consensus that surrounded its adoption; the particularly specific language used in the formulation of the 17 Goals and 169 targets; and the high reporting and monitoring standards that it seeks to achieve. It is difficult to find another UN resolution (or other instrument, for that matter) which commanded such a broad, unconditional support.

The legal and normative implications of the Agenda could be far-reaching, spanning both the domestic and the international sphere. Its ability to further promote the development of cross-sectoral norms and standards and strengthen cooperation among different institutions very much hangs on the United Nations though. It is how the UN interprets its role in stimulating and monitoring the implementation of these normative frameworks at the international, national and even sub-national levels that will ultimately determine the extent to which the vision of Agenda 2030 can be turned into reality.