Background

In 2015, the 193 Member States of the United Nations (UN) agreed to the 2030 Agenda and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The Agreement was an ambitious new start to international development, designed to be sustainable, universal, wide-reaching,  bold, and most importantly, inclusive. The Goals were developed in a participatory process by thousands of stakeholders, with the expectation that those stakeholders would play a key role in their implementation.

One of the most far-reaching sections of the Agenda is SDG16 which commits to ‚Äúpromote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels‚ÄĚ. Its purpose is to tackle the underlying problems which have limited the realisation of the previous international development programmes for the past 70 years. The 12 targets cover a range of issues including peace and violence, the rule of law, corruption, participatory decision making, legal identity, access to information, human rights, and non-discrimination. Twenty-four indicators set out specific commitments for governments to enact laws and policies and to take actions to put them into practice. There are also a number of related and overlapping indicators and targets in other SDGs which are collectively known as SDG16+ (see box in Chapter 2). Together, these offer a powerful mechanism for addressing some of the most pressing problems undermining development.

Since the adoption of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development in 2015, progress towards SDG16+ has been slow and uneven, and in many cases, backsliding. The COVID-19 pandemic reversed progress on the SDGs and put tens of millions back in extreme poverty.  The illegal invasion of Ukraine continues to cause widespread destruction, civilian deaths, and displacement, and worsening energy security, food scarcity and the protection of human security in other settings, while diverting vital resources away from improving the quality of people’s lives towards military and security budgets instead. The two have also distracted the international community’s attention from other critical issues and human suffering. Meanwhile, the climate crisis continues to deepen, further undermining the SDGs. At the same time, authoritarianism has been on the rise with a growing number of people living in countries with significant restrictions to their fundamental freedoms of association, peaceful assembly, and expression. Misinformation and disinformation are increasing while global public access to fact-based, accurate and relevant information has been diminished, alongside growing restrictions and repression of independent journalism.

In the face of these multiple crises, the 2030 Agenda’s commitments to inclusive, responsive, and participatory decision making, along with respect for access to information and fundamental freedoms, have assumed greater significance. The need for amplified commitments and stronger partnerships to ensure accelerated action has become more urgent considering these current crises. Diverting the international community’s attention away from SDG16+, these global threats have negatively impacted its prioritisation and implementation. They have widened the gap between the stated ambition of the 2030 Agenda and where we are headed, based upon current trajectories towards peaceful, just and inclusive societies.

The purpose of this report is to review the progress of both SDG16+ globally at the halfway point of the 2030 Agenda, and the crucial role of civil society in providing the energy, effort and accountability to help achieve it. The following chapters offer a detailed review of how well, at the half-way point, governments have progressed towards achieving SDG16+. The report will further review how successful the SDG16 targets (and related 16+ targets) have been in supporting other SDGs. Finally, it will highlight how civil society, especially at the national level, can use SDG16+ as a tool for promoting sustainable development in their own countries.

The role of civil society: opportunities and barriers

At the heart of this report is the importance of the role of civil society. Civil society has long been recognised as a partner in the development agenda. Since the UN was formed over 70 years ago with the joint goals of promoting peace, development, and human rights, the role of civil society has evolved. As far back as the 1968 United Nations Tehran Human Rights Conference, governments called for ensuring ‚Äúthe informed participation of all citizens in the decision-making process affecting national development‚ÄĚ.1¬†Then, at the 1972 Stockholm Conference, which introduced the concept of sustainable development, governments and the UN were called upon to ‚Äúprovide equal possibilities for everybody, both by training and by ensuring access to relevant means and information, to influence their own environment by themselves‚ÄĚ.2 Later, Principle 10 of the 1992 Rio Conference set out the standards on access to information, public participation and access to justice and Agenda 21provided the structure for civil society to be widely engaged in the development process.¬†

Civil society plays a key role in the success of Agenda 2030 and its implementation as both a partner to governments and as observers and advocates holding governments to account under SDG16+. Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) work across all levels of the SDGs, from local to national to international. Some act as direct implementers of projects providing essential services such as health care and education. Others act as monitors, identifying deforestation, or environmental hazards, or tracking expenditures. Local organisations represent the interest of their communities in crucial areas such as land and development. Human rights groups train communities on their rights and represent individuals and communities harmed by governments actions or inactions and advocate for fair treatment. Many organisations of all sizes collect information and data on implementation and make that information available, providing an alternative view to government reporting. Civil society’s role is especially important in meeting many of the SDG16+ targets in cases of lacking or inadequate government leadership. 

However, civil society faces many challenges in being able to fully and effectively engage. Many governments do not see civil society as a full partner. Engagement is often tokenistic, with CSOs ‚Äúconsulted‚ÄĚ by government bodies, but without being given space to offer any real input in processes, as is the case with many Voluntary National Reviews (VNRs).¬† Most concerning of all, has been the increase in attacks on CSOs, especially those involved in environmental disputes. Hundreds of environmental and land defenders are murdered every year and many more physically monitored, harassed and attacked with impunity. Many others are legally pressured by governments and private bodies via Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (SLAPPs), facing frivolous legal actions designed to prevent them from protesting unjust actions and the denial of their rights. These attacks highlight the importance of SDG16, with its targets on protecting fundamental rights, public participation and access to justice, and the necessity of implementing the goal fully.

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