TWN Info Service on UN Sustainable Development (Jul15/15)
27 July 2015
Third World Network

Post-2015 Development Agenda: Maintaining the integrity of the SDGs

New York, 26 July (Ranja Sengupta) – During the first week of negotiations on the Post- 2015 Development Agenda, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and Targets were subjected to an almost final round of negotiations on Wednesday (22 July).

Though the SDGs as finalized by the Open Working Group (OWG) last July, were agreed to be the final set of goals and targets by a General Assembly Resolution in September last year, a ‘technical proofing’ exercise continues to raise some difficulties in reaching a consensus on the SDGs. Complications on whether to change the SDGs at all, how to replace unspecified numbers marked by an “x” and whether to include a revision on target 14.c related to the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) grabbed the focus of the discussion.

Other critical issues, including on treatment of an agreed introduction or Chapeau to the SDGs in the Post-2015 document, also saw a continuing divide between the North and the South. There was also a discussion on “duplication” of Means of Implementation (MOI) targets in Chapters 2 and 3 of the document, with most developing countries wanting it in both, while developed countries wanted it mentioned only once. The United Kingdom and Canada said they want MOI mentioned only in Chapter 3 (on MOI), while some such as Sweden said they could be flexible as to the placement of MOI goals and targets though they did not want duplication.

The final scheduled Post-2015 Development Agenda talks are taking place at the UN headquarters in New York from 20 to 31 July.

The G77 and China, representing 134 developing countries, said the Group has “consistently called for this entire (SDG) report to be fully preserved and not to be re-opened or re-negotiated in line with the General Assembly resolution that endorsed it as the main basis for integrating the SDGs into the Post-2015 Development Agenda. We are therefore pleased that these goals and targets have to a large extent been retained in the latest draft that you (the Co-facilitators) have prepared. These goals and targets reflect the global development priorities, particularly for developing countries”.


The 17 SDGs with the corresponding 169 targets, decided on by the Open Working Group (OWG) that had concluded its work last July had been accepted by the General Assembly in September 2014 by General Assembly Resolution 68/309 to be the goals and targets that will constitute the main substance of the Post-2015 Agenda.

However, the Co-facilitators (Ambassadors Macharia Kamau of Kenya and David Donoghue of Ireland) had presented 19 targets for technical proofing during the March session. The suggested tweaking had raised quite a furor with developing countries asking to revert back to the OWG document, while some developed countries had wanted the entire document to be subject to the technical proofing. The Co-facilitators had agreed that the brief for the tweaking had perhaps been overreached as the tweaking had gone beyond the two criteria set out for it. The criteria were: (a) to remove references to “x”s and “y”s in the document and, (b) to make the ambition level compatible with other international agreements. However it was finally agreed that only these 19 targets will be undergoing technical proofing strictly subject to the two criteria above.

(For the March discussions on the technical proofing and issues around goals and targets please see Sustainable Development Goals and Targets should not be re-opened, says South by Ranja Sengupta, TWN Info. Service 1 April 2015.)

Since then the Co-facilitators had presented a revised tweaking document with an additional suggestion on target 14.c that had been much discussed during the March session. In the Zero draft released on 2June, the suggested revisions, now to 21 targets, were included in Annex 1 as “Proposed Target Revisions”.

However in the July version of the revised final draft the proposed revisions have all been mainstreamed and incorporated into the language of the SDG targets (except for 14.c), even without any discussion on the changes in between the meetings. The current discussion on the goals and targets seem to have brought back this controversy somewhat. The developing countries expressed discontent that the changes had been mainstreamed without discussion and several Member States had issues with the specific changes as well.

(For the final draft of the outcome document see titled ‘Transforming Our World: The 2030 Agenda for Global Action’.)

(The original SDG 14.c reads: “Ensure the full implementation of international law, as reflected in the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea for States parties thereto, including, where applicable, existing regional and international regimes for the conservation and sustainable use of oceans and their resources by their parties to those regimes.” 

(The technical proofing suggests the following: “Ensure the full implementation of international law, as reflected in the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, including, where applicable, existing regional and international regimes for the conservation and sustainable use of oceans and their resources by their parties” with the deletion of the words “for States parties thereto”.

The controversy is because some countries are not Party to the Convention and there are ongoing disputes. This is the only suggested revision that is not incorporated in the final draft document but remains in the annex of suggested changes.)

The G77 and China reiterated its stand that no changes should be made which would alter the initial intention of the OWG-SDGs or undermine the integrity of the report. The Group declared its intention to study carefully whether “the amendments are realistic, achievable, do not alter the substance of the original text, and - importantly - take into account the lack of capacity of some countries in attaining the proposed outcome”. The Group recalled the methodology of work that was agreed upon during the last session based on the proposal of the Co-facilitators, “that if there is no agreement on a proposed technical change or changes, we would maintain the SDGs as they currently stand”.

Maldives representing the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS), agreed with the G77 position that it had asked that the goals and targets must not be re-negotiated, re-opened, redesigned ... and that it looked at the technical proofing proposals with the clear criteria in mind; whether these are technical or substantive in nature and second, whether they made the targets more measurable. It felt many failed to meet these criteria.

Benin speaking on behalf of the Least Developed Countries (LDCs)said that while some of the revisions undertaken seem totally justified or goes without saying, some seem not far-reaching enough.Agreeing to 3.2, 4.4, 4.6 and 4.c, Benin asked for a numerical target in 4.b, and said the proposed revision in 6.3 was not bold enough and 11.b was weak. In 17.2 the LDCs asked for a deletion of “0.15 to” which would mean keeping at least 0.20% of official development assistance (ODA) for LDCs, as this was agreed in the Addis Agenda.Later, Co-facilitator Kamau asked for the opinion of the membership on this last suggestion, saying it seemed reasonable. No Member State opposed this proposal.

(The Addis Ababa Action Agenda is the outcome document of the Third International Conference on Financing for Development that was held on 13 to 16 July 2015.)

Belize representing the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) said, “CARICOM have maintained that the sustainable development goals and targets as recommended in the Report of the Open Working Group represent a delicate political balance and that therefore we are not in favor of re-opening targets for substantive amendments”.

Zambia on behalf of the Landlocked Developing Countries (LLDcs) said the SDGs should not be opened up due to its delicate balance but technical amendments that will not change the substance can be considered for targets. Zambia asked for references to LLDcs and the Vienna Programme of Action in necessary paragraphs that it had marked out.

(The Vienna Programme of Action for Landlocked Developing Countries 2014-2024 was adopted at the United Nations Second Conference on Landlocked Developing Countries in 2014 in Vienna.)

Brazil categorically statedthat, “we cannot support the amendments to the SDG targets”. It reminded that, “my delegation expressed its disagreement regarding some of the proposed changes, in particular target 6.6, on water-related ecosystems, whose current formulation is inconsistent with and undermines the Aichi targets agreed to in the context of the Convention on Biological Diversity”.

Indonesia argued that it has always advised caution with tweaking and proofing as these can undermine the delicate balance and compromise achieved in the OWG Report and that it could also unravel the entire package, adding that further discussion on this was required. Some of the proposals on the table were far from technical proofing and involved substantive changes.

Several developing countries including Ecuador, Palau (except on 14.c), Saudi Arabia, Argentina, Uruguay supported the G77 position that the SDGs should not be re-opened.

The EU and the USA on the other hand, showed full support for the technical proofing. The USA said the proposed technical proofing will strengthen the agenda. In terms of giving more specificity to the ‘x’s and the compatibility with international agreements, we view the proposed changes as successful. Australia said “many of the proposed amendments bring precision and clarity to the targets, without upsetting the delicate political balance of the text”.

There was some concern over the lack of consensus in the revision proposed under 14.c. with several countries having expressed reservation on the earlier formulation. On this issue, Mexico said “with regard to target 14 c, my delegation wishes to echo the statements of many other delegations regarding the importance of resolving this particular issue based on agreed language that adequately reflects the status that the international community has given to UNCLOS as an international instrument of great importance … My delegation cannot agree to maintain the original target 14c, since such text caused reservation of several countries, including Mexico”. Several countries including Tonga (representing the Pacific SIDS), Australia, Palau, supported the inclusion of the revised 14.c.

Interestingly, the only change that was not incorporated with the suggested revision was “none” in the June Document (that included Annex 1 on proposed changes), is the one on target 3.b on the flexibilities of the Agreement on Trade-related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) under the World Trade Organization. The earlier language on the target was limited to “essential” medicines whereas the TRIPS agreement actually does not limit flexibilities only to essential medicines. In March the tweaking proposal had included a suggestion to remove the word “essential” therefore making it compatible with the TRIPs Agreement. However several developed countries, notably the UK, had challenged this on the ground that the sentence also includes reference to vaccines.

The current target reads “Support the research and development of vaccines and medicines for the communicable and non-communicable diseases that primarily affect developing countries, provide access to affordable essential medicines and vaccines, in accordance with the Doha Declaration on the TRIPS Agreement and Public Health, which affirms the right of developing countries to use to the full the provisions in the Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights regarding flexibilities to protect public health, and, in particular, provide access to medicines for all”. (Emphasis added.)

 The explanation given for abandoning the proposed revision as given in the June draft was “the language would need to be further amended to remove references to vaccines, developing countries, and the provision of access to medicines for all. Making such substantive revisions to the OWG target however risks undermining the balance agreed during the OWG process and it is therefore proposed to revert to the original text”. To many health activists and developing countries in general, this would be a major disappointment.

(The TRIPS Agreement lays down rules related to intellectual property that are seen by many as an undesirable restriction on the use of knowledge and technology by developing countries. However the TRIPS Agreement offers flexibilities for developing countries in specific areas such as public health and access to medicines. However this has come under increasing threat from the USA and the EU, necessitating a reaffirmation of TRIPS flexibilities in the Post-2015 development agenda.)


What seems also clear is a problem in replacing “x”s with actual numbers especially without extensive discussion. The draft suggests specific numbers in some targets, for example in 6.3 which replaces x% of water recycling and safe re-use to “doubling”. But in several other targets the “x” has been replaced by “all” (e.g. in 4.4 and 4.6) or removed altogether some times changing the level of ambition or making it more general.

But what seemed to occupy the New York discussion was the change to “substantially or substantive increase/decrease” instead of the “x”. Several Member States were not comfortable with this formulation as it left the ambition level vague. The argument given by Co-facilitator Kamau was that this will still keep it open and could be interpreted by Member States in national level implementation. He suggested it adds to flexibility rather than taking away flexibility.

Trinidad and Tobago argued that keeping “x”s may be a better option than “substantially increase” as “x” still captures an aspiration which will be lost with “substantially increase”. “We do not see ‘substantially increase’ instead of “x”s as providing more guidance,” Trinidad & Tobago said. In any case the guidance would be for the UN Statistical Commission and not the High Level Political Forum (countering Ambassador Kamau’s argument that this would provide guidance to HLPF in its further work).

Maldives, on behalf of AOSIS, also argued against replacing “x”s with other general terms.

On the x’s, CARICOM was quite clear and stated “our regional secretariat examined the proposals for filling in the x’s and concluded that the proposals were too vague, that they would be better treated with relevant data on baselines for measurability and for determining the associated costs for implementation. They also observed that several of the proposals revised timelines resulting in a reduction of ambition and in some instances resulted in substantive amendments. Given that the proposals for the x’s remain the same in nature, we wish to re-confirm those conclusions. The CARICOM Member States are therefore not in a position to accept the proposed revisions for ‘x’ variables”.

CARICOM further added that “in light of the work currently underway in the Statistical Commission, this intergovernmental process need not hastily and for political expediency revise targets. We are not closing the door on the possibility that targets can or should be revised. We are however recommending deferring this issue until after the Commission reports at its forty-seventh session. Furthermore, we wish to underscore that the nature of the Agenda is such that it is not static. National governments will be working towards integrating the Agenda in line with their national priorities, policies and capacities. As we begin to engage in the follow-up and review process, we may very well be in a better position to suggest more informed proposals for tweaking”.

Mexico, in a strong statement,supported Maldives and Belize, and said“it is important to bear in mind the experience of the MDGs which included the term ‘substantially’, because it was precisely in those cases where no significant progress was made. If we continue to apply the same solution for certain goals which include an "x" or “y”, we would have the risk of creating a gap that would significantly limit progress in achieving those goals”.

“Furthermore, any technical review of the goals should ensure any adjustments are consistent with international commitments on human rights, non-discrimination, gender equality, environmental protection and sustainable management of natural resources. This applies particularly to targets linked to the SDGs 14 and 15, and these must be aligned to the agreements reached in the Aichi-Nagoya biodiversity goals (under the Convention on Biological Diversity), that is, to fulfill the deadlines committed for 2020 and that the necessary adjustments are made when that deadline is met, through to 2030", Mexico added and also suggested specific changes to targets 15.8 and 15.9.

Indonesia said that to remove the ‘x’s by “using proposed qualifiers such as ‘all’, ‘substantially increase’ and ‘doubling’… may be useful ... on the other hand they raise more questions on what the referenced baseline for those proposals is and whether we have adequate data and methodology to back them”. While Indonesia agreed with Ambassador Kamau’s call for agreeing on the SDGs in this forum, it also pointed out that without a clear baseline and data, this would be a challenging task, and may not be limited to a technical exercise.

The USA, following the tenor of most developed countries, said it agreed with the changes added to replace the ‘x’s and that they are willing to support greater specificity at national level. Australia said, “We are pleased that the proposed revisions, particularly on the ‘x’s, reflect an appropriate aspiration for global efforts. …We cannot ask our Heads of State and Government to sign up targets that are incomplete and include ‘x’s”.


An issue of critical importance raised at the 22 July discussion was whether or not to include the introduction to the OWG-SDGs document in the Post-2015 document. The developing countries clearly expressed their desire to have the SDGs preserved with the Chapeau (introduction) as was agreed in the OWG Report. In the current July draft, the 18 paragraphs of the Chapeau is included as “Annex 3: Introduction of the Open Working Group Proposal for Sustainable development goals and targets”.

Since the February negotiations on the Declaration the developing countries had asked that the Chapeau should be preserved as it is as part of the SDGs. They also wanted the Declaration to be based on the Chapeau. India, among some others, had suggested using the agreed Chapeau itself as the Declaration.

In their statement, G77 and China reiterated their earlier stance. “The Group notes that the Introduction to the Report of the Open Working Group on Sustainable Development Goals has been retained as an Annex in the current draft. We again stress that this Chapeau forms an integral part of the report of the OWG-SDGs. We therefore reiterate our call for the inclusion of this language as an integral part of the outcome document. This is because the introduction includes agreed consensus language providing a detailed context for the goals and targets. Excluding this part of the Report of the OWG-SDGs leaves an unnecessary contextual vacuum”. The statement went on to add, “… we are sensitive to any action that could not only undermine the delicate compromise but that could actually unravel the entire package that was encapsulated in the OWG-SDG report in its entirety”.

India said the Chapeau is crucial for the SDGs, as it had argued earlier. It is not fair now to separate the political understanding from the substantive goals and targets, it stressed.

Indonesia agreed with the G77 position, and said “the Introduction of the Report of the OWG on SDGs, which is now still kept as an annex in the revised draft, must be an inalienable and inseparable part of the SDGs”. Indonesia argued that the General Assembly resolution that decided to adopt the OWG-SDGs clearly reflects the Introduction as part and parcel of the SDGs proposal.

Argentina said the OWG Report reflects concerns by the international community and should be taken up as a whole. There should not be any opening up or renegotiation of the goals and targets, and the Chapeau, which does not appear in the Declaration, should be incorporated into the SDGs.

Uruguay said the Chapeau is part and parcel of the SDGs and should therefore be included not as an annex but as part of the chapter on SDGs.

The developed countries, in a similar continuation of their stance since March, argued against including the introduction as part of the SDGs on the ground that the agreed Chapeau is now meaningless as there is already a Preamble. The UK and Japan said they do not agree to include the OWG Chapeau with the SDGs. Australia said it does not think “a case has been made to include the chapeau in this chapter. As other States have said, including the entirety of the chapeau in this chapter would lead to unnecessary repetition in the outcome document”.

The developed countries’ stance is in conformity with their rejection of explicit references to CBDR and other issues of vital interest to developing countries, which are included in the Chapeau. It is clear that the strategy for them to is to keep these issues out from the Preamble which is still open to negotiations and not allow the Chapeau in the document or at most as an Annex which does not have the same authority as agreed text in the main document.


After discussing the SDGs through Wednesday 22 July, Co-facilitator Kamau assured all, in particular civil society observers, that all 17 goals and 169 targets from the OWG were safe and will be preserved. The only changes being suggested were the tweaking and if there was no consensus among Member States on the suggested tweaking, the OWG versions would be reverted to. The civil society groups in the process had expressed apprehension that some targets may be dropped due to continued opposition from some Member States. Unlike the Declaration that is yet to be finalized, the SDGs are already agreed to in the General Assembly Resolution 68/309.


Several countries put forward their views on the work on indicators. The UN Statistical Commission (UNSC) is currently tasked with the job of developing indicators capable of reflecting the achievement in the goals and targets. Working under the political guidance of the Member States the UNSC is supposed to submit a list of indicators by March 2016. An earlier submission by the UNSC earlier this year was criticized for being unable to come up with the relevant indicators that reflect the ambition in the SDGs.

Responding to the Co-facilitators’ question on the issue, the G77 and China reiterated its view that a proposal on indicators should be presented for consideration to the relevant intergovernmental bodies by the UNSC.

Mexico said it considers the “work of the Inter-agency and Expert Group on Sustainable Development Goal Indicators as an independent technical process whose work does not require the guide of this political process or any other. It should be granted the sufficient time to complete its work, and once completed, it should be adopted through the corresponding institutional channels: Statistics Commission, ECOSOC – and finally, the General Assembly”.

The negotiations are supposed to end next week after the Co-facilitators see a consensus on a revised text they will circulate by Monday, 27 July. The fate of the Post-2015 Development Agenda will depend on how critical issues are resolved among the Member States.+