The Law and the SDGs  |  Nikesh Arya

Peace, justice and strong institutions

The Sustainable Development agenda was implemented as a way to set goals for change and to also build upon the targets, which the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) failed to meet. This post will be looking at the arguments for whether the law can be used as a tool to help or a barrier against the targets created by the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to be met. The seventeen goals proposed aim to create a more equal community.

Goal 16 recognises that “peace, justice and effective, accountable and inclusive institutions are at the core of sustainable development”. This was a crucial factor missed during the rather rushed drafting of the MDGs. The other sixteen goals hinge on the work of institutions and the potential for corruption within such institutions can be rather high. It has been estimated that nations who actively target corruption and improve their rule of law, could increase their national income by 400 per cent. Much of this is down to the fact that illegal activities such as corruption, bribery, theft and tax evasion cost approximately US$1.26 trillion per year for developing countries, a figure which is startlingly high for countries where the proportion of people living on less that $1.25 a day is particularly high. The rule of law is the legal principle that law should govern a nation, and that all individuals, entities, officials and the government should be held accountable under the law. The principle also requires the law and its enactment to be accessible, clear and applied evenly and for justice to be delivered timely and ethically.

The proof as to power of access to justice as a development tool can be seen through International Bridges to Justice’s work in Cambodia. Under the tyranny of the Khmer rouge, Cambodia’s justice system was practically non-existent; torture was a common police method – quick and cheap. Anti torture policies did exist during this time to safeguard detainees but this policy was not filtered down from the higher levels to the grassroots level. Since this time, IBJ has provided legal aid to the poor who had no access to justice and has now seen the dramatic change in the legal landscape of Cambodia: torture rates are below 5%. Adherence to the rule of law has now become a daily practice.

Experience has shown that the “rule of law, justice and security – or their absence- have a major impact on the achievement of the MDGs” (UNDP, 2010). This can clearly be seen in the pursuit of goals promoting gender equality.  For such equality to be met, for example employment equality and freedom for sexual harassment, laws must be enacted and implemented to create visible change. UN Woman, however, has seen a serious lag in the implementation of such laws, ultimately constraining women’s equality and empowerment. Corruption and its effects on the achievement of the MDGs was researched and discussed, however it was never thought of as a direct issue seen by the fact it was not addressed as a goal in the MDGs. This can only be positive for the SDGs, as they have now chosen to include it under goal sixteen.

We have seen that a focus on law can promote development, but conversely it may act as a barrier. Referring back to IBJ’s work in Cambodia, we saw how this country had the relevant laws to prevent torture, however the issue lay with adherence. There is only so much that the rule of law can achieve without adherence. The other main issue is that of the ways that laws are enacted. In the United Kingdom for example, the doctrine of parliamentary sovereignty dictates that Parliament has the power to make or unmake any law. The fact that an impartial body itself, which can be subject to internal corruption, creates laws may be problematic. It is also up to Parliament to then inform the relevant authorities and individuals to adhere to a new law. Countries that have much political bureaucracy may have individuals in the law making body that are prone to bribery or corruption as well as in the authorities that enforce the laws – a notorious example is the Indian police force.

In conclusion, the rule of law can be a powerful tool and is something, which must be addressed in order for the other development goals to also succeed, the fact that it has been recognised under goal sixteen of the SDGs is a huge step forward but a plan must be created to tackle the innate difficulty of higher level corruption in the law making bodies, something which can hinder development greatly.


Nikesh Arya, BPP Law School.