Reaching the Sustainable Development Goals through Treaty-Making

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Foreign ministers attend a treaty-signing at the UN. (Courtesy Control Arms, via Flickr.)

Foreign ministers attend a treaty-signing at the UN. (Courtesy Control Arms, via Flickr.)

The Sixth Committee of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) regularly considers “rule of law at the national and international levels.”[1]  Each year, the constituent delegates focus their attention on what should be done to establish and reinforce the rule of law in and between states.  This agenda item has taken a variety of forms, but the UNGA requested the Sixth Committee focus this year’s discussion on “the role of multilateral treaty processes in promoting and advancing the rule of law.”[2]  At the same time, the UNGA famously passed the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), a successor to the Millennium Development Goals.[3]   This discussion explores how SDG 16—“promote just, peaceful and inclusive societies”—unexpectedly corresponds with the Sixth Committee’s work on multilateral treaty making processes.[4]  Though the goal ostensibly addresses local justice systems, multilateral treaty-making offers an effective tool to realize SDG 16.  That said, developing states often lack the resources to fully participate in multilateral treaty-making which, in turn, precludes states from fully utilizing treaty-making processes to reach SDG 16.  The upshot is that investing in treaties means investing in just, peaceful, inclusive societies.

Achieving SDG 16 therefore requires improved treaty-making capabilities.  The problem ultimately stems from a “lack of financial and administrative resources, and a lack of capacity and personnel.”[5]  The solution requires investment in practical resources and treaty law expertise. Luckily, the UNGA, in its capacity as a forum, offers these practical resources.  The UNGA is an opportunity for developing states to engage with one another.  At a recent Sixth Committee meeting, the Lebanese delegation underscored “the pivotal role of the General Assembly in the treaty-making process” precisely because it serves as a space for state-to-state engagement.[6]  There are few additional costs to negotiation at the UNGA, because states uniformly maintain permanent missions, even if they are just a few delegates.  Furthermore, the forum empowers developing states that may not have n influential (or even noticeable) position with developed states otherwise.  Indeed, according to the delegation of Trinidad and Tobago, the UNGA is an “equal forum” that allows small states to “learn and exchange best practices in the implementation of multilateral treaties.”[7]

In addition, the UN Secretariat offers treaty law expertise.  The Secretariat has developed such an expertise through the Treaty Section, a division of the Office of Legal Affairs (OLA), which is charged with the deposit and registration of treaties, pursuant to Article 102 of the Charter.[8]  The Treaty Section publishes treaty law guides and regularly conducts training sessions on treaty processes, final clauses, etc., for states that cannot afford to maintain their own treaty law experts.  The Treaty Section even sponsors an annual “Treaty Event” during the General Assembly to facilitate state participation in treaties while full diplomatic delegations, together with heads of state and foreign ministers, are in New York.[9]  Similarly, OLA’s Codification Division offers “substantive servicing,” providing research and advice on the content of international law.[10]  Together these offices have provided a reliable foundation for small delegations wishing to engage in multilateral negotiations.

Yet, despite these efforts, the treaty-making inequity between developed and developing states remains.  Of course, this inequity is a function of much larger ones, but the difference may still be narrowed.  Increased financial commitments from developed states as well as the quality and volume of resources they receive from the Secretariat could help close this gap.  The Treaty Section, for example, offers its Summary of Practice, which details how agreements are registered, deposited and analyzed. While this could be a vital tool for developing states, it has not been updated since 1994.[11]  Treaty registration has changed dramatically in the meantime, meaning developing states cannot depend on the Summary of Practice to learn how to register or become party to agreements.

This step could have a profound effect on promotion of justice, peace and inclusivity.  At a general level, as Singapore stated in the Sixth Committee, treaty-making requires states to interact and to agree on set principles which “invariably provide[] structure, predictability, accountability and fairness” on the international plane.[12]  But treaty-making likewise speaks to individual SDG targets.

Certain targets are unmistakably linked to multilateral treaties.  In fact, one target of SDG 16 is to “promote the rule of law at the national and international levels and ensure equal access to justice for all,” borrowing language from the Sixth Committee’s Agenda Item 85.[13]  Furthermore, a state cannot “broaden and strengthen” its “participation . . . in the institutions of global governance” without fully taking part in the treaty regimes that create those institutions.[14]  And regional human rights courts have, however modestly, played their part to “protect fundamental freedoms, in accordance with . . . international agreements.”[15]  Providing “legal identity for all, including birth registration” only provides legal protection if there is an agreement between countries to recognize their chosen method of registration.

But treaty-making is essential even in less obvious targets.  Commenting on International Humanitarian Law’s several treaties, the International Committee of the Red Cross stated that it is “convinced that a clear framework of rules at the international level – accompanied by the corresponding rules at the national level – helps save lives and reduce suffering.”[16]  If developing states are eventually able to “significantly reduce all forms of violence and related death rates,” it will be on account of a multitude of efforts by a variety of disciplines—but treaty-making is one of those efforts and international law is one of the those disciplines.[17]

Of course, treaty-making is not an exclusive remedy, but neither is it mutually exclusive with any others.  The UN would be wise to broaden its focus on multilateral treaty-making beyond Agenda Item 85 and into a direct discussion with the Sustainable Development Goals.  If the UN expands its effort to build the treaty law capacity of developing states, those states will benefit from increased returns on international negotiations.  Developing states can gather their limited resources into regional bodies that can make more efficient use of them.  States can learn from one another on best policies and practices.  Local populations can benefit from stronger, more meaningful human rights commitments made by their state vis-à-vis other states though multilateral treaties, because non-compliant states expose themselves to international and regional scrutiny.  Ultimately, investing in treaty-making capabilities is a vote of confidence in the idea that international engagement is necessary to local progress—an idea that informs the SDGs themselves.


[1] G.A. Res. 69/123, at 2 (Dec. 18, 2014).

[2] Id. at 3.  

[3] G.A. Res. 70/1 (Oct. 21, 2015).

[4] Id. at 25.

[5] Event on Multilateral Treaty-Making: Perspectives on Small States and the Rule of Law, United Nations Rule of Law,  http://www.unrol.org/article.aspx?article_id=227  (last visited Nov. 3, 2015).

[6] Statement by Lebanon at the Sixth Committee: The rule of law at the national and international levels, UN PaperSmart (Oct. 15, 2015), https://papersmart.unmeetings.org/media2/7652992/lebanon.pdf.

[7] U.N. Rule of Law, supra note 5.

[8] U.N. Office of Legal Affairs Treaty Section, http://legal.un.org/ola/div_treaty.aspx (last visited Nov. 3, 2015).

[9] U.N. Secretary General, Strengthening and coordinating United Nations rule of law activities, 12, U.N. Doc A/70/206 (July 27, 2015).

[10] Statement by U.N. Assistant Secretary-General for Legal Affairs, UN PaperSmart (Oct. 14, 2015),  https://papersmart.unmeetings.org/media2/7652780/stephen-mathias-asg-for-legal-affairs.pdf.

[11] UN Secretary-General, Summary of Practice of the Secretary-General as Depositary of Multilateral Treaties, U.N. Doc ST/LEG/7/Rev. 1 (1999).

[12] Statement by Singapore at the Sixth Committee: The rule of law at the national and international levels, UN PaperSmart (Oct. 15, 2015), https://papersmart.unmeetings.org/media2/7652815/singapore.pdf.

[13] G.A. Res. 70/1, at 25 (Oct. 21, 2015).

[14] Id.

[15] Id.

[16] The rule of law at the national and international levels: ICRC statement to the United Nations, 2015, International Committee of the Red Cross (Oct. 14, 2015), https://www.icrc.org/en/document/rule-law-national-and-international-levels-icrc-statement-united-nations-2015.

[17] G.A. Res. 70/1, at 25 (Oct. 21, 2015).

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