The Nexus between International Law and the Sustainable Development Goals

AuthorRakhyun E. Kim
Date01 April 2016
Published date01 April 2016
The Nexus between International Law and
the Sustainable Development Goals
Rakhyun E. Kim*
The 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and 169
targets did not emerge from, and were not inserted into,
a normative vacuum. They are grounded in inter-
national law and made consistent with existing commit-
ments expressed in various international legal
instruments. Naturally, a nexus exists between inter-
national law and these global priorities. This article
explores how to harness that nexus for sustainability. It
examines to what extent the SDGs might be instrumental
in orchestrating international institutions towards the
common objective of sustainable development, and how
international law provides a normative environment for
the SDGs. The article argues that, although self-pro-
claimed as integrated and indivisible, the SDGs and tar-
gets ref‌lect the fragmented structure of international
law, and therefore would have limited utility for orches-
tration. The article then discusses how international law,
despite its fragmented nature, provides integration tools
that could address trade-offs between competing targets
in a principled manner. A clear, long-term vision for sus-
tainable development beyond 2030 is a necessary but
absent leverage point in the SDG framework. It would
should ultimately converge.
The 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and 169
targets did not emerge from, and were not inserted into,
a normative vacuum.
They are grounded in inter-
national law and made consistent with existing commit-
ments expressed in various international agreements
and other soft law instruments. Naturally, a nexus
exists between international law and the SDGs. What is
the nature of their relationship? To what extent, and in
what ways, could international law and the SDGs com-
plement each other to enhance systems integration?
This article explores these questions in two directions
with a view to harness the nexus for global sustainabil-
First, are the SDGs instrumental in orchestrating various
international institutions towards the ultimate objective
of sustainable development? Immersed in their own
mandates and objectives, most international institutions
operate in relative isolation and may pursue competing
Some commentators have suggested that goal-
setting as a governance strategy to prioritize, motivate
and provide direction could help reform or rearrange
existing institutions so as to enhance their overall per-
formance in promoting sustainable development.
effective are the SDGs likely to be in lending coherence
to what otherwise might be a disparate and even incon-
sistent collection of institutional arrangements? Will the
SDGs bring into line existing regimes and organizations
that are established for different purposes?
Second, is international law likely to be helpful for the
implementation of the SDGs in an integrated manner?
Despite being self-proclaimed as integrated and indi-
the SDGs themselves have been criticized for
lacking coherence.
This is a concern because the ex-
periences with the Millennium Development Goals
(MDGs) have shown that addressing such governance
goals independently may lead to unintended conse-
Some MDG targets were met,
but the spirit
of the MDGs was not. Then, to what extent and in what
ways could international law, despite its fragmented
nature, integrate the SDGs and targets and help achieve
long-term sustainable development?
* Corresponding author.
Transforming Our World: The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Devel-
opment (UNGA Resolution A/RES/70/1, 21 October 2015) (‘The 2030
Systems integration refers to ‘holistic approaches to integrating vari-
ous components of coupled human and natural systems’. J. Liu et al.,
‘Systems Integration for Global Sustainability’, 347:6225 Science
(2015), 1258832-1, at 1258832-1.
Fragmentation of International Law: Diff‌iculties Arising from the
Diversif‌ication and Expansion of International Law Report of the
Study Group of the International Law Commission (UNGA Doc.
A/CN.4/L.682, 13 April 2006) (‘ILC Study Group report’).
N. Kanie and F. Biermann (eds.), Governance through Goals: New
Strategies for Sustainable Development (MIT Press, 2016, forthcoming).
The 2030 Agenda, n. 1 above, at paragraph 5.
ICSU and ISSC, Review of Targets for the Sustainable Development
Goals: The Science Perspective (International Council for Science, 2015).
D. Griggs et al., ‘An Integrated Framework for Sustainable Develop-
ment Goals’, 19:4 Ecology and Society (2014), 49.
United Nations, The Millennium Development Goals Report 2015
(United Nations, 2015).
Similar questions were raised in the context of the MDGs in E. Hey,
‘The MDGs, Archeology, Institutional Fragmentation and International
Law: Human Rights, International Environmental and Sustainable
(Development) Law’, in: H.R. Fabri, R. Wolfrum and J. Gogolin (eds.),
Select Proceedings of the European Society of International Law,
Volume 2, 2008 (Hart, 2010), 488.
ª2016 John Wiley & Sons Ltd, 9600 Garsington Road, Oxford OX4 2DQ, UK and 350 Main Street, Malden, MA 02148, USA.
RECIEL 25 (1) 2016. ISSN 2050-0386 DOI: 10.1111/reel.12148
Review of European Community & International Environmental Law

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