International Development Law Organization

SDG 16 Conference 2021: Transforming governance for a more peaceful, just and inclusive future

14 May 2021

“The COVID-19 pandemic has made the need for good governance even more urgent, acting as a stress test for institutions”, Ms. Marina Sereni, Vice Minister of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation of Italy outlined. While noting its importance, “progress across the various dimensions of SDG 16 has been uneven. The COVID-19 crisis has exacerbated many of the worrying trends”, said Mr. Liu Zhenmin, UN Under-Secretary-General for Economic and Social Affairs. “COVID-19 is a wake-up call. By exposing our vulnerability and lack of preparedness for crises, it has the potential to shock the world into action,” noted IDLO Director-General, Jan Beagle, at the second global Conference on SDG 16.

Organized by IDLO, the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UNDESA), and the Government of Italy, the virtual Conference featured a line-up of key players in international development and human rights to lead the international conversation on how Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 16 - peaceful, just and inclusive societies, access to justice and effective, accountable institutions – can chart a roadmap toward a more just recovery.

Over 80 panelists, including ministers and senior government officials, heads of UN agencies and multilateral organizations, leading academics, civil society and youth representatives from around the world joined what was the first global conference to take stock of the impact of COVID-19 on SDG 16. The event was organized as part of preparations for the UN High-level Political Forum taking place in New York in July, where global progress on SDG 16 will be formally reviewed.

Building on the first SDG 16 Conference in Rome in 2019, the 2021 Conference convened at a moment when much of the world is still reeling from the COVID-19 pandemic, the greatest global disruption since World War II.

What began as a health crisis quickly morphed into a crisis of multiple dimensions. Ripple effects of the virus permeated all corners of society, plunging much of the world into economic volatility, entrenching societal inequalities, fanning the flames of conflict and instability, eroding trust in governments, cultivating an environment for discrimination, and widening the justice gap.

Against this backdrop, the Conference discussants deliberated how SDG 16 can guide efforts to build resilience to future shocks, reimagine justice and transform governance for a stronger collective future.

“The 2030 Agenda represents both humanity’s highest aspirations and our best hope for success. SDG 16 remains the essential enabler of transformative change,” stated IDLO Director-General Jan Beagle. “This Conference is an opportunity to build greater momentum, and increase political and financial support for SDG 16, and a rule of law-based recovery from the pandemic.”

“The 2030 Agenda represents both humanity’s highest aspirations and our best hope for success. SDG 16 remains the essential enabler of transformative change. This Conference is an opportunity to build greater momentum, and increase political and financial support for SDG 16, and a rule of law-based recovery from the pandemic.” – Jan Beagle, IDLO Director-General

Our shared fragility: The impact of COVID-19 on SDG 16

COVID-19 underlined the fundamental urgency to leverage justice not merely as a stand-alone goal, but as a pillar and precondition to an inclusive and equitable recovery. While the pandemic has become a force multiplier – making citizens’ justice needs more acute than ever before – it has also provided an opportunity for governments to reflect on the resilience of their own justice systems.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, an estimated 5 billion people globally lacked meaningful access to justice. Reduced access to courts and tribunals, an influx of new and pre-existing legal demands and hampered institutional capacity have only aggravated this trend.

“The administration of justice should be considered an essential public service,” stated Mr. Diego García-Sayán, United Nations Special Rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers.

While the vaccine rollout in some parts of the world is providing some measure of relief, the challenges of the distribution of vaccines within and across nations, combined with the rise of variants and fragile public health infrastructures, has yielded catastrophic results in some contexts. 

Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General of the World Health Organization remarked: “The COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated that good governance can be the difference between life and death.”

COVID-19 has exposed intersecting and overlapping layers of discrimination, compounded structural inequalities, and exacerbated marginalization – unsurprisingly, leaving women, girls, youth, informal workers and vulnerable groups to bear the brunt of the crisis. It is estimated that, even prior to the pandemic, 4 billion people globally lacked any social protection whatsoever. No one is entirely immune to the devastating impact of COVID-19 but the worst affected are those already living in conditions of poverty and exclusion, who lack social protection, and rely on weakened institutions, disrupted public services and legal protection. 88 million people will fall into extreme poverty in 2021, most of them in low-income countries.

Shared experiences from policy actors in the international community highlighted how SDG 16 and inclusive governance can build resilience to shocks and that harnessing lessons from the crisis will enable a more sustainable recovery. A key theme that emerged throughout the Conference was the need to reassess our definition of vulnerability to ensure “the furthest behind” are reached in recovery efforts.

Mr. Olivier De Schutter, United Nations Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, observed: “A rule of law-based response to the crisis based on SDG 16 is especially important to ensure that efforts of governments shall not be in vain and that all people shall benefit – particularly the poorest amongst the poor.”

“The COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated that good governance can be the difference between life and death.” – Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General of the World Health Organization 

Restoring trust between people and governments

A central theme of the Conference was the fractured trust between citizens and the state, and the importance of using SDG 16 to renew the social contract and foster trust in governance.

Secretary-General António Guterres’ message to the Conference set out the challenge ahead: “Success will require transformation of governance and a call for a new social contract, renewing the basis for trust between governments and their citizens”.

When the pandemic hit, governments around the world were faced with the challenge of balancing public safety and human rights as they implemented lockdowns and restrictions. Some national responses, however, infringed on rights and shattered the trust placed in institutions, while the most successful responses reflected higher levels of public participation and higher levels of trust. Coordination among different anti-corruption actors was also considered a vital component to restoring trust.

“Fighting corruption may require sweeping reforms that clash with deeply rooted special interests. It requires an effort of political will. But it is an investment that can pay massive economic, social, and political dividends,” affirmed Ms. Michelle Bachelet, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights.

Moreover, a clear message was that the governance gap could not be closed until the gap in people-centered data was also addressed. Speakers acknowledged the promising potential of technology as a great equalizer and catalyst for transformative change. While many countries quickly capitalized on the use of online registration systems to expand public-service delivery throughout 2020 in response to the pandemic, developing nations continue to experience a lack of infrastructure in the face of rapid technological expansion, which risks further exacerbating the digital divide.

As the SDG 16 community remains data-poor and the justice sector is plagued by disinformation and the politicization of narratives, evidence-based strategies were introduced as powerful antidotes that can help advance SDG 16 and properly address people’s lived realities of these justice gaps.

“Data can show us important differences in the way that people experience governance – that we are not all in the same boat,” stated Ms. Elizabeth Andersen, Executive Director of the World Justice Project “The pandemic has highlighted these differences, but without disaggregated data that reveals the particular experiences of poor, minority and marginalized populations, we cannot devise strategies that truly leave no one behind.”

“Success will require transformation of governance and a call for a new social contract, renewing the basis for trust between governments and their citizens.” – UN Secretary-General António Guterres

Employing a whole-of-society approach

Discussants called for a “whole-of-society” approach to meet the multi-faceted challenges presented by the crisis. Multi-stakeholder partnerships at local, national and international levels have a key role to play in supporting good governance and long-term transformation.

“We believe that the pandemic can really be a portal to a better future,” commented Ms. Anita Bhatia, Deputy Executive Director of UN Women. “We must be able to engage with a wide group of stakeholders, which includes private sector, civil society, think tanks, academics, and importantly, young people. And with this widespread participation, we can craft a pandemic response that is inclusive, but also sustainable.”

For this to become a reality, Ms. Lynrose Genon of the Executive Council of Young Women+ Leaders for Peace called for the “need to empower more young people through investing in meaningful participation of young leaders.”

In the face of rising gender inequality, climate change and rapid technological disruption, panelists emphasized the need to create an enabling environment and expand civic space for civil society to participate in decision-making and governance. Ms. Mary Robinson, Chair of The Elders, focused on climate change as an issue of justice in that it affects poorer communities, women, indigenous communities, and low-lying states. Describing the loss of biodiversity as an “injustice to nature” Ms. Robinson also called for a pathway to sustainable economies that is fair to industrializing countries and that ensures a “just transition for workers and their communities”.

“If you don't have effective, inclusive governance based on the rule of law, it's very hard to make sustainable progress,” remarked Ms. Helen Clark, Co-Chair, The Independent Panel for Pandemic Preparedness and Response. “We do need governments that listen to evidence and listen to the people. We need inclusive policies and approaches which ensure access to services for all, we need transparency and a free flow of information between citizens, and between citizens and the state. We need representative government and the rule of law to apply in all circumstances, including during a pandemic.”

The roadmap to recovery

The COVID-19 pandemic exposed the world’s fragility. 2020 was meant to be the beginning of the Decade of Action towards the realization of the 2030 Agenda. Now, at a critical moment in history when human development is on track to decline in 2021 for the first time since 1990, backsliding on SDG 16 threatens to reverse hard-won gains in the pursuit to leave no one behind. As countries race to rebound from the immediate shocks of the pandemic, the international community faces a collective critical juncture on the road to recovery.

At the same time, the crisis presents a unique opportunity to reimagine governance and access to justice. Throughout the Conference’s wide-ranging discussions, placing people-centered justice at the heart of sustainable development emerged as the clear path forward to meet the challenges of the moment.  

As part of its contribution to this effort, IDLO launched a Roadmap for a Rule of Law-Based Recovery, which outlines eight priority actions that can help pave the way towards more peaceful, just and sustainable societies.

Closing the Conference, IDLO Director-General Jan Beagle stated: “Getting there will not be easy. Building a culture of justice requires sustained commitment. But it is the best investment we can make in our collective future.”


Photos from top to bottom: ©AdobeStock_henktennapel, ©IDLO (from top left: Mr. Giorgio Marrapodi, DG for Development Cooperation, Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation of Italy; Ms. Jan Beagle, Director-General, IDLO; Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General, WHO; Mr. Yamauchi Yoshimitsu, Assistant Vice-Minister of Justice, Japan; Mr. Harold Hongju Koh, Senior Advisor, Office of the Legal Advisor, U.S. Department of State; Ms. Birgitta Tazelaar, Deputy Director-General for International Cooperation, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, The Netherlands; Mr. Olivier De Schutter, United Nations Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights; and Ms. Fekitamoeloa Katoa ‘Utoikamanu, Under-Secretary-General, UN-OHRLLS), ©IDLO Myanmar, ©IDLO.


Watch the Conference

Roadmap for a Rule of Law-Based Recovery

IDLO’s work on COVID-19

IDLO’s Strategic Plan 2021-2024