The Sustainable Development Goals: “Leaving No-One Behind” Means Recognising the Role of Equality Law

by | Sep 24, 2019

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About Jim Fitzgerald

Jim Fitzgerald is the Director of the Equal Rights Trust, an independent international non-governmental organisation which exists to eliminate all forms of discrimination and ensure everyone can participate in life on an equal basis. The Trust works in partnership with civil society organisations and lawyers and others, providing the legal, strategic and practical support which they need to secure the adoption, enforcement and implementation of comprehensive equality laws. It’s latest publication – Together for Equality – brings together testimony from its partners in 16 different countries to explore why and how a comprehensive, collaborative approach to combating discrimination is effective.


Jim Fitzgerald, “The Sustainable Development Goals: “Leaving No-One Behind” Means Recognising the Role of Equality Law”, (OxHRH Blog, September 2019), <>, [Date of access].

This week, states are meeting at the UN General Assembly to review progress towards the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Among other things, they are considering the outcomes of the latest High Level Political Forum on Sustainable Development – which took place in July 2019 under the theme Empowering people and ensuring inclusiveness and equality – and preparing to formally adopt the Political Declaration Gearing up for a Decade of Action and Delivery for Sustainable Development.

What is already clear is that states are paying scant attention to the role of discrimination as a barrier to development and – conversely – the potential for equality laws to drive development efforts.

Despite the focus of July’s High Level Political Forum on “ensuring inclusiveness and equality” – and the exhortations of the Secretary General to recognise that “development is not sustainable if it is not fair and inclusive” – there was almost no discussion at the Forum of the role of discrimination as a driver of inequality and equality law as a means to remove this barrier to development. The final draft of the Political Declaration for this week’s SDG Summit makes no reference to discrimination or to equality laws.

This is a glaring omission, for a number of reasons.

First, and most obviously, if the SDGs’ oft-repeated commitment to “leave no one behind” is to mean anything, it must surely mean reaching those exposed to discrimination or subject to historic disadvantage. Unless states tackle the patterns of discrimination which prevent women, ethnic and religious minorities, persons with disabilities and other groups from accessing education, healthcare, work and other aspects of their development, these groups will inevitably be left behind and the promise of the SDGs will remain unrealised.

Second, the SDGs explicitly require the adoption and implementation of equality legislation. SDG Target 10.3, for example, requires that states “ensure equal opportunity and reduce inequalities of outcome, including through eliminating discriminatory laws, policies and practices and promoting appropriate legislation, policies and actions in this regard”. (Targets 5.1 and 16(b) contain similar obligations to legislate to tackle discrimination). As we at the Equal Rights Trust have set out, Target 10.3 necessitates the adoption and implementation of comprehensive equality laws: this is the “appropriate legislation” to “eliminate discriminatory policies and practices” and “ensure equal opportunity” which the target talks about.

Third, the adoption of what we refer to as an “equal rights approach to sustainable development” provides states with a means to achieve other elements of SDG 10 – Reduce inequality within and among countries. This is because – as with the enactment of equality legislation – almost all states have an existing international law obligation to take positive (affirmative) action, where evidence of substantive inequality is found. Adoption of such measures provides a powerful means to “empower and promote the social, economic and political inclusion of all” (Target 10.2) and “progressively achieve greater equality” (Target 10.4).

Fourth, just as Secretary General Guterres has noted that “the goal of reducing inequality (…) is inextricably linked with all other Goals”, so the adoption and implementation of equality laws is a means to the achievement of a wide range of development of goals – in respect of education, for example. Our 2017 global research study, Learning InEquality, analyses existing data from across the world to explore and map the various ways in which discrimination restricts access to education for certain children. It finds that the adoption of an equality law approach can provide an effective means to address the multiple discriminatory barriers to primary education – ranging from the direct and indirect costs of schooling, to formal enrolment requirements and from geographical distance, to the curriculum itself – which must be addressed for SDG 4 – Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education – to be realised.

To date, the vast majority of states have failed to recognise the role of equality laws in sustainable development, despite the clear benefits – indeed the necessity – of adopting and implementing such laws.

Yet there is still time for states to adopt an equal rights approach to sustainable development.

To do so, they must take three essential steps: (1) adopt, enforce and implement comprehensive equality laws; (2) adopt and finance the full range of policy measures necessary to achieve equality – including in particular positive action programmes; (3) collect and analyse data disaggregated by all grounds of discrimination.

In so doing, states will deliver on the explicit commitments to anti-discrimination legislation made in SDGs 10.3, 5.1 and 16b. They will also provide an effective, enforceable framework for ensuring equitable, inclusive and sustainable development, while meeting their extant obligations under international human rights law. Most importantly, they will provide those at greatest risk of being left behind with the means to challenge the discrimination which frustrates their development.

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