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Access to Justice

New targets for a broken world

The world may have a new set of idealistic goals, but the global system is utterly broken, writes Éamonn Meehan.

Representatives of every nation on earth meet at the UN this weekend to endorse a new set of 17 goals which, if achieved, could transform life for the poorest people on the planet. 

But despite the potential of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), there is a sense of the summit having been overtaken by events. The shadow hanging over this city and the UN – that great institution built on hope – is Syria.

It is difficult to celebrate a set of idealistic goals when a great human tragedy continues to unfold in Syria and in the wider Middle East. Over 250,000 people have died in the Syrian conflict, 12 million are homeless and more than 4 million of them are refugees, mostly in Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan. Ancient communities of Christians and Yazidis have been destroyed. 

A river of distressed humanity flows into the heart of Europe from this conflict. While the overwhelming European response is to welcome these people, there is also a realisation that something important and irreversible in taking place before our eyes. It is the strong sense that we can no longer isolate ourselves in our secure and wealthy fortress Europe from the rest of a humanity suffering poverty, war and injustice. 

The Greek Island of Lesbos, September 2015. Over 1500 people are arriving a day by boat from Turkey.

Syrian refugees take shelter in Greece. The Syrian tragedy reminds us that we can no longer isolate ourselves from the rest of a humanity suffering poverty, war and injustice.


The people of Syria have been abandoned; even worse they have been sacrificed to a proxy war fought out by other Middle Eastern countries and world powers whose sole interest is in expanding their own regional powers and influence. We have clearly failed the people of Syria who sought democracy and instead got chaos and destruction. 

This great movement of people is an indication of a shifting balance of power; it is a new form of people power marching into the heart of Europe. 

The Syrian crisis also now marks a deeper crisis and even more fundamental one – millions of people are on the move from Africa, Latin America and Asia towards Europe, North America and Australia in search of peace, prosperity, freedom and opportunity.   Human beings have always migrated; the scale is now vastly different.  Inequality, conflict and oppression are the principal drivers.  It is wealth redistribution through direct action.  It will continue because we live in a truly unequal world which is no longer sustainable. 

The UN system which responds to humanitarian crises around the world is broken.  Governments have funded about one third of the appeal for Syria this year while appeals for South Sudan, Iraq, Dafur, Central Africa Republic (to name just a few) are all woefully underfunded.  The total appeals for 2015 amounted to about $18.8 billion.  By mid-year just $4.8 billion had been committed.  Our failure to respond to those most in need – which stands in sharp contrast to the speed with which trillions of dollars were found for broken banks – does not bode well for the delivery of the SDGs.  

Syrian refugees in Serbia.

Syrian refugees rest in Belgrade on their way to Europe. Migration will continue to rise because we live in an unequal world which is no longer sustainable.


For 40 years the United Nations has asked wealthy countries to commit 0.7% of gross national income for development and humanitarian assistance.  Only a handful have responded. Ireland has made a number of commitments to reach this target but has failed to do so, so far. 

If the international community is unable to fund the most basic needs for the truly most vulnerable people on earth, can there be any real hope that $3 trillion per year needed to fund the SDGs and support adaptation to climate change can ever be found?  

The past four decades are littered with broken promises.  The absence of any concrete new public finance or aid commitments to fund the SDGs is a worrying sign and it remains unclear how the costs will be met.  There does not seem to be any real enthusiasm to enhance the role of developing countries in decision making in international, financial and economic institutions.  The UN Security Council seems more and more out of date and incapable of action.

In the Addis Ababa financing for development summit in July and in the SDG process there is an increasing emphasis in the role of the private sector in development. While this can be a good thing especially if decent and sustainable jobs are created and legitimate taxes are paid, it is not a substitute for public investment in social services.  Development cooperation is necessary to embrace this in the poorest countries. There is a real danger that public financing will be replaced by new cycles of international unsustainable debt.  Many of the new initiatives proposed will transfer risk from the private to the public sphere. 

The SDGs have the potential to transform the lives of millions of people. They deserve our support and commitment.   In his recent encyclical, Laudato Si, Pope Francis returns to the theme of which has often spoken about: the globalisation of indifference.

We have been indifferent to poverty, war, injustice. We cannot afford to be indifferent from now on.  At home we should legislate to put the UN target into law.  

It is no longer a matter of charity but of simple justice. 



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