When the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development was adopted by world leaders in 2015, Barack Obama was still the President of the USA, and only virologists had the effects of a global pandemic on their radar. In the beginning of 2021, the world looks very different.

Are the SDGs still relevant in the COVID-19 context?

The COVID-19 pandemic has spread to more than 89 million people and nearly 2 million corona-related deaths have been registered across the globe [1]1 — Figures from John Hopkin’s University of Medicines, retrieved 9th January, 2021. . Donald Trump, who during his presidency pulled the USA out of both the Human Rights Council and the Paris Agreement on climate change and decided to halt funding and withdraw the USA from World Health Organization as the pandemic accelerated, has just culminated his attacks on democracy by inciting his followers to invade the Capitol. Indeed, the time when the multicoloured SDG wheel spread enthusiasm across the globe and was embraced by political leaders, businesses and civil society alike, seems like a remote past. Yet, my claim is that the SDGs are more relevant than ever, in order to recover from the shocks that have affected our societies and institutions. This claim is based on three main arguments:

  1. The SDGs reflect the essence of the commitments and obligations that states have signed up to over the past 75 years, and thus provide a solid basis for citizens to demand accountability for lack of action and progress.
  2. The SDGs comprise the necessary elements for coherent sustainable recovery from COVID-19 across the three dimensions of sustainable development (social, economic and environmental), and therefore give us an immediate operational and measurable framework for concerted efforts and action.
  3. The SDGs constitute a vision that can mobilise and engage broad sectors of society, across generations, to address the burning issues of our time: increasing inequality, exacerbated vulnerabilities, climate change as well as authoritarian and populist policy responses, which have eroded trust in and legitimacy of political leaders and institutions.

The solidity and long-term durability of the SDGs

The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development is not a sudden invention that came out of the blue in 2015. The SDGs capture a long history of evolving multilateral commitments and obligations; some codified in treaties and conventions, others expressed as aspirations and principles in UN declarations and guidelines.

The SDGs are underprinned by a web of existing obligations and committments

For example, SDG target 14.b on access for small-scale artisanal fishers to marine resources and markets reflects the Voluntary Guidelines for Securing Sustainable Small-scale Fisheries, endorsed by the FAO Committee on Fisheries in 2014.

SDG target 8.7 aims to eradicate forced labour, slavery and human trafficking. This target reflects already established obligations under ILO Convention No. 29 and numerous other core human rights and labour instruments on forced labour, which have been ratified by all UN member states. It is worth noting that ILO Convention No. 29 was adopted by the ILO already in 1930, and has been in force for decades in most countries.

In general, the links between human rights and the SDGs are firm and explicit. The preamble of the 2030 Agenda explicitly reaffirms that the SDGs “seek to realise human rights of all”, and 92% of the 169 SDG targets are directly linked to one or more of the core human rights conventions. Moreover, the Agenda draws from the human rights principles of participation, inclusion, transparency and accountability. Likewise, the pledge to leave no one behind echo the human rights principles of equality and non-discrimination. When analysing the human rights anchorage of each SDG and its corresponding targets, it becomes evident that the 2030 Agenda and human rights are intertwined and inextricably tied together.

The Danish Institute for Human Rights has mapped the specific links between the 169 SDG targets and 81 international and regional human rights instruments, international labour standards and multilateral environmental instruments [2]2 — All links between SDG targets and instruments applicable for a given country can be found and explored in this interactive database. . The links testify that the 2030 Agenda and the SDGs are underpinned by a tight web of existing obligations and commitments that have been developed over decades to reflect human experiences and to deal with the global challenges that affect human beings and other life forms on the planet; from forced labour to climate change. This anchorage ensures the solidity and the long-term sustainability of the Agenda.

However, this implies that the novelty of the 2030 Agenda is not its content as such, but rather the fact that it puts existing obligations and commitments into a single framework with measurable and timebound targets. This enhances the possibilities of pursuing coherence across the social, economic and environmental dimensions of development, while setting a frame for avoiding the externalisation of negative consequences across these dimensions.

The 2030 Agenda provides a framework for coherence and for avoiding the externalisation of negative impacts across the three dimensions of sustainable development.

For example, SDG 8 aims to create jobs, which furthers the social and economic dimensions of sustainable development, while SDG 7 and SDG 13 aim to facilitate the transition to renewable energy and to combat climate change, which furthers the environmental dimension of sustainable development.

The 2030 Agenda captures the myriads of international obligations and commitments of states, and places these in a single well-structured framework, which makes it easy to understand and communicate. Hence, it reduces the enormous complexity of states’ obligations to measurable targets, which lend themselves to public assessment and scrutiny of progress.

The 2030 Agenda is thereby a key tool for citizens to hold their governments to account for long overdue commitments and obligations and to accelerate action across a broad range of areas and fields. I can thereby be used to address the notorious gap with regards to implementation of human rights and other obligations, bring government action close to citizens’ expectations and help build trust in and legitimacy of democratic institutions.

Relevance in a Covid-19 context

Over the past year, the COVID-19 pandemic has had a devastating effect on societies and on vulnerable groups such as the homeless, the elderly, the poor, persons with disabilities and those with limited access to social security, clean water, information technology etc. Moreover, some governments have used the pandemic as an excuse to unnecessarily or disproportionately limit the scope of civil and political rights, in order to e.g. target human rights defenders or silence dissent.

There is no doubt that timely and effective implementation of existing human rights obligations, for example access with regards to universal health care, social security and access to justice, would have increased the resilience of societies and communities under the COVID-19 pandemic.

In many ways, the pandemic serves as a magnifying glass that reveals and exacerbates existing patterns of vulnerability, inequality and discrimination and tendencies towards authoritarian government. These patterns, in turn, reflect long overdue obligations of states under international human rights law, as well as pending commitments under the 2030 Agenda.

The UN Secretary General’s landmark report on Human Rights and COVID-19 forcefully reminds us that: “[t]his is not a time to neglect human rights; it is a time when, more than ever, human rights are needed to navigate this crisis in a way that will allow us, as soon as possible, to focus again on achieving equitable sustainable development and sustaining peace” [3]3 — Human Rights and COVID-19: we are all in this together, April 2020. Available online. . Moreover, he emphasises that: “the 2030 Agenda, underpinned by human rights, provides a comprehensive blueprint for sustainable recovery from the pandemic” [4]4 — Ibid. .

The challenge now is to conceptualise this blueprint for Sustainable Recovery, in a manner that matches the urgency of the recovery from COVID-19, builds on previous efforts and lessons learned, unite stakeholders and is immediately operational through existing institutions, mechanisms and measurements.

While the full range of human rights and SDGs are interlinked and indispensable for sustainable recovery, certain targets have already proven to be of utmost relevance in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. These targets are drawn from across the SDGs and covers all three dimensions of sustainable development (social, economic and environmental) as well as the full range of social, economic, civil and political rights.

A non-exhaustive list of targets that are crucial for sustainable recovery would comprise the following elements:

  • Strengthen social protection (SDG target 1.3), build resilience (1.5) and ensure food security (2.1)  
  • Combat epidemics and communicable diseases (3.3.), ensure universal health coverage and affordable medicines and vaccines for all (3.8, 3.b), increase health financing and trained health workers (3.c) and strengthen capacity for managing global health risks (3.d)  
  • Ensure free, equitable and quality primary and secondary education for all (4.1)  
  • Eliminate violence against women and girls (5.2.) and enhance use of information and communications technology to empower women (5.b)  
  • Achieve access to adequate and equitable sanitation and hygiene for all (6.2) and expand international cooperation in water and sanitation programmes (6.a)  
  • Achieve decent work for all (8.5) and support entrepreneurship and innovation (8.3)  
  • Reduce inequalities of outcome, eliminate discriminatory laws, policies and practices (10.3), and adopt fiscal, wage and social protection policies to achieve equality (10.4)  
  • Ensure access for all to adequate, safe and affordable housing and basic services (11.1)  
  • Advance a green and just transition to sustainable management and use of natural resources (12.2), conservation, restoration and sustainable use of ecosystems (15.1) and increase substantially the share of renewable energy in the global energy mix (7.2)  
  • Develop effective, accountable and transparent institutions (16.6); ensure responsive, inclusive participatory and representative decision-making (16.7); access to justice (16.3) and to information and protection of fundamental freedoms (16.10).  
  • Strengthen domestic resource mobilization (17.1), increase official development assistance (17.2); enhance international cooperation on science, technology and innovation (17.6) and enhance generation of disaggregated data (17.18)

These targets obviously constitute a very generic conceptualisation of sustainable recovery that leaves no one behind. Hence, they must be used in a mix that is tailored to the particular context and impact of the pandemic in a given country, including with due considerations for the differentiated impacts on diverse sectors of the population and society.

Many of the global SDG indicators are highly relevant for measuring progress in sustainable recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic. For example, the relevance of SDG indicators related to targets 1.3. (social protection) and 3.b. (essential medicines and vaccines) should be obvious:
Indicator 1.3.1: Proportion of population covered by social protection floors/systems, by sex, distinguishing children, unemployed persons, persons with disabilities, pregnant women, newborns, work-injury victims and the poor and the vulnerable
Indicator 3.b.1: Proportion of the target population covered by all vaccines included in their national programme

Nonetheless, this conceptualisation can serve as a starting point for dialogue, and for subsequent identification of the concrete and context-specific solutions necessary, including special measures for those most at risk or hardest hit by the pandemic.

Basing the conceptualisation of sustainable recovery on the SDGs and human rights gives us an immediate operational and measurable framework for concerted efforts and action. An additional advantage is that we can build on the global SDG indicators and data, and the outcomes of the human rights monitoring mechanisms.

In addition to the SDG indicators, the institutionalised monitoring mechanisms establish to assess implementation progress, gaps and challenges in relation to human rights and international labour standards have generated thousands of recommendations to states, which are directly relevant for pursing sustainable recovery.

Figure 1 shows the number of recommendations from the international human rights system (the Universal Periodic Review, Treaty Bodies and Special Procedures) available for some of the key targets for sustainable recovery.

These recommendations can be filtered by country and by affected rightsholder groups, to provide country-specific guidance to ensure no one is left behind. For example, Denmark has received 692 recommendations from the international human rights system. In 2019, Denmark received a recommendation issued by the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR) in relation to the situation of homeless people, which became acutely important at the outbreak of the pandemic:

Right to adequate housing. The Committee recommends that, in the context of the implementation of the 2018-2021 Action Plan against Homelessness, the State party:
(a) Increase the capacity of shelters for homeless people and remove administrative barriers to accessing them;
(b) Invest in measures that provide long-term solutions and support the social reintegration of homeless people;
(c) Repeal the legal provisions criminalizing conducts associated with situations of poverty and of deprivation of the right to adequate housing, such as begging and rough sleeping. 
Visit Source.

Hence, when homeless people in the streets of Copenhagen were offered accommodation in empty hotels during the spring lock-down, it is an action that is aligned with the recommendation of the CESCR to provide immediate shelters without administrative barriers. Moreover, the broader positive social and health-related connotations of this “housing first” approach, provides elements for understanding what sustainable recovery for homeless people could look like in the longer term [6]6 — See this page. (Danish only) . This points to the tremendous potential for using the SDGs and human rights as the “blueprint for sustainable development”, as pointed out by the UN Secretary General.

Rebuilding trust and legitimacy through sustainable recovery

The 2030 Agenda was from the outset coined as a multi-stakeholder framework, which could only be realised through partnerships with all sectors of societies, including businesses, workers, women, local government, indigenous peoples, children and youth, persons with disabilities, among others. However, adopted as an inter-governmental framework, the main responsibilities are with governments. Likewise, governments are the main duty-bearers under the human rights framework.

The 2030 Agenda came with a promise of transformational action, including to combat climate change, reduce inequalities, create decent jobs and leave no one behind. As clearly spelled out in the UN Secretary-General’s report on SDG Progress, “the shift in development pathways to generate the transformation required to meet the Sustainable Development Goals by 2030 is not yet advancing at the speed or scale required” [7]7 — Report of the Secretary-General on SDG Progress: Special Edition 2019, p.4, available online. . That was in 2019, a year before the pandemic further undermined sustainable development efforts. Since then, we have witnessed increasing inequality, unaddressed vulnerabilities, failure to halt climate change along with authoritarian and populist governments that have eroded trust in and legitimacy of political leaders and institutions. Hence, we should not aim at getting the realisation of the SDGs “back on track” but acknowledge that we need a new track for sustainable recovery.

In order to build motivation, engagement and ultimately trust, we need a vision that can mobilise broad sectors of society, across generations. The SDGs, underpinned by human rights, constitute such a vision.


    1 —

    Figures from John Hopkin’s University of Medicines, retrieved 9th January, 2021.

    2 —

    All links between SDG targets and instruments applicable for a given country can be found and explored in this interactive database.

    3 —

    Human Rights and COVID-19: we are all in this together, April 2020. Available online.

    4 —


    5 —

    The SDG – Human Rights Data Explorer, developed by the Danish Institute for Human Rights is an interactive database that allows you to find and explore all recommendations of the international human rights system, filtered by country, SDG/target, affected groups etc. It is available online.

    6 —

    See this page. (Danish only)

    7 —

    Report of the Secretary-General on SDG Progress: Special Edition 2019, p.4, available online.

Birgitte Feiring

Birgitte Feiring

Birgitte Feiring is Department Director at the Danish Institute for Human Rights, leading work to ensure that the 2030 Agenda and the SDGs are reached in a manner that realise human rights of all and leave no one behind. She is currently the chair of the SDG Working Group of the Global Alliance of National Human Rights Institutions. Feiring has worked more than 30 years in the intertwined fields of sustainable development and human rights and has experience from Africa, Asia and Latin America. Her experience spans from fieldwork in remote communities to positions in the European Commission and the International Labour Organization. As an independent consultant, she has advised bilateral donors, UN agencies, companies and civil society organisations. She has worked extensively on measurement of human rights and development outcomes, including by developing a comprehensive indicator-based monitoring framework for indigenous peoples’ rights and development, and by analyzing and promoting a human rights-based approach to SDG monitoring.