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No One Will Be Left Behind: The SDG Framework and LGBTQ+ Rights

Niamh Guiry is a 1st year PhD Researcher at the School of Law, University College Cork. In this blog, Niamh discusses LGBTQ+ rights in the context of the United Nations 2030 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Designed to be a transformative agenda for change, the SDGs seek to create a sustainable and equitable world for all. This critical analysis examines how the lack of explicit inclusion of the LGBTQ+ community within the SDGs comes into conflict with the inclusive ethos of the goals and established human rights standards found in international law, facilitating a subjective and exclusionary framing of sustainable development.



The realisation of sustainable development has long been an aspiration and challenge for international law and global governance. First explicitly articulated in the 1987 Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development: Our Common Future, sustainable development can be described as ‘development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs’.[1] Since the publication of this report, sustainable development has followed a dramatic trajectory in international law, and in light of the current rates of global biodiversity loss and the rapid intensification of climate change, achieving the ecological and social objectives of sustainable development has never been so critical.

Designed to be a ‘collective journey’ between all countries and stakeholders, the United Nations (UN) Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) were formulated through the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development with the aim of facilitating transformational change to ‘shift the world on to a sustainable and resilient path’.[2] The SDGs establish a novel paradigm that uses non-binding obligations to facilitate international and transnational cooperation and realise the three dimensions of sustainable development. The ambitious nature of the SDGs is evident in its vision to eradicate poverty and hunger and create an equitable society with ‘universal respect for human rights’.[3] However, upon closer examination, this framework may not be as inclusive as it seems. This article will critically examine the lack of explicit inclusion of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ+) community within the SDGs and outline how this exclusion comes into conflict with established human rights and the inclusive ideology of the framework and sustainable development overall.

LGBTQ+ Rights and the Agenda 2030

Arguably, a shortcoming of the SDGs is the lack of explicit inclusion of the LGBTQ+ community within any of the 17 Goals, 169 Targets, or associated Indicators of the framework. This exclusion adds further insult to injury when one reflects on the core ethos of the SDGs, which is that ‘no one will be left behind’.[4] It must be noted that LGBTQ+ inclusion could be implicitly derived from the SDGs, particularly in relation to people of ‘other status’ referenced in Paragraph 19 of the 2030 Agenda:

We emphasize the responsibilities of all States, in conformity with the Charter of the United Nations, to respect, protect and promote human rights and fundamental freedoms for all, without distinction of any kind as to race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth, disability or other status.[5]

This ‘other status’ acts as an umbrella term under which marginalised people who were not explicitly listed can be included, a feature of the 2030 Agenda which was viewed as a ‘partial success’ by civil society stakeholders after repeated campaigns for LGBTQ+ inclusion.[6] Nevertheless, the SDG framework seems to be intentionally ambiguous when it comes to LGBTQ+ rights. This is particularly concerning in light of the increasing incidences of violence and hate speech being perpetrated against the LGBTQ+ community, in addition to the existing barriers and discrimination being experienced by LGBTQ+ people in relation to accessing healthcare, education, and economic opportunities.[7]

The Open Working Group on Sustainable Development Goals (OWG) was established by the UN General Assembly in a 2012 resolution as an ‘inclusive and transparent intergovernmental process’ through which the SDGs would be elaborated.[8] Upon examination of OWG documents, there are few explicit mentions of LGBTQ+ issues. At the 12th session of the OWG, the Unitarian Universalist UN Office (UUUNO) made a statement that called for the unequivocal inclusion of LGBTQ+ people in SDG 10 (Reduced Inequalities).[9] The UUUNO stressed that the interpretative language of the SDGs would not adequately protect LGBTQ+ people and risked leaving them vulnerable to further ‘discrimination and violence’.[10] These suggested amendments were included in the OWG Compilation of Amendments to Goals and Targets document.[11] However, in the Final Compilation of Amendments to Goals and Targets document, explicit references to LGBTQ+ people had been removed, leaving several references to ‘sexual orientation’.[12] No explicit references to sexual orientation, gender identity, or LGBTQ+ people can be found in the 2030 Agenda.

The SDGs were signed by all 193 UN Member States, illustrating overwhelming international support for this ‘inclusive’ action plan.[13] However, attitudes amongst policy-makers and legal protections for LGBTQ+ people can vary significantly depending on the region and State.[14] For instance, in the Report of the Open Working Group on Sustainable Development Goals, Cameroon expressed its ‘reservation’ in relation to SDG 5 (Gender Equality), stressing that it ‘will not accept at any point any policies, monitoring, evaluation or reporting on target 5.6 which will include or tend to include, explicitly or implicitly, the concepts of sexual orientation, gender identity, same-sex couples or abortion’.[15] The existing ambiguity found in the SDGs allows for inconsistency in emerging policy and may facilitate the intentional (or unintentional) exclusion of the LGBTQ+ community from sustainable development initiatives. There have been proposals for the establishment of a set of Indicators to measure and track LGBTQ+ inclusion in SDG implementation.[16] However, this raises a number of concerns related to the potential for this data to be weaponised or misused.[17]

LGBTQ+ Rights, International Law, and the SDGs

Despite repeated confirmations by international bodies that LGBTQ+ discrimination is indeed a violation of international human rights law, LGBTQ+ people are currently criminalised in approximately 68 countries, 11 of which include legislative provisions that impose the death penalty on those involved in consensual same-sex activity.[18] Furthermore, the presence of so-called ‘morality’ laws in some States restricts the inclusion of LGBTQ+ rights in political discussions.[19] In fact, earlier this year the Ugandan Parliament passed the Anti-Homosexuality Bill, aiming to ‘protect the traditional family’ by prohibiting same-sex marriage and punishing those involved in same-sex ‘behaviours’ and ‘related practices’.[20]

Such provisions are a severe violation of the established principles of non-discrimination and equality enshrined under international human rights treaties, something to which the SDG framework gives significant regard and respect. The elaboration of the SDGs was informed by the norms, principles, and treaties of general and customary international law, and they were designed to be implemented in a manner that is consistent with existing and emerging principles and obligations under international law.[21] Nevertheless, while these international law standards and norms are globally recognised, they are ‘not necessarily [accepted] by every culture or country’.[22]

The SDGs are designed to be integrated and indivisible, meaning that the realisation of each SDG is dependent on the realisation of all the SDGs. This is a significant characteristic of the framework. If the interrelated nature of the SDGs is ignored by States, there is a risk of ‘perverse outcomes’ and target setbacks.[23] This characteristic can be seen to align with the belief embedded in international human rights law which asserts that, as is so often said, human rights are ‘indivisible, interdependent, and interrelated’.[24] In light of these considerations, a failure to advance social equality and comprehensively address human rights concerns could jeopardise realisation of the remaining SDG objectives. The SDGs are said to be ‘guided’ by the Charter of the United Nations,[25] ‘grounded’ in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights,[26] and to give serious regard to human rights and international law.[27] Nevertheless, excluding LGBTQ+ rights suggests that the SDGs may be selective in whom they explicitly protect.

Selective Inclusion and the SDGs

This issue raises a critical question in relation to the authenticity of the SDGs. As Marks outlines, ‘human rights are the fundamental rights of every human being, regardless of culture or societal norms’.[28] It is arguable that this exclusion demonstrates a compromise of critical human rights obligations and a subjective framing of sustainable development. LGBTQ+ rights are diluted using vague language and it could be suggested that this occurred in an effort to appease conservative and anti-LGBTQ+ States. While international law influenced the formation and ongoing implementation of the SDGs, it has clearly not been an all-encompassing authority. This sets a potentially dangerous exclusionary precedent for future agendas that undermines human rights obligations and risks leaving LGBTQ+ people behind in the pursuit of sustainable development.

It is clear that the SDGs cannot be a collective and universal journey if they do not acknowledge and account for the marginalisation being faced by the LGBTQ+ community. The Millennium Development Goals, upon which the SDGs were built, also failed to include LGBTQ+ rights explicitly.[29] It is essential that we learn from past exclusionary practices and pitfalls. Otherwise, countless people will be overlooked and will fail to reap ‘the benefits of international development because of their sexual orientation and gender identity’.[30] The absence of LGBTQ+ rights in the SDGs paints a picture of a global agenda that does not seek to challenge existing human rights violations or selective development practices. With only 7 years until the 2030 deadline, LGBTQ+ rights cannot continue to be viewed as optional or to be obscured by ambiguous language in international frameworks. The SDGs vow to take ‘bold and transformative’ action to achieve sustainable development.[31] However, if this objective is to be truly embodied by the SDGs, LGBTQ+ people need to be explicitly protected through inclusive sustainable development policy in order to ensure that ‘no one will be left behind’.[32]

[1] UN General Assembly, ‘Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development’ (1987) UN Doc. A/42/427. [2] UN General Assembly, ‘Transforming our world: the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development’ (2015) UN Doc. A/RES/70/1 [hereinafter Transforming our world], Preamble. [3] ibid, para 8. [4] ibid, Preamble. [5] Transforming our world, para 19. [6] Elizabeth Mills, ‘‘Leave No One Behind’: Gender, Sexuality and the Sustainable Development Goals’ (Institute of Development Studies, October 2015) 9. [7] See Ailbhe Conneely, ‘Survey suggests over half of LGBTQIA+ workers feel discriminated against at work’ RTÉ (14 June 2023) <> accessed 28 June 2023; International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association Europe, ‘Annual Review of the Human Rights Situation of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual Trans and Intersex People in Europe and Central Asia’ (ILGA-Europe 2022); Kitty Holland, ‘Attacks on LGBTQI+ people prompt call for robust hate crime laws’ The Irish Times (14 April 2022) <> accessed 28 June 2023. [8] UN General Assembly, ‘Resolution adopted by the General Assembly on 27 July 2012 66/288. The future we want’ (2012) UN Doc. A/RES/66/288*, para 248. [9] Bruce Knotts, ‘Unitarian Universalist United Nations Office Statement to Co-Chairs’ (12th Session of Open Working Goal on Sustainable Development Goals, New York, June 2014) <> accessed 28 June 2023. [10] ibid. [11] UN Open Working Group on SDGs, ‘Compilation of Amendments to Goals and Targets’ (2014) <> accessed 28 June 2023. [12] UN Open Working Group on SDGs, ‘Final Compilation of Amendments to Goals and Targets. By Major Groups and other stakeholders including citizen’s responses to MY World 6 priorities’ (2014) <> accessed 28 June 2023. [13] United Nations, ‘Historic New Sustainable Development Agenda Unanimously Adopted by 193 UN Members’ (UN, 25 September 2015) ​​<> accessed 28 June 2023. [14] See Chimaraoke Izugbara and others, ‘"The SDGs are not God”: Policy-makers and the queering of the Sustainable Development Goals in Africa’ (2021) 40 Development Policy Review 1. [15] UN General Assembly, ‘Report of the Open Working Group on Sustainable Development Goals’ (2014) UN Doc. A/68/970/Add.1, 8. [16] MV Lee Badgett and Randall Sell, ‘A Set of Proposed Indicators for The LGBTI Inclusion Index’ (UNDP 2018). [17] ibid 10. [18] ‘Anti-LGBT laws continue to hinder the HIV response’ (2018) 9 The Lancet HIV 667, 667. [19] IARAN, ‘A Global Outlook on LGBTI Social Exclusion through 2030’ (2018) 17. [20] Anti-Homosexuality Bill 2023. [21] Transforming our world, para 18. [22] James D Wilets, ‘From Divergence to Convergence - A Comparative and International Law Analysis of LGBTI Rights in the Context of Race and Post-Colonialism’ (2011) 21 Duke Journal of Comparative & International Law 631, 632. [23] Mans Nilsson, Dave Griggs, and Martin Visbeck, ‘Policy: Map the Interactions between Sustainable Development Goals’ (2016) 534 Nature 320, 320. [24] Daniel J Whelan, Indivisible Human Rights: A History (University of Pennsylvania Press 2010) 1. [25] Transforming our world, para 10. [26] ibid. [27] ibid, para 10, 18, 19, 21, 23. [28] Suzanne M Marks, ‘Global Recognition of Human Rights for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender People’ (2006) 9 Health and Human Rights 33, 38. [29] UN General Assembly, ‘United Nations Millennium Declaration’ (2000) UN Doc. A/RES/55/2. [30] Mills (n 6) 4. [31] Transforming our world, Preamble. [32] Mills (n 6) 6.


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