I’ve always wondered why SDG 16 comes near the end of the list. The rule of law and trustworthy state institutions seem like they belong closer to SDGs 9-11. After all, law and order is a societal goal which it needs in order to be stable enough so that future generations can continue to pursue their human needs. And that’s at the base of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. A society with high crime and corruption won’t be able to maintain societal trust or think about bigger picture things.

I know that the UN SDGs probably aren’t meant to be in order anyway. But if I think beyond the SDG 16 targets, and think about peace as a sustainability issue in a more intuitive way, actually you could say it belongs where it does, together with the other SDGs which are about the transboundary consequences of unsustainable ways of providing for our needs. For you can’t think about peace without thinking about war. And fundamentally, wars are fought to take resources from others to provide to your own society – at least in the era before the saying “all wars are bankers’ wars”.

Domestic security and peace

I’m not a thrill-seeking traveller. I don’t intentionally travel to places with security issues, just for the novelty. So I wouldn’t really encounter many crime and corruption issues when I travel, nor would a traveller want to. And a basic level of law & order is something you tend to take for granted when you’re used to having it. Unlike environmental topics, I likely don’t notice it, until there’s a problem.

However, crime and violence as a result of corruption and weak state institutions are still a problem around the world. 45% of violent deaths globally are due to small arms. Given the armed conflict ongoing in parts of the world, it goes to show that just baseline criminal violence across countries technically at peace adds up to a lot of deaths. Moreover, organised crime and arms smuggling cuts across borders. This is why SDG 16 requires collaboration and isn’t solely a domestic issue.

National security and peace

On the other hand, ever since I chose to travel for reasons other than just holidays, I do find myself in poorer countries where law and order is typically more of a challenge. I’ve even found myself in a place with security issues related to longstanding sovereignty dispute. And if I include peace in a broader sense, I’ve also found things to say about conflicts in history.

The same statistic above also means that 55% of violent deaths are due to high calibre weapons, which only states or state-like actors possess. And if the violence and corruption issues listed under this SDG is a problem for countries at peacetime, they proliferate even more in war. Today, such violence and abuse are even openly shown for the world to see on our smartphones.

Decades after World War 2, we still have states that instigate unlawful war with other nations, or instigate it between third party nations, e.g. through political or economic or “NGO” interference. And it seems there are no “strong institutions” to deter them.

Similar to SDG 13, SDG 16 can’t be understood from the written targets alone. It is another SDG whose sustainability issues relate to power imbalance. So you need a lot of real life knowledge as well. You can’t solve SDG 16 issues just by pursuing the SDG 16 targets. Because they’re incomplete. There are no SDG 16 targets concerning state actions that undermine peace & justice in other states. And that is a major problem.

Sustainability collaboration needs peace

Like SDG 3 for individuals, defending against invasion is something a society would spend enormous sums for. Historically it was, after all, the equivalent of death to a society. And this is reflected in the high price tag associated with any military procurement. Heavy defence spending diverts resources away from other needs. Not only that, war preparation drives supply chain issues under SDG 12. And the reality is, a phase-out of fossil fuels will not happen until the warships, tanks and jets run on something else.

Hostile international actions do not create a global sentiment conducive to peace and eventual trust. Even ‘just’ the Cold War froze global cooperation on looming crises like climate instability, because nuclear armageddon was an even bigger existential risk. The United Nations was created to prioritise diplomacy as the means to mediate conflicts between nations that will arise from time to time. But its ability to lower the cost of military defence and raise the penalty for hostile behaviour depends on its ability to be a “strong institution” too.

So yes, the listed SDG 16 targets are important, assuming peacetime conditions. Everyone wants low crime in their countries and state institutions they can trust to deliver justice. And since this need is a basic need for safety, those who don’t currently have it will place a very high premium on these efforts.

But the effort to reach global sustainability goals needs international peace. And not the ‘peace of the grave’ either, but the kind of peace that makes life on earth worth living. So even though I don’t dismiss the importance of SDG 16 efforts to combat crime and corruption, until we figure something out for that bigger kind of peace & justice issue, we are risking all life on earth. And that seems quite a bit higher priority.