Rio is a huge metropolis with an easy-go-lucky attitude spawned by its friendly citizens, its beautiful beaches, and its extensive sunshine. It was the hopeful city where the world in 1992 embarked on its journey to save the planet.
In 1992, the challenges were to the destruction of our biodiversity, climate change, and desertification. These were obstacles to development, we all agreed, for most of the people in the world.
This year, 2012, was to be a celebration of what we have jointly achieved in the last 20 years, the start of a new quest to ensure more equitable and sustainable development, and a reiteration of our commitment to preserving our environment while providing for the development of future generations. The high point was supposed to be the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, or as it came to be known, Rio+20.
It was supposed to be a jamboree that would draw tens of thousands of participants from a variety of society’s strata and almost 150 world leaders. It was suppose to give hope to a world torn by an ongoing financial crisis and an impending global environmental disaster. It was suppose to put the desolate Riocentro, located almost 50 kilometres from downtown Rio de Janeiro, on the map of world conference venues.
In the end it was more of an embarrassment to everyone involved. The negotiating governments agreed on little that justified a conference bringing together dozens of world leaders. Several world leaders themselves begged off at the last minute fearing that they might be identified with a failure. And Brazil limped away with its reputation as a would-be world leader tarnished by an unambitious outcome document and thousands of complaints about the logistical nightmare it had orchestrated.
What happened to Rio?
The outcome document was intended to be the centrepiece of the conference. Like a wedding cake, it was meant to be prepared well in advance and to be proudly presented at Rio+20. Instead, the almost 50-page text was a confusing concoction of vague statements and hollow promises.
Technology transfer and capacity building for countries seeking to develop is mentioned in the final text, but the resources and assistance they need to access technology and build capacity are absent. They are absent because developed countries greedily refused to provide them. Despite the fact that the average person living in a developed country has wealth worth many times more than the average person in a developing country, developed countries claimed that the latest financial crisis — which they also contradictorily claimed had ended — prevented them from assisting others.
Some vague modalities were agreed to, but it is unlikely that these governmental forums will achieve anything more than did the Rio negotiations.
Like the climate change talks in Copenhagen in December 2009, the government of Brazil did much to publicise Rio+20 and to encourage goodwill among participants. Just days before heads of state were due to arrive, the top diplomats Brazil had brought in ensure a text emerged were struggling to prevent an embarrassment.
To achieve this, they set the standards very low. Brazilian Ambassador Luiz Machado, who was a leading figure in the consolidation of the text, repeatedly described the effort as ensuring that “everyone was equally unhappy.” In the end, many countries agreed, as several heads of states cancelled their trips to Rio and those who did come voiced more criticism than praise.
The first paragraph of the outcome document lauded the full participation of civil society, when in reality civil society had been largely excluded from participation and even completely locked out of negotiations at some crucial moments. Moreover, suggestions coming from civil society through the process that solicited input from a variety of actors were mostly ignored.
The civil society representative selected to address the high level segment after the negotiations had finished said that, “NGOs here in Rio in no way endorse this document.” And he called for the words “in full participation with civil society” to be removed from the first paragraph.
The rest of Section I, entitled "Our Common Vision," paints a bleak picture cataloguing a host of environmental to development challenges to human survival on Earth. And despite expressing the “resolve to take urgent action to achieve sustainable development,” the outcome document rarely indicates how this resolve will be put into practice.
In Section II, entitled “Renewing Political Commitment,” an observer to the negotiations would have wondered if some states were not intending to avoid any political commitments at all.
Hodgepodge of empty words
If developing countries had little to smile about concerning the reaffirmation of commitments, there was even less for developed countries to cheer in Section III on the “Green Economy”. From the start this had been the key section for developed states that argued that the private sector, not them, could carry the burden of solving the world's environmental and developmental problems.
In negotiations, this utopian view of free market capitalism was consistently challenged by developing states that quoted the figures of institutions that are controlled by developed countries to put lie to this claim.
Section II barely reaffirms the 20-year-old Rio Declaration on Environment and Development. Had the US government had its way, the 27 Rio Declaration principles would have been deemed “irrelevant,” setting the international community back 20 years in its effort to encourage sustainable development. The overwhelming majority of countries, led by the 130-plus member states of the G77, however, demanded that the Rio principles be reaffirmed and finally prevailed.
This section also contains sub-section B that includes in its title advancing integration, implementation, and coherence. The section however, struggles to reaffirm existing international law. For example, in paragraph 26, states are “strongly urged” not to use “any unilateral economic, financial or trade measures not in accordance with international law.” If such measures violate international law, as they usually do, they are absolutely prohibited. It is hard to imagine any nation ever adopting laws that strongly urge its citizens to kill, rob, or rape each other. Such hideous acts are absolutely prohibited. Similarly, so are unilateral economic, financial or trade measures not in accordance with international law, which in the recent past have been responsible for killing more than half a million Iraqi children.
Again in paragraph 27 of this section states reiterate their commitment, “in conformity with international law, to remove the obstacles to the full realisation of the right of self-determination of peoples living under colonial and foreign occupation.” Preventing peoples living under colonial and foreign occupation from achieving self-determination is prohibited by international law. The fact that Israel has denied Palestinians their right to self-determination has long been recognised by the international community as violating law, yet more than 60 years of reiterating this in words as the outcome document does has done little to end this serious violation of international law.
Finally, Section II also includes 14 paragraphs promoting the participation of a broad range of stakeholders. These stakeholders, referred to as Major Groups in the Rio+20 process, range from farmers, indigenous peoples and traditional civil society NGOs to big business BINGOs. The combination seems quite unusual to say the least. While the former three groups work under a framework of international law, big business is usually motivated by profit. Nevertheless, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon has made it clear that he appreciates the money of big business more than the principled stance based on the Charter of the United Nations that civil society takes.
If the states that were seeking to reaffirm or implement the 20-year-old Rio principles thought that they had a difficult battle on their hands they were in for a rude awakening in Section III on the “Green Economy”. Perhaps the most controversial of the six sections, it found very little consensus among developed and developing countries. The former saw it as the driving force of environmental protection and development with the private sector at the helm. The latter saw it as a threat of their further exploitation, especially as nothing was offered to provide them the capacity to green their economies. Instead, European countries echoed themes from colonial periods suggesting that developing countries should buy what they need from the rich countries or trade their natural resources (at discount princes) for the assistance needed to transition to a green economy.
As a result, “green economy” remained undefined and the text merely includes some vague words of encouragement for a global move in the direction of green economies.
Equally controversial was Section IV on the institutional framework for sustainable development. What was once touted by some states as the main accomplishment of the Rio+20 meeting, turned out to be a dud. A proposal for an ombudsman on sustainable development was rejected, as was the recommendation to make the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) into a fully-fledged specialised agency of the UN. Instead there is merely vague wording about the commitment to strengthening the UNEP, the General Assembly and ECOSOC.
One new innovation is mentioned, but again in vague fashion. This is a high level political forum to carry out a broad range of coordination functions —functions that already fall under the competences of other UN agencies. Nicaraguan negotiator and presidential advisor Paul Oquist, who has worked at the UN in senior positions in the past, pointed out that the overlapping competences and its vague worded mandate to coordinate other UN agencies made it highly likely that the new forum fail.
“This vague formula is a receipt for disaster,” Oquist said, instead urging states to more carefully consider the matter.
Section V, the longest, is entitled “Framework for Action and Follow-up,” and is divided into 25 separate themes or cross cutting issues, a distinction that is not clear. The themes range from climate change, food scarcity, and sustainable consumption and production, to least developed countries (LDCs), health, and gender equality and women’s empowerment. Many of these themes, such as water, chemicals, and oceans require strenuous battles to merely reiterate existing legal obligations or what had already been said in the 1992 Rio Declaration or its accompanying Agenda 21.
The Holy See or Vatican flexed its political muscle to make one of the few changes to the Brazilian text that had been promulgated just after the end of formal negotiations from 13 to 15 June. While some European countries were celebrating the triumph of getting a mention of “reproductive rights” in the text, code words for women’s rights to abortion, the Catholic Church was ardently lobbying its allies. In final text, promulgated by the Brazilians in the early morning on 19 June, “reproductive rights” were removed.
Big build-up, nothing to celebrate
Sub-section B of Section V was to present the centrepiece of the new Sustainable Development Goals. This did not happen. Instead states agreed to a vague state-driven process for defining these goals at some future date.
For many, the penultimate Section VI entitled “Means of Implementation” was supposed to close the new deal for sustainable development. Instead this section was the epitome of inaction. Developed states refused to commit to anything meaningful in any of the four sections.
In the sub-section on finance, developed states refused to agree to provide even one cent of new and additional financing. Instead, they agreed to a vaguely defined “intergovernmental process under the United Nations General Assembly” to conduct an “open and broad consultation” with just about everyone and report to the General Assembly by 2014.
In the sub-section on technology, no modalities for technology transfer were agreed and the duty to promote the transfer of technology, which is a legal obligation in the UN Climate Treaty for all states, was not even mentioned. Instead, states opted for convoluted sentence that calls upon “relevant UN agencies to identify options for a facilitation mechanism that promotes the development, transfer and dissemination of clean and environmentally sound technologies.”
Similarly, the subsection on capacity building merely invites relevant UN agencies “and other relevant international organisations” to support developing countries. This is something many inter-governmental organisations have been doing for years, without adequate results for development or the environment.
Finally, as concerns the fourth sub-section on trade, states opted to merely reaffirm the same mantra about trade being the anecdote leading to development through economic growth. Neither observers nor most negotiators thought more of the same would bring different results.
Talk, talk and more talk
Like the 1992 document adopted in in the same city 20 years ago and the document adopted in Johannesburg, South Africa, on the tenth anniversary in 2002, the Rio+20 outcome document recognises many of the problems that are hindering development. It also is evidence that developed states are unwilling to do anything to address the imbalances that have persisted for the last 20 years.
On crucial issues for which action cannot wait there was merely an agreement to keep talking. This was the least that we could have accomplished, said a Ghanian negotiator, settling in for the long bus ride to Riocentro on the last a day of the meeting. But as South Centre Director Martin Khor pointed out in The Star of Malaysia, “A decision only to talk about options is hardly a promise to take concrete action.”
In the end, the outcome document reflects a very low level of ambition on both environmental protection and development, its two key issues.
The heads of state and government and other senior state representatives who addressed the plenary from 20 to 22 June seemed to understand that they had let humanity down. Most made low-key pleas for something better while praising the Brazilian hosts for having done the best they could in the circumstances. Others lashed out at the “empty” or “unambitious” document, while admitting that under the circumstances prevailing it was impossible to have done better.
Planning failure or planned to fail?
If the outcome document was a half-baked cake, the logistics were even more of a disaster. Transportation to and from the conference site often took delegates more time than they were able to spend at the Rio+20 conference itself. The army of special conference buses that were enlisted only seemed to further clog already over-congested traffic systems. Delegates and observers were left sitting in buses for hours and sometimes even missed negotiating sessions altogether.
Communications were no better. It was also often impossible for delegates to communicate with each other as local mobile telephones by Oi and TIM often did not work and Internet access at the conference centre was so poor that one African delegate complained that, “the internet seems to work better in the middle of the Sahara Desert.”
Hotels, and just about anyone else who could, increased prices to such an extent that the government of Brazil had to agree to refund states a percentage of what they had paid for rooms. Civil society observers, those who are often the least able to bear the price gouging, were left to their own devices.
Despite words of congratulation to civil society, the Brazilian government’s treatment of Major Groups was surprisingly intolerant. Several civil society representatives were denied visas or deported, the radio station at the Peoples’ Summit was arbitrarily closed, and Major Group observers were shut out of the crucial last minute meetings when it appears some of the dirtiest deals were done. The poor planned transportation logistics also made it virtually impossible for anyone accredited at the Rio+20 Summit to attend both the Peoples’ Summit and events at Riocentro.
And so ends miserably another purported attempt to make the world a better place. Who benefits?
The writer is professor of law at Webster University and an international human rights lawyer. He participated in the Rio+20 meeting and during the past 18 months of the drafting of the outcome document.