Mission & Name
US Foreign Policy (Dr. El-Najjar's Articles)
Rio 20 Years After the UN Conference to Save
By Curtis F. J. Doebbler
Al-Jazeerah, CCUN, June 28, 2012
Rio is a huge metropolis with a 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 twenty 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 suppose to the United Nations Conference on Sustainable
Development or as it came to be known, Rio+20.
It was suppose to be
a jamboree that would draw tens of thousands of participants from a variety
of society’s strata and almost a hundred and fifty 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 fifty kilometers 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 bring 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 world-be world leader tarnished by an unambitious outcome
document and thousands of complaints about the logistics nightmare it had
The outcome document was intended to the centre piece
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 concoctions of vague statements and hallow 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. Moreover, they
are absent because developed countries greedily refused to provide them.
Despite the fact that the average person living in developed country has
wealth worth many times more than the average person in a developing
country, the developed countries claimed that the latest financial
crisis—which they also contradictory claimed had ended—prevented them from
Some vague modalities were agreed to, but it is
unlikely that these governmental forums will achieve any more than did the
Like the climate change talks in Copenhagen in
December 2009, the government of Brazil did much to publicize Rio+20 and to
encourage good will 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 the
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 canceled their trips to Rio and
those who did come voiced more criticism then praise.
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 has 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.
of Section I entitled Our Common Vision paints a bleak picture cataloging 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 in to 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.
Nigerian negotiator Ossetia
countries had little to smile about concerning the reaffirmation of
commitments, there was even less for developed countries to cheer in the
Section III on the Green Economy. From the start this had been the key
section for developed States who argued that the private sector, not them,
could carry the burden of solving the world's environmental and
In negotiations, this Utopian view of free
market capitalism was consistently challenged by developing States who
quoted the figures of institutions that are controlled by developed
countries to put the lie to this claim.
second section 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 image any national ever adopting laws that strongly urge its
citizens not 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 a half million Iraqi
Again in paragraph 27 of this section States reiterate
their commitment, “in conformity with international law, to remove the
obstacles to the full realization 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
recognized 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.
section II also includes 14 paragraphs promoting the participation of a
board range of stakeholders. These stakeholders, referred to as Major Groups
in the Rio+20 process, range from framers, indigenous peoples and
traditional civil society NGOs to big business BINGOs. The combination seem
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 the 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 Charter of the United Nations that civil society takes.
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 an rude awaking in Section III on the Green Economy. Perhaps the most
controversial of the six section, 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 to 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 wors of encouragement for a global move in the direction of green
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 UNEP into a fully fledged specialized agency
of the UN. Instead there is merely vague wording about the commitment to
strengthening UNEP, the General Assembly and ECOSOC.
innovation is mentioned, but again in vague fashion. This is a high level
political forum to carry out a broad range of coordination functions and
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” that is divided into twenty five
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, health, and gender
equality and women’s empowerment. Many of these themes, such as water,
chemical, and oceans requires 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 exercised
flexed its political muscle to make one of the few changes to the Brazilian
text that had been promulgated just after the end o formal negotiations in
the last informal from 13 to 15 June. While some European countries weer
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.
Sub-section B of Section V was to present the centerpiece 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 suppose 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 a 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.
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
Similarly the subsection on capacity-building merely
invites relevant UN agencies “and other relevant international
organizations” to support developing countries. This is something many
interngovernmental organizations 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 being different results.
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
recognizes 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.
issues for which action cannot wait there was merely and agreement to keep
talking. This 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 in 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 it was impossible to have done better.
* * *
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 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
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 center was so poor that one African delegate complained that "the
internet seemed to work better in the middle of the Sahara Desert."
Hotels and just about else anyone 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 hotel 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 congratulations 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 deal were done. The poor planned
transportation logistics also made it virtually impossible for anyone
accredited to the Rio+20 Summit to attend both the Peoples' Summit and
events at Riocentro.
Dr. Curtis F.J. Doebbler is a 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.