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Rio+20 and after?

By Iddri

What has come out of Rio+20? A sense of realism, certainly. While the final text does not match up to the challenges at stake, it is a relatively true reflection of the current state of play in international cooperation, and reveals the limits of the multilateral cooperation system inherited from 1946.

Indeed, globalisation is now at a point where the need to cooperate on issues as wide-ranging as environmental protection, management of economic crises or regional security is more crucial then ever before. Yet, paradoxically, the obstacles to this cooperation have never been more formidable, given the ever-growing complexity of the problems, their increasing politicisation and the proliferation of the actors involved.

To boot, the ground rules of international cooperation are being jostled by the heightened role of emerging countries: the system is now grid-locked for want of clear leadership, of a hegemonic power capable of imposing direction and securing the adherence of sovereign powers. We are, in fact, in a world of nation states in which any delegation of sovereignty to organisations in the UN system appears as both dangerous and unacceptable. This is paradoxical because globalisation is itself undermining this sovereignty in multiple ways. The States’ mistrust of UN institutions is flagrant, as was clearly illustrated in the summit’s preparatory and negotiating processes.

In 2009, the UN General Assembly arranged the Rio+20 Summit without, however, planning for a detailed diagnosis or collective review of the reasons for shortcomings in the implementation of previous decisions. The Summit’s proceedings thus lacked a sound analytical basis and were further weakened by the absence of a final agreement at the 19th Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD) that ended in May 2011.

The two specific themes chosen for the summit—”the green economy”and “the institutional framework for sustainable development”—yielded mitigated results. The first, led by UNEP as a continuation of the green stimulus packages rolled out after the 2008 crisis, was designed to offer a renewed global vision so as to avoid the mushrooming of international agreements. Yet, already, at the first preparatory meeting in March 2010, this topic was plagued by the lack of a common definition and vision and remained a bone of contention to the very end, such that all hopes of its bearing fruit were dashed. For the second priority area, the problem of unpreparedness was less acute insofar as international environmental governance has been the subject of extensive evaluation and proposals for ten years, including within the United Nations, and the possible options for its reform had already been published. On the other hand, the broadening of this theme to cover the institutional gouvernance of sustainable development had not been adequately prepared. This was sorely felt when decisions on the future of the CSD had to be made without any coordinated preparation upstream to examine and identify the results already achieved.

The feeling that the United Nations was failing to plan the preparatory work adequately was reinforced not only by the January 2012 publication of the report of the High-Level Panel on Global Sustainability, whereas the zero draft negotiating document had already been finalised, but also by the launch of the GEO 5 on 6 June, several days ahead of the summit.

The process nonetheless produced a text. Yet, this offered no overarching vision but was rather a compilation of specific points and sections that gave rise to major divergences even during the preparatory meetings. Brazilian diplomacy chose to propose a text that removed all contentious issues, thus narrowing the likelihood of it being rejected by the States.

The final text, which mentions the multiple commitments already made, is a source of satisfaction for some and a disappointment for others. However, forty years on from Stockholm, it fails to propose a vision of how our economic and social models need to change to take our planet’s limits into account. It is true that the reference to universal membership in the Governing Council of UNEP (88a) for all States is a small step in the right direction and that recognising the importance of providing a social protection floor for all citizens (156) unquestionably constitutes social progress, but this declaration proposes no common guiding principles.

The Rio+20 Summit has pointed up the difficulties of such large-scale conferences on sustainable development. Yet the fact remains that the challenges facing us require a greater degree of international coordination. How then can we give a new lease of life to international cooperation? Rio+20 offers us two very different ways forward.

Firstly, there is the experience of the thematic dialogues organised at the initiative of the Brazilian government. This first experience of direct “democracy” as a link between civil society and diplomatic negotiations, with a first phase of Internet-based debate and a second phase of face-to-face debate during the conference itself, made it possible to create a real dialogue with civil society. Far from the path dependencies of inter-State disputes, this dialogue above all helped to produce thirty, mostly operational, recommendations that are not just echoes of intergovernmental decisions. How can this exercise be renewed, mainstreamed and more importantly better planned so that it can be embedded in the official negotiating processes?

The second way forward is the process set up by the participating States to define sustainable development goals (SDGs). The SDGs make it possible to re-examine the universal objectives, while the common but differentiated responsibilities and State sovereignty have also been extensively mobilised to avoid having to make ambitious commitments. They should nonetheless allow a system to be set up to monitor the implementation of sustainable development in all of the countries. The States wish to address these goals through intergovernmental negotiations and refuse to follow a process akin to that used for the Millennium Development Goals; this could jeopardise their real impact and their capacity to bring about change.

IDDRI is exploring both these ways forward by pursuing its reflection on the use of opinion surveys as a means of expressing national collective preferences in such conferences as an alternative to the official voice of their governments (European SustainableRIO project), and by organising debates on an analytical and reference framework for the SDGs proposals being developed. Our detailed analysis of Rio+20 will be published shortly.