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Rio+20 concludes, now the work begins!

This post is also available in: French, Spanish


The UN Conference on Sustainable Development (UNCSD or “Rio+20”) opened 20 June 2012, gathering 191 UN Member States and observers, including 79 Heads of State and government, about 10,000 representatives of Major Groups, and more than 30,000 other participants (parliamentarians, mayors, UN officials, chief executive officers, etc). Its outcome document – entitled “The Future We Want” – was already informally agreed upon by Member States on 19 June – after intensive informal negotiations – but was officially endorsed and adopted by Heads of State at the conclusion of Rio+20 on 22 June.

The negotiated text focuses on a wide range of areas and topics aimed at fostering and implementing sustainable development at all levels. The outcome document launches a process to establish Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), details the role of a green economy, strengthens the position of the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), promotes corporate sustainability reporting measures, tackles the limits of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) to measure growth and development, adopts a framework for addressing sustainable consumption and production, and addresses financing for sustainable development. It also focuses on improving gender equality, recognizes the importance of voluntary commitments, and stresses the need to engage civil society and the necessity of incorporating science into policy.

In this regard, Sha Zukang, Secretary-General of the UNCSD, expressed his view on the outcome document after the conclusion of the negotiations: “We think the text contains a lot of actions, and if this action is implemented, and if follow-up actions are taken, it will indeed make a tremendous difference in generating positive global change.”

Moreover, over 700 voluntary commitments were made by civil society organizations, businesses, the UN system, international organizations and governments, resulting in US$500 billion in actions towards sustainable development. For instance, the UN Global Compact Initiative collected more than 200 commitments by businesses at the end of the Corporate Sustainability Forum, while UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon announced more than 100 commitments on sustainable energy. Commitments range from planting 100 million trees by 2017; greening 10,000 square km of desert; or saving 1 Megawatt-hour of electricity per day to empowering 5,000 women entrepreneurs in green economy businesses in Africa. For a full list of voluntary commitments, click here.


The Official Opening Session of the UNCSD


In his opening remarks, Ban Ki-moon asserted, “We are now in sight of an historic agreement. Let us not waste this opportunity. The world is watching to see if words will translate into action, as we know they must. Rio+20 is not an end, but a beginning.”

The nine Major Groups also had the opportunity to deliver their statement during this opening session. The Women’s Major Group lamented the lack of commitments regarding sexual and reproductive rights and deplored the refusal to create a high commissioner for future generations. The Major Group of Children and Youth (MGCY) also focused on the gaps in commitments of the negotiated text, including on the recognition of planetary boundaries, the rights to food, water and health, and a high commissioner for youth. Indigenous Peoples stressed the necessity to return to a greater harmony with nature and called for a new paradigm of well-being. Aligning themselves with the MGCY, NGOs complained about the lack of reference to the Earth’s carrying capacity. Local Authorities outlined the urgency of a new urban agenda, territorial cohesion and regionalization. The Major Group of Workers and Trade Unions emphasized the importance of “green jobs”, decent work, and social protection, while the Major Group of Business and Industry urged governments to develop enabling policy frameworks for inclusive green growth. The Scientific and Technological Community called for a greater recognition of the role of science in policy-making. Finally, the Major Group of Farmers underscored the need to make food security a priority to achieve sustainable development.


The Ceremonial Opening


During the second plenary meeting (Ceremonial Opening) held the same day and chaired by the President of the Conference Dilma Rousseff (Brazil), Ban Ki-moon reasserted: “Rio+20 has given us a unique chance […] to set a new course that truly balances the imperatives of robust growth and economic development with the social and environmental dimensions of sustainable prosperity and human well-being.” He then warned, “We are running out of time. We no longer have the luxury to defer difficult decisions.”

Nassir Abdulaziz Al-Nasser, President of the 66th Session of the UN General Assembly, also described Rio+20 as a once-in-a-generation opportunity and highlighted the necessity to share “the know-how and technologies that will help developing countries to leap-frog into more sustainable development paths.” He continued, “We must not let the world financial and economic crisis dampen the commitment to development cooperation.” He also insisted on the importance of partnerships at all levels, stating, “This is the only way. We can only do it together.”

In his statement, Sha Zukang declared that sustainable development rises above short-term, narrow interests. “Sustainable development unites north and south, east and west. It is about you, me, today’s youth and tomorrow’s children,” he said.

Following the remarks of the UN officials, each Member State had the opportunity to deliver a statement. Most members of the Group of 77 and China insisted on the importance of the principle of common but differentiated responsibility (CBDR) and the necessity to take into consideration different national development priorities and approaches. The President of the Islamic Republic of Iran Mahmoud Ahmadinedjad called for a new international order; the President of the Republic of Korea Lee Myung-bak pledged to provide Official Development Aid (ODA) for green growth; the President of the Republic of Kenya Mwai Kibaki committed to provide additional support facilities for the expanded membership of UNEP’s governing council; the President of France Francois Hollande expressed his support to a tax on financial transactions; the Premier of the People’s Republic of China Wen Jiabao engaged to provide funds both for UNEP’s projects aimed at strengthening developing countries’ capacity building and for African, Caribbean and Pacific States to address climate change; and the President of the European Commission Jose Manuel Durao Barroso welcomed the UNSG’s Sustainable Energy for All Initiative.

On 21 June, the President of Bolivia Evo Morales Ayma called for the nationalization of resources, described environmentalism as a new form of colonialism, and refused the notion of “green economy” that would, he said, unfairly burden the South. Dmitry Medvedev, Prime Minister of the Russian Federation, expressed his nation’s willingness to fully contribute to the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), while the President of South Africa Jacob Zuma said that upgrading UNEP required an enhanced mandate and greater synergies between Multilateral Environmental Agreements (MEAs).

Finally, on 22 June, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced a partnership between the US and African countries to promote private financing for clean energy projects. Representative of Venezuela Claudia Salerno denounced capitalism and unsustainable consumption patterns as well as the concept of a green economy.


High-Level Roundtables


The High-Level Roundtables opened and dealt with the theme: “Looking at the way forward in implementing the expected outcomes of the Conference.” Speakers included Heads of State or government; ministers; representatives of entities of the UN system, Major Groups, intergovernmental organizations, regional organizations; and Nobel laureates.

On 20 June, State representatives highlighted the importance of capacity building and technology transfer along with the need to move forward with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) process that has to be transparent, inclusive, coherent and accountable. They also insisted on the necessity of a democratic and bottom-up approach to achieve sustainable development. Major Groups stressed the lack of affordable finance in local and rural areas as well as the importance of preserving the indigenous cultures. Entities of the UN system focused on the necessity of cooperation and collaboration on capacity building, analysis and review and of developing innovative source of financing. UN bodies also outlined the need for a science-policy interface and the respect of human rights.

On 21 June, Member States called for a clear definition of the green economy, taking into account the rights of developing countries to determine their national priorities. They also stressed the need to define principles to guide the SDGs, and said these goals should be inspirational, non-prescriptive, realistic, measurable, universal and take into account the principle of CBDR. Heads of UN bodies and international organizations highlighted the impact on jobs of a transition to a green economy and the need for social protection floors. They also stressed the need for gender responsive goals and monitoring systems. Major Groups’ statements focused on women and farmers and equally underlined the launch of an international science-based initiative entitled “Future Earth” and called for a greater participation of scientists in policy-making. They also shared the anger and frustration from civil society regarding the draft outcome document.

On the morning of 22 June, Heads of State and governments called for additional funding for technology transfer related to climate change adaptation, enhanced participation of civil society, and greater capacity building as part of all development projects. International organizations and UN agencies focused on the importance of a land-degradation neutral world, the necessity to address energy-poverty as well as the need for better synergies between the three Rio Conventions. Major Groups emphasized the issues of fossil fuel subsidies, good governance, information sharing and food sovereignty.


Side Events


During these three days as well as in the week before the conference, a great number of side events were held. An exhaustive list is available here; individual side events will be profiled in future UN-NGLS articles.


Closing Session


The executive coordinators of the Conference, along with Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and the President of the Conference, President Dilma Rousseff of Brazil, emphasized that Rio+20 is part of a global process towards sustainable development. President Dilma thanked civil society for their engagement, and recognized the outcome document as a reflection of a “consensus of the parties of this process to strive for the future we want.”

The real work, as the Secretary-General mentioned, starts now; Member States will need to lead and remain committed to the process. Conference Secretary-General Sha Zukang assented: “may the Rio spirit be with you forever.” Leaders hailed the successes, among others, of the beginnings of the process on Sustainable Development Goals, agreement to open a high-level forum on sustainable development, the strengthening of UNEP, and the agreement on sustainable consumption and production.


Civil society reactions to the UNCSD


Though this conference was arguably the most open, participative and inclusive the UN ever held, civil society actors voiced great disappointment and frustration regarding the lack of political will amongst governments. Sharing their feedback on Rio+20, Major Groups made clear that many of the concerns they raised at the opening of Rio+20 were still valid at the closing. Rather than actively participating in the process of agreeing upon the outcome document, Member States only endorsed the negotiated outcome document of 19 June. This resulted in a kind of “anti-climax” feeling among many members of the Major Groups. Though Business and Industry appreciated the recognition in the outcome document that this sector can be part of the solution, Brazilian NGOs argued that the conference agreed only on a few important elements of a potentially successful outcome. Some, but not all, Major Groups described Rio+20 as representative of a backlash for multilateralism.

In a joint statement, the Major Groups of Children and Youth, Farmers, and NGOs deplored the insufficient ambition of the outcome document along with the lack of a rights-based approach and urged the Secretary-General to promote concrete steps to end starvation and malnutrition for all: “In order to realize the future we want and we need, governments must recognize the rights of peasants and rural peoples and protect the right to land, food and water in international human rights law,” they said.

The Major Group of Children and Youth stressed that the Conference failed to inspire them: “We came here to celebrate our generation. We have danced, dreamed and loved on the streets of Rio and found something to believe in. You have chosen not to celebrate with us.”

On 24 June, the Women’s Major Group published a press release and statement in several languages, declaring their “outrage” at the outcome document’s neglect of women’s reproductive rights as essential to sustainable development and at the insufficient mention of women’s rights to land, property, and inheritance. “At Rio+20,” the statement concludes, “governments had a historic chance to take bold steps to end poverty and environmental destruction, to protect the rights of the most vulnerable members of our societies, to take concrete measures to fully implement women’s rights and women’s leadership.” Instead, the conference outcome may contribute to “increased poverty, inequities and irreversible environmental damage. This is not the future we want, nor the future we need.”

Although trade unions recognize that the outcome document contains some of the labour movement’s key demands (human and trade union rights, social protection for poverty eradication, decent work and green jobs promotion, etc.), they “are bitterly disappointed that governments did not champion or link other critical issues or set out agreed actions that would integrate the social, environmental and economic programme the world needs.” According to the trade unions, the outcome document does not “balance the three dimensions of sustainable development” as it steps back on environmental protection and women’s reproductive rights; does not “drive real change to the current economic model,” nor “build momentum around the need for global regulation and governance.”

At the close of the Conference, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and the Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL) noted that global economic troubles were being matched by a recession in human rights with worryingly minimal commitments coming out of the Conference. They referred to the attempts of various countries and negotiating groups not to make commitments in terms of human rights, in particular the exclusion of text on: sexual and reproductive rights; the responsibility of business to respect rights; the rights of freedom of association and assembly; and the right to freedom of expression. These organizations expressed dismay with this lack of committment, as well as the fact that the Rio+20 process ignored the right to a healthy environment. On a positive note, however, the three organizations hailed the fact that “For the first time at a major UN summit meeting, the countries reaffirmed the right to safe drinking water and sanitation.”

Critical reactions also came from CIVICUS: the World Alliance for Citizen Participation, and Friends of the Earth International (FOEI). CIVICUS argued that Rio+20 demonstrated the limit of inter-governmental processes to achieve sustainable development, protect human rights, and promote the full participation of people due to the fact that competing State interests dominated the negotiations and resulting compromises. FOEI, on the other hand held the corporate sector responsible, noting that “Rio+20 resulted in world leaders selling out people and the planet.” Nnimmo Bassey, FOEI’s Chair, said: “Once again corporate polluters have held UN decision-making hostage to furthering their economic interests, at the expense of peoples’ well-being and the planet.” Both organizations asserted that the outcome document insufficiently reflects any of the real and bold solutions proposed by civil society, the alternative People’s Summit (15-23 June), and other stakeholders. “CIVICUS calls for an international system where there is full participation and voices are heard, respected and reflected from a diverse range of views and interests, especially the most vulnerable and marginalized people. This can only come with the full inclusion of civil society. Rio+20 tells us definitively that the multilateral system as it stands is no longer fit for purpose, and needs a major overhaul,” said Katsuji Imata, CIVICUS’s Acting Secretary General. FOEI also expressed concern that the outcome document does not recognize the responsibility of developed countries to take the lead on sustainable consumption and production; that multinational corporations are a main cause of the multiple crises the world is facing; that the industrialised world is to repay its ecological debt through the provision of new and additional public finance and through technology transfer; and that fossil fuels need to be phased out through a just transition to clean and affordable community-controlled energy. Moreover, FOEI is of the opinion that a voluntary approach to commitments is ineffective and abuse-friendly.

Additionally, The Elders, an independent group of global leaders who work together for peace and human rights, stated that “the declaration of the UN Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20) is not the response we need to safeguard people and the planet.” Whereas Mary Robinson, former President of Ireland and former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, calls it “a failure of leadership,” and Fernando Henrique Cardoso, former President of Brazil, expressed concern that the declaration does not give the same weight to environmental protection as it does to human development and growth, Gro Harlem Brundtland, former Prime Minister of Norway and Chair of the UN Commission that brought the concept of sustainable development to global attention 25 years ago, regretted that the Rio+20 declaration “does not do enough to set humanity on a sustainable path” and omitted reproductive rights. She noted “However – with this imperfect text, we have to move forward. There is no alternative.”

Although Third World Network (TWN) recognizes the weaknesses of the outcome document, it gives a much more positive turn to what has been achieved during the final days of the negotiation process and under the guidance of Brazil. In its News Update (No. 22), TWN explains how some Member States had tried to weaken the document, but in the end failed to do so. The outcome document does now at least include a commitment to free humanity from all forms of poverty (and not only extreme poverty); recognizes the need to change unsustainable and promote sustainable patterns of consumption and production as one of the overarching objectives of and essential requirements for sustainable development; and adopts a 10-year framework of programmes on sustainable consumption and production patterns. Moreover, it reaffirms the respect for all human rights, including contentious rights such as the right to development and the right to food, and acknowledges democracy, good governance and the rule of law as essential elements for sustainable development, as well as the Rio principles.

TWN notes, “While many are critical that the outcome document titled ‘The Future We Want’ did not go far enough, it was crucial for the Rio principles to be reaffirmed, especially Principle 7 with its common but differentiated responsibilities, and this was achieved.” Principle 7 reads “States shall cooperate in a spirit of global partnership to conserve, protect and restore the health and integrity of the Earth’s ecosystem. In view of the different contributions to global environmental degradation, States have common but differentiated responsibilities. The developed countries acknowledge the responsibility that they bear in the international pursuit to sustainable development in view of the pressures their societies place on the global environment and of the technologies and financial resources they command.”

Another positive view on the Rio outcome can be found in a recent blog post on the Rio+twenties website, entitled “What will young people do if Rio fails?” It highlights that Rio+20 was successful in providing a strong platform for exchanging ideas, discussing key issues on the sustainable development agenda, and in creating new partnerships that will define the future of sustainable development. Moreover, the blog post argues, “Sustainable Development should not be dependent of binding treaties or trade agreements. We should all strive to life in a world where we can be safe and healthy in a world where the air we breathe is clean and where the water that we drink is safe.”


Reactions from the UN System


Well aware of the demands from the different Major Groups, as well as civil society and social movements (through his visit to the People’s Summit), UNEP Executive Director Achim Steiner recognized that “The outcome of Rio+20 will disappoint and frustrate many given the science, the day-to-day reality of often simply surviving as individuals and as families, the analysis of where development is currently heading for seven billion people and the inordinate opportunity for a different trajectory. However if nations, companies and civil society can move forward on the positive elements of the Summit’s outcome it may assist in one day realizing the Future We Want.”

In contrast to the mostly critical positions from civil society, the UN system indeed seems to focus on these positive elements. For example, the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) welcomed the outcome document’s reaffirmation of commitments made in the Programme of Action of the 1994 Cairo International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) and its recognition of the importance of sexual and reproductive health and the need for integrating the theme as a priority in national strategies and programmes. It also welcomed its commitment to reduce maternal and child deaths; to improve the health of women, youth and children; to promote gender equality; to protect the rights of women, men and youth to have control over and decide freely and responsibly on matters related to their sexuality, including access to sexual and reproductive health, free from coercion, discrimination and violence; and to ensure that health systems provide the necessary information and services addressing the sexual and reproductive health of women, including working towards universal access to safe, effective, affordable and acceptable modern methods of family planning. In his reaction to the conference, UNFPA’s Executive Director Babatunde Osotimehin stated, “Health and rights are vital to and at the core of sustainability […] We cannot promote sustainable development without promoting the health – especially reproductive health – and rights of women and girls, as well as the youth.”

Considering that human rights were virtually absent from the draft negotiation text ahead of the Conference, UN Human Rights Chief Navi Pillay welcomed the final outcome of the Conference for its broad inclusion of human rights provisions, as well as of several key elements of a human rights-based approach to development, such as the principles of participation, accountability, non-discrimination, and empowerment as well as the rule of law and democracy. The outcome document incorporates provisions on the right to development, the right to an adequate standard of living, the right to food, the right to water and sanitation, the right to health, to education, to social protection, labour rights, access to justice, the human rights of women, of indigenous peoples, minorities, older persons, migrants (including those in an irregular situation), of people living under foreign occupation; sexual and reproductive health rights; and sexuality rights. In an observation shared by many civil society groups, however, Ms. Pillay recognized that the document resulted in “some unfinished business,” especially in terms of adequate resource provisions and environmental controls; the freedom of assembly, association, and expression; human rights impact assessments; stronger accountability mechanisms for government and business enterprises; and calls for due diligence by public and private entities. Ms. Pillay therefore called upon the international community to view the Rio document as “only the first step toward a more ambitious and responsible agenda for our planet, and for the people who live here,” and to ensure that the currently missing elements will be reflected in a new SDG framework by making it a human rights framework. “Only a human rights approach can be truly a people-centred approach,” she concluded.

An often less heard voice comes from the Secretariat for the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (SCRPD), which is pleased that the outcome document has specific references to disability. The document acknowledges States’ responsibilities to respect, protect and promote human rights and fundamental freedom for all; affirms that green economy policies in the context of sustainable development and poverty eradication should also enhance the welfare of persons with disabilities (paragraph 58(k)); commits to promote sustainable development policies that support a safe and healthy living environment for all, particularly, disabled persons (paragraph 135) and stresses the need for ensuring equal access to education for persons with disabilities (paragraph 229).