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What happened to governance at the Summit?

By Jan-Gustav Strandenaes, Stakeholder Forum

IFSD – the Institutional Framework for Sustainable Development – and good governance came out of Rio+20 strengthened. As one of the main agenda-points it enjoys an entire section in the Outcome Document, ‘The Future We Want’. References to governance are interspersed throughout the document and already in paragraph 10, in the first section aptly called ‘Our Common Vision’ it states that: ‘We acknowledge that democracy, good governance and the rule of law, at the national and international levels … are essential for sustainable development … that to achieve our sustainable development goals we need institutions at all levels that are effective, transparent, accountable and democratic”.


What will replace the CSD?


Several options were discussed to upgrade the present Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD). As often is the case in multilateral negotiations, a compromise position wins the day. Hard negotiations resulted in an agreement to create a ‘high-level political forum’. Its key features are outlined in paragraphs 84, 85 and 86.

These paragraphs reveal a number of decisions to strengthen governance in sustainable development in the future, and a number of functions are listed in paragraph 85 which the new mechanism should perform: provide political leadership, make sure the integration of the three dimensions of sustainable development is carried out throughout the UN system, execute dialogues, develop action oriented agendas, follow up and implement decisions stated in Agenda 21 and the JPOI, and emphasise and use science and evidence based decisions to develop mechanisms that will allow for ‘appropriate consideration of new and emerging sustainable development challenges’. The last function is important as this was one of the agenda items identified by General Assembly resolution (24th December 2009) calling for the summit.


What do paragraphs 84-85-86 promise?


They promise to establish a mechanism that should elevate the importance of sustainable development. The mechanism is loosely named a ‘forum’, but is written with lower-case letters, indicating that it is neither placed in the political hierarchy of the UN nor given a political designation with a mandate – yet. Paragraph 86 directs the UN to establish a process to develop the forum, the question is – how far will this process go? Should the process outcome result in establishing a Forum, such as the Forum on Forests, another functional committee of ECOSOC. A Forum within the UN system is treated like a functional committee of ECOSOC. This is the exact same position that CSD enjoyed in the intergovernmental hierarchy and would accordingly not be a move to strengthen IFSD.


Qualifications for governance


Paragraph 84 qualifies the position of the new mechanism: it will be a ‘high level position’ with ‘universal membership’. This is more than a subsidiary level mechanism and indicates reporting to the General Assembly and ECOSOC. The UN seems to function better and is more at ease with itself when reference can be made to and lessons learned from something which already exists and functions. The Peace Building Commission – a mechanism established as an intergovernmental advisory body by GA resolution (30th December 2005) following decisions made at the 2005 World Summit – could function as such a reference.


Major Groups and civil society governance


The importance of civil society is integrated and emphasised throughout the Rio+20 Outcome Document and must therefore be given a prominent position in the new mechanism. Paragraph 84 prescribes: ‘building on the strengths, experiences, resources and inclusive participation modalities of the Commission on Sustainable Development’; the reference here is to the entire life of the CSD, from 1992 through to CSD 19 in 2011. This is further elaborated in function ‘h’ of Paragraph 85 where transparency, implementation and further enhancing the consultative role and participation of Major Groups are important elements. The meaning of these paragraphs cannot be misunderstood, they entail complete and inclusive participation modalities for civil society with the best practices from two decades of CSD activities as minimum standards.


UNEP – in better shape than ever


High levels of ambition characterised the initial attempts during the Rio process to upgrade UNEP as the primary global institution on environment with a powerful mandate. Efforts were made at an early stage to upgrade UNEP to a specialised agency, but this proposal was met with too much opposition on formal and political grounds to succeed. Still UNEP came out of the Rio process strengthened. UNEP’s position now reflects the growing understanding of environment among the nations of the world. The Outcome Document links environmental protection and healthy ecosystems to the well-being of both people and planet, as well as to poverty eradication and such language is not often seen in documents at GA level receiving wholehearted support from G-77 and China. This is in many ways a first.


UNEP – in command of the environmental dimension


Paragraph 87 gives UNEP the mandate to work on International Environmental Governance (IEG), indicating there is indeed a difference between International Sustainable Development Governance (ISDG) and IEG, with ISDG given to the high level forum. This establishes beyond doubt that the environment is the responsibility of UNEP, and that UNEP should be responsible for the environmental dimension throughout the UN when working on integrating the three dimensions of sustainable development.

The new and strengthened UNEP will have universal membership, possibly better funding, strengthened capacity to pursue and develop its science base, provide capacity building to all nations and help develop environmentally sound technologies. The Summit also decided to establish a 10-Year Framework Programme on Sustainable Consumption and Production, and UNEP will again focus on these issues. UNEP has also been asked to explore new mechanisms to promote transparency and engagement with civil society and increase its effort to disseminate information. Lastly, the Summit mandated UNEP to strengthen its regional presence and be the unquestionable environment coordinator of the entire UN system.


Governance – not all a success


Governance issues have undoubtedly contributed to making ‘The Future We Want’ an important document. In some instances however, it did not live up to the expectations and ambitions it should embrace at this stage in history.

Civil society invested substantial energy and creativity in bringing the ideas of an Ombudsperson for the Future Generations into the document. Their efforts were timely and sagacious. The result of their exertions was the many references to this issue throughout the negotiation process, but the official outcome was merely to ask the Secretary-General to start a process leading to a report on the issue. More had been expected, perhaps more will come?


Governance – recognising a paradox


The complexity of governance has also established – inadvertently perhaps, – a small paradox which is actually an ideological question of massive dimensions – are humans at the centre of nature or is it the other way around? Paragraph 6 has a focus on humans and places them in the centre of all development, whereas paragraph 39 recognises the rights of planet Earth. If anything, this gives the world of governance a new and politically untested challenge, and a challenge that will need to be formulated into language that eventually will fit the multilateral system.


Governance gaps to be filled


The biggest gaps are still found in the areas of economic development and trade. Paragraph 252 reiterates all the same that: ‘We acknowledge that good governance and the rule of law at the national and international levels are essential for sustained, inclusive and equitable economic growth, sustainable development and the eradication of poverty and hunger’.

Almost reminiscent of the discussions in Johannesburg on the issue which nearly resulted in making the environment subservient to trade, the paragraphs in the Rio Outcome Document deal with trade issues in a rather bland and docile manner. It is as if trade is such a revered and powerful force in the world that nature and humans need to respect its dominance, no matter what. Another weak point is the lack of governance issues and subsequent language in relation to the green economy discourse and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). However, these two elements now represent two of the most important of the 15 processes that the Rio outcome has set in motion.

Good governance, as the underlying principle and overarching goal of the Rio+20 Process is embedded in the Outcome Document and will continue to play an increasingly important role in the future we want to have and develop. But we can always make it stronger.