TerraViva United Nations

OP-ED: The Future We Wanted — The Future We will Get

Jul 3 2012 (IPS) - by Waruna Dhanapala & Ambassador Dr Palitha Kohona
Sri Lanka’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations

UNITED NATIONS, July 3 — After months of arduous negotiations, sometimes mired in hopeless and acrimonious debate mainly between the North and the South, the Outcome Document of the UN Conference on Sustainable Development/Rio+20 was adopted by acclamation by over 130 states represented at the highest levels on the evening of 22nd June 2012.

It was a remarkable achievement for the Brazilian hosts of Rio+20 who played a seminal role in finalising a text just prior to the High Level meeting bridging some of the glaring gaps and papering over and postponing decisions on others. The high powered delegations left Rio feeling self satisfied despite the astronomical hotel costs and the endlessly snarled up traffic.

The UN Secretary-General had pushed hard for a successful outcome from the beginning. He said that we needed to remember that the rarest commodity in the world was TIME!. He was a happy man on the 22nd evening. The Brazilian President, Dilma Rousseff, described the outcome as a “starting point”.

Over the months, the negotiations in New York had dragged along following predictable north-south lines. The Group of 77 & China defined its position on the basis of the Rio Principles adopted in 1990 and the three pillars of sustainable development.  Furthermore, they had also focused on adequate financing, knowledge & technology transfer, reforming the UN mechanisms to implement the Rio+20 outcomes and the post-2015 sustainable development goals (SDGs).

The G77 & China had insisted that the states should be in the ‘driving seat’ to define the parameters for sustainable development, as opposed to giving this task to the UN or the non-state stakeholders. The developed countries led by the US, EU, Norway and  Canada had continued to object to references to the Rio Principles, mainly the ‘common but differentiated responsibilities’ (CBDR), as well as the repeated references to their past ODA commitments, and unsustainable consumption and production patterns.

Developed countries, hobbled by the financial crisis and donor fatigue, had also sought to advocate alternative development partnerships such as vaguely understood private sector inputs, public-private partnerships and enhanced south-south cooperation.

Brazil’s success at the eleventh hour, as conference chair, was also a reflection of the increasingly evident shift in global economic power to the South since 1992. It was also a reassertion of multilateralism in a world that had begun to witness too much emphasis on the righteousness of the few in the West.

The 49-page Brazilian crafted outcome document identified as vital, “processes” that needed to be resolved in the future under the UNGA, areas such as the Means of Implementation (MOI), strengthening of UNEP and Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The Members of the UN will now continue their work in the months to come and the focus will shift to New York.

The G77 & China welcomed the final document as the “optimum outcome possible”. It kept open future negotiating opportunities on critical areas. The NGOs, predictably, complained loudly as a lost opportunity to take decisive action. The final document reflected several elements that developing countries had advocated:

  1.  Renewal of the “right to development” and the reaffirmation of the original Rio Principles, including the CBDR despite strenuous rresistance by the USA;
  2.  Recognition of a State driven mechanism for the International Fund for Sustainable Development  (IFSD), including strengthening the UN ECOSOC and UNEP;
  3.  A commitment to define SDGs with a strong link to the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) in the post-2015 sustainable development agenda;
  4.  Adequate references to countries with special developmental needs such as the Least Developed Countries (LDCs), Small Island Developing States (SIDs), Africa and Middle-Income Countries;
  5.  Recognizing sustainable consumption and production patterns as a critical area, and identifying certain mechanisms to meet those challenges;
  6.  Redefining the green economy concept in such a way that it now belongs to everyone beyond its original mono cultural model. The notion that it is the only choice (the road map) for developing countries to achieve sustainability has been considerably diluted;
  7.  Recalled the Rio+10 Johannesburg text on technology transfer on concessional and preferential terms, which includes active inputs from the UN agencies, again forcing the West to beat a retreat. But the Brazilian text dilutes the traditional formulation of “new and additional financial resources” and adopts a new formula, “obtaining funds from a variety of sources” and “new partnerships”.

The following areas remain persisting challenges for developing countries as the negotiations return to New York:

  •  Ensuring that the UN policy system effectively defines IFSD, SDGs and other mechanisms to reflect the hopes of developing countries, especially in poverty eradication and achieving sustainable development;
  •           a.          the dilution of expected recognition of  developed country responsibilities under MOI;
  •           b.          the lack of an effective mechanism for technology transfer;
  •           c.           the absence of ambitious language relating to energy, oceans, and the process for defining SDG;
  •           Concerns by the African group, regarding the language on strengthening UNEP.

i.                   Eradication of poverty and hunger

The highest priority will be accorded to poverty eradication within the United Nations development agenda. The document addresses concerns relating to the empowerment of the poor and people in vulnerable situations, including removing barriers to opportunity and enhancing productive capacity, developing sustainable agriculture, and promoting full and productive employment and decent work for all, complemented by effective social policies, such as promoting universal access to social services. The outcome document also requires that the ‘green economy’ policies should focus on eradicating poverty through enhancing social inclusion and improving human welfare.

ii.                 Oceans

The outcome document contains recommendations on ending overfishing, taking action to stop illegal fishing, phasing out harmful subsidies, eliminating destructive fishing practices, and protecting vulnerable marine ecosystems. The importance of UNCLOS is recognized. Capacity building in developing countries is underlined. The Process for Global Reporting and Assessment of the State of the Marine Environment and the ongoing work under the UN General Assembly of the Ad-Hoc Open-ended Informal Working Group to study issues relating to the conservation and sustainable use of marine biological diversity beyond areas of national jurisdiction has been given priority.

iii.               Climate Change and Biodiversity

Climate change has been recognized as a cross-cutting and persistent global crisis. The document urges all the States to take urgent and ambitious action, on the basis of equity and in accordance with their common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities. The necessity of collaborative action under the international agreements such as the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD)and the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) has been reiterated.

The central role of the UN has been emphatically asserted, bringing the focus to the multilateral system once again.

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