Born in an island in the midst of one of the most brutal civil wars in history, with my disciplinarian father serving in the military: partaking at the ritual rip-up of the Rio+20 Summit negotiation text, followed by the sit-in before the main plenary hall, and the symbolic walk out of the Rio Centro was not within the self-imposed boundaries of my comfort zone. Even though there is a kind of stigma existing in Sri Lanka, especially as of late (following the UNHRC vote on alleged human rights violations during the final stages of the armed conflict) against the UN: of its partiality and alleged double standards etc… I grew up wanting a job in the UN, because I thought that’s the closest the world got to utopia. Tracking Rio+20 negotiations this June was an eye-opener to the stark reality of the international bureaucracy that is the United Nations.
What we saw yesterday, was an explosion of the frustrations that have been gathering momentum for the past few days. Seated at the occupy-style sit-in, as I looked at the others around me, I saw the passion in their eyes (something you never see in the eyes of negotiators); I realized that they were not representing a country, or some organization. They were representing themselves. They didn’t have hidden agendas and political motivations, they weren’t getting paid for doing this, and it would definitely not look good in the CVs that they protested outside a high level UN meeting. They were there, only because they genuinely cared.
As highlighted by Wael Hmaidan during the opening statement at the plenary on behalf of NGOs; even though the negotiation text says the text was drafted ‘in full participation of the civil society’ the actions of the members of the civil society in the past few days have clearly suggested otherwise. ‘We as civil society reject this text’, they said, as it ‘barely moves us inches’.
What followed was phenomenal: What began as a small gathering started to get the attention of passersby who joined in. Soon, the media personnel at the Rio Centro were reporting the event to networks around the world, Twitter was flooded with on-site updates and riot police presence at the Rio Centro was heightened. Those present ranged from the major group of children and youth, the major group for women, indigenous people, NGO personnel among many others: including several ‘D Badges’ (members of national delegations).
The protesters ripped off a giant mock text as the ‘future they bought’ denouncing the influence of multinational corporations and business conglomerates over governments’ action at Rio+20. 10 year old, Ta’Kaiya Blaney of the Sliammon Nation, an indigenous group from British Columbia, then sang to the gathering: “what are we going to leave for future generations. There’ll be no environment left without change. It needs to come not tomorrow, but today.” While the ripping off of the text and the gathering were sanctioned by the conference secretariat and UN security, the sit-in and the walk out were not. The participants of the youth action, outside the main plenary hall where world leaders were supposedly negotiating; convened a ‘People’s Plenary’. They all shared the disappointment by the lack of commitment and ambition in the negotiation text. Despite demands by the security, the activists were determined to continue. When the police warned them of being at the risk of losing their accreditation: they did exactly that. They took off their badges and handed them over to security officials and marched out chanting ‘the future we want is not found here’, ‘walkout not sellout’.
After all politicians are politicians, they have narrow political interests and they will do everything within their power to cling on their power. Politicians are followers. They will follow whatever and whoever that will get them more votes. Treaties and legalisms are never solutions, they never have been. Even though the Earth Summit in 1992 had impressive landmark outcomes (including the Convention on Climate Change, Convention on Biological Diversity and Agenda 21) most proposals in these treaties have still never yet been implemented.
But what has come out of Rio this June is a mobilized Civil Society that will not wait for ‘leaders to lead’: NGOs that have initiated various action oriented projects, youth groups that are taking action and mobilizing fellow youth, a business community that has pledged commitments, local government bodies that have committed to far more than their central governments, an academia that is committed to their research and media that will raise awareness: a ‘civil society that leads itself’; and that is priceless. Yesterday’s protest was not a mere expression of disappointment or an attempt to ‘create a scene’ it was a move to show that the civil society is not willing to wait for the leaders that are dragging their feet.
The future we want is not found here. It is elsewhere.
Photos: PowerShiftCanada2012/Promo image
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About the authorSenel Wanniarachchi
Senel is a Sri Lankan activist tracking climate issues in South Asia and beyond. He's a trained journalist, columnist, radio news reporter, editor, student, and a Rio+20 Fellow.