Back to my research institute after two long weeks in Rio, a colleague jokingly asked me about what Rio+20 meant for our powerpoint presentations. In most of the courses and textbooks that I have seen dedicated to International Environmental Law (IEL), Rio 1992 occupies an important place, both within the section is dedicated to the evolution of IEL, but also in relation to the principles of international law (think of the polluter pays-principle, the precautionary principle or the principle of intergenerational equity). The conferences of Stockholm 1972 and Johannesburg 2002 are usually also mentioned, despite the later summit offering few new elements to elaborate on in class. Hence a legitimate question: how will I describe to my students the role of Rio+20 in the development of International Environmental Law?
Many other commentators have described how Rio+20 has successfully leveraged new unilateral commitments from various stakeholders and launched a process towards the adoption of Sustainable Development Goals. Some also highlighted the fact that the conference offered an unprecedented opportunity to discuss our model of economic growth, with new visions for just and sustainable economies now emerging. While I am happy to recognize some of these virtues to the Rio+20 process, this wont help me much adapting the content of my lectures as those do not relate much to international law. What my students will be eager to hear is how Rio+20 fits into the big picture described by their textbooks on International Law. “Institutional Framework for Sustainable Development” wasn’t it one of the two main themes of the conference?
I thought I could have told them about how the conference had concluded upon an agreement to reform the way the UN machinery deals with environmental challenges so it can address those in a more effective and authoritative manner. I was hoping that I describe how governments had finally agreed to give more teeth to these great principles adopted already in Rio twenty years ago, and about which we currently have to teach nuancing their value with their lack of legal implementation and enforcement.
I guess it is however another and more abstract story that I will be sharing with them. A story less about actions than matters, but about the roles of different actors in the international community.
This story will probably begin like the high level of the UN Conference on Sustainable Development started. As the heads of states and governments had just filled the plenary room on this Wednesday 20th June, a message from the scientific community welcomed them to Rio with the following words: “Welcome to the Anthropocene”.
The message that the scientific community had delivered along the preparatory process leading to Rio+20 had been very straightforward: our model of development is incompatible our reliance on the resources of one single living planet. Along the path to Rio, nine physical thresholds – “the planetary boundaries” – were identified as limits to a safe biophysical space for humanity. Scientists had warned that the crossing of these thresholds would threaten the stability of the planet and might lead to unacceptable environmental consequences for us.
These assessments reflect the urgency for the international community to consider more the physical reality on which our societies are built. Reading through the outcome document adopted in Rio, one can doubt whether this message has been fully heard by the negotiators. Governments seem to have rather hided their heads in the sand in Brazil. The outcome document refers ironically to boundaries only in relation to national borders rather than to the limits of this safe physical space. While the outcome document emphasizes the need for science-based decision-making, it provides little hints at how to achieve a better interface between policy and science. Proposals to establish an intergovernmental panel on sustainable development sciences or to refer more directly to the planetary boundaries have been discarded during the negotiations, the document only calling for a global sustainable development report. Rio+20 will thus not mark the beginning of a new era in which the role of science as guiding policy is fully acknowledged.
The outcomes of Rio+20 also emphasized in an unprecedented manner the limits of the role of national governments in delivering and implementing actions contributing to sustainability. In the Outcome Document, governments highlighted that sustainable development “can only be achieved with a broad alliance of people, governments, civil society and the private sector, all working together to secure the future we want for present and future generations”. In the other outcome of the conference, governmental commitments represents only seven percent of the engagements collected in the “compendium of commitments”, the remaining emanating from the private sector and civil society.
But while governments do not act as the engines of the transition towards sustainability and have began to recognize this more explicitly, they prove extremely resistant to make some space at the decision-making table for other stakeholders. To a large extent, international law remains shaped by the vision of the world prevailing during the 1648 “Peace of Westphalia”, when a handful of princes and kings could decide over the future of the continent and its populations. More than three centuries later, international diplomacy still relies on this vision of a world govern by nation-states having the monopoly of decision-making. While other actors have emerged (think of the number of corporations more wealthy than entire countries), states resist so that they remain the sole actors in command, at least politically and fail to acknowledge the power/need for accountability of other actors.
Despite its claim of building on the “full participation of civil society”, Rio+20 was no exception as civil society was mainly confined to the role of observers. Examples of more participatory international processes exist, for instance at the Arctic Council in relation to the involvement of indigenous peoples, or at the ILO where trade unions and private sectors can engage fully in the process. While NGOs had the opportunity to submit their positions electronically and could enter the negotiating rooms prior to the Rio+20 conference, the past six months of negotiations remained heavily based on a traditional state-centric format that has been replicated since decades at the United Nations.
Many of the commentators critical of Rio+20 outcomes described the conference as merely kicking the can down the road as it opened new processes rather than to address the issues at hand and reach decisions in Rio. While this assessment supports the claims of the lack of timely leadership by political leaders, this approach could however still be turned into an opportunity. Were political leaders lucid enough, they could grasp these numerous opportunities to develop and promote new forms of governance that would ensure both more participatory and better informed decision-making.
So perhaps the story that I will share in the classroom will tell of the difficulty that states are facing to develop a new governance model to navigate the anthropocene. In the absence of much progress in Rio itself, I could conclude the story with the following quote from Mary Robinson, and reserve my final judgment over the contribution of Rio+20 to the development of international environmental law so that I can see whether the seeds planted timidly in Rio could contribute to a new paradigm.
[RioPlus20] sets some processes in train and we will have to work with them, but we should also expect and encourage new constituencies to emerge, demanding new thinking and change from the grassroots to the top.
Image: Nature, Leila Mead/IISD
About the authorSébastien Duyck
Passionate environmental advocate, PhD student (Human Rights and Environmental Governance). Following particularly UNFCCC, UNEP and Rio+20 processes