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July/August 2011
Vol. 36, No. 4

CSD 19: Sober learning for Rio+20

In May, the United Nations Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD) met for the 19th time since its institution in 1992 following the first Earth Summit, held in Rio de Janeiro. The purpose of CSD is to work for the implementation of the principles set forth in the 1992 Summit.

The 2011 sessions were to have been significant given that they were the final opportunity for the Commission to meet prior to the next Earth Summit in 2012, also to be held in Rio de Janeiro. However, the 2011 Commission Conference is considered a failure because, on the last day of the two week session, the member states were unable to agree on three major points of the outcome document.

The first major point of disagreement concerns peoples' rights in occupied territories. At first glance, the language used in the document seems benign as it refers to removing obstacles to realizing the rights of people living under foreign occupation. However, just two years ago, the CSD 17 document stated emphatically that living under foreign occupation is incompatible with the rights and dignity of the human person and such situations must be combated and eliminated. The wording used in the new document was interpreted by many to be compromise language intended to satisfy Israel and its allies. This outraged many member states since, in terms of human rights; new documents must respect what has been agreed on in previous negotiations by member states.

The second point of disagreement concerns green economy, the main issue around which the 2012 Summit is being constructed. The block G77+China is highly suspicious of the intentions of the United States and other industrialized countries in terms of this concept. In an attempt to negotiate acceptable terminology, green economy was dropped and replaced with cleaner and more resource efficient economy. However, at the last moment, agreement could not be reached as the G77+China charged that this wording was ambiguous and undefined. In addition, these nations were outraged that the chair of the Commission, Laszlo Borbely of Romania, supported by the U.S., Japan and the EU, presented the text as a take it or leave it package and was unwilling to open it to new negotiations. Later, when this position may have been ameliorated, there was no longer a quorum present to vote.

The final major issue of disagreement pertains to memoranda of implementation (MOI). Initially the issue concerned the place of the MOI in the text. The G77+China wished them to be placed clearly throughout the text aligned with their thematic subjects and listed in a separate section of their own. The U.S. and several other countries preferred that they be listed only in a separate section to avoid duplication. A trade-off was agreed upon, however, in the final text items important to the G77+China were not reflected at all.

Unfortunately, when these points were being discussed the negotiators were exhausted after two weeks of working day and night. The last day stretched into mid-morning of the following day. Positions became entrenched and no conclusions were reached. Ultimately, as mentioned above, there were too few voting members left to determine a way forward. This is particularly unfortunate because a great deal of work on other points had been agreed upon during the course of the meeting.

In view of the fact that the Rio+20 Summit will frame the global sustainable development conversation for the next 20 years, the following are three points of learning from CSD 19:

  1. Progress agreed upon in former sessions must be respected and implemented
  2. It will be more manageable to work with making global progress around creating patterns of sustainable consumption and production than around the concept of green economy.
  3. It is evident that the structure of the Commission on Sustainable Development is dysfunctional. It is widely hoped that Rio+20 will make a strong recommendation for correcting this weakness. When the CSD was first conceptualized, a fundamental tenet of its organization was to include a strong partnership with civil society. From the beginning it was clear that the work of sustainable development could not be accomplished by governments alone. Unfortunately, over the past 19 years the influence of civil society, particularly NGOs, has been eroded. Whatever new structure will be put in place as a UN framework to ensure sustainability will need to guarantee the role of civil society in order keep nations on a meaningful and honest track into the future.
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