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July/August 2011
Vol. 36, No. 4


Rio+20: Creating structures for sustainability

Following World War II, in the early years of the United Nations, world peace was uppermost on the minds of most people. Given the horrors perpetrated against millions of people prior to and during the war, it was clear that peace would never happen without profound respect for the human rights of all people. It is no surprise, therefore, that by 1948 the UN enshrined as its foundational document the Universal Declaration of Human Rights; it subsequently became the global advocate for social and economic development as the path that would secure the human rights of all people and ultimately support lasting peace.

By the mid 1960s, however, it was becoming clear that economic development was depleting natural resources at an alarming rate. This was accompanied by increasing environmental degradation and noticeable air and water contamination. At that time, it was not easy to promote serious concern about resource diminishment because people could not believe that natural resources were limited. Nevertheless, eventually the strong voices calling attention to the situation were heard and the UN convoked the first international conference on the human environment in 1972.

A major outcome of this conference was the creation of the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP). Until this time, there was no formal UN work linked with the environment. UNEP was intended to be a global anchor that would integrate and coordinate all the work the UN would do throughout its systems for the protection of the environment worldwide.

However, in spite of the hope generated by this step, by the 1980s it was obvious that environmental degradation had continued unabated. Clearly, economic development with its ever increasing destructive impact on the environment and the rapid loss of natural resources along with species extinction was unsustainable. It was becoming more and more evident that the resources needed for development could be used up, thereby leaving future generations of people without necessary resources.

For this reason, a three year UN commission was established and given the mandate to project a sustainable way forward. This commission produced the report Our Common Future, which stated that development rests equally on three pillars: social justice, economics and the environment. It declares that present generations must meet their needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. Based on this report, the UN convened the first Earth Summit in 1992 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil for the purpose of bringing together civil society and government representatives to work towards making these insights operational.

The first Rio Summit produced three vital documents: The Rio Declaration, Agenda 21 and a Statement of Forestry Principles. Knowing that the ultimate success of the Summit would rest in the implementation of the principles set forth in these documents, the UN created the Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD). This commission has met every year since 1992 for the purpose of ensuring the effective follow-up of the Summit.

Unfortunately, in 2011, in spite of the continuous work of the Commission, the environmental situation of the planet has worsened and social justice remains weak. Again, it is time to rethink how sustainability can be guaranteed. With this end in view, the UN has convoked a new Earth Summit for the year 2012, to be held once again in Rio de Janeiro (dubbed Rio+20). (See related article here.)

Aside from dealing with the difficult issues of economics and sustainability, the Rio+20 Conference will need to rework the structure of the CSD. Originally it was hoped that the commission framework would provide the amplitude and flexibility to move easily, putting in place the policies necessary to implement the principles agreed upon in the Summit. Recently, however, the Commission has not functioned well and it now appears that a more serious and demanding framework is required. The framework proposal most likely to be accepted is to upgrade the commission to Council level under the UN General Assembly. (In its current format as a commission, it functions as a standing committee under the Economic and Social Council, which in turn reports to the General Assembly.)

UNEP is also under review. Its monumental work is immensely appreciated; nevertheless, it has little authority. Perhaps during Rio+20 it will be upgraded to become the World Environmental Organization, functioning like the World Health Organization.

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