TWN Briefings for WSSD No.4

Key Issues in the WSSD Governance Debate

By Saradha I. R.

The WSSD is supposed to be the ‘Implementation Summit’ for sustainable development.  It is intended to take Rio further in improving human lives and the natural environment that supports it.  It is expected to move sustainable development from concept to action.

The attainment of these goals demands the existence of strong institutional structures and capacities supported by reliable and substantial financial resources to ensure that implementation, monitoring and enforcement of sustainable development at national, regional and international levels are realised. This is particularly important given the fact governance structures within nations have steadily been eroded by the demands of globalization in the decade since the Rio Summit.

Yet, Chapter X entitled ‘Institutional Framework for Sustainable Development’ in paragraphs 120 to 153 of the Draft Plan of Implementation for the WSSD, does little to strengthen any institutional structure to allow for effective implementation of sustainable development in the post-Johannesburg years.  It neither spells out any time-bound targets or time-tables to guide institutions nor does it make any provision for financial resources to assist institutions to implement Agenda 21 and outcomes of WSSD.

The atmosphere in Working Group III, which deliberated this Chapter, was often tense, the debates were heated and acrimonious and negotiations tortuous.  Given these circumstances, it is a major achievement that full agreement was eventually reached in 70 of the 103 paragraphs. Contentious issues relating to Good Governance and Means of Implementation were relegated to Contact Groups. Other issues such as the now famous ‘Coherence’ issue and corporate accountability were also handled in informal-informals.  Despite these efforts, 32% of the paragraphs remain bolded and square-bracketed.   The only positive aspect of this is that it offers lobby and pressure groups a window of opportunity to influence the process in the run-up to and in Johannesburg itself. 

Common but Differentiated Responsibility

One of the major concerns for developing countries in general and for multilateralism in particular is that a hard won gain in Rio viz the principle of ‘common but differentiated responsibility’ remains bolded and bracketed not just in Chapter X in paragraphs 120 and 138c but throughout the text.  The US argument is that it applies only to environmental concerns and should not be extrapolated to sustainable development issues.  The G77 position is that the notions of historical culpability, inter and intra-generational equity as well as global economic inequity that the principle encapsulates is as valid today as it was when first agreed to and that it goes to the very core of the North-South compact forged in Rio of which the WSSD is the legitimate follow-up process. Undermining Rio and rescinding its values cannot be the basis of meaningful negotiations. 

Action:  It is absolutely vital to fight tooth and nail to secure not just the spirit but the vitality of Rio values as the very basis of consensus for the Johannesburg Plan of Action.


During and after Bali there is evidence of the intensification of efforts to put energy behind implementation, and rightfully so. But to focus all energies purely in trying to inject content into the notion of partnerships is worrying. It bears reiteration that Type II outcomes must flow from and serve the agreed implementation plan. In Bali, the US delegation was adamant that the CSD requires a mandate to deal with partnerships which it maintained are going to be the most tangible outcome of WSSD. Envisaging that CSD inter-sessionals would serve as a sophisticated clearing house for promoting, expanding and implementing partnerships, it suggested four lengthy paragraphs to groom the CSD for this task. The G77 on the other hand, was not willing to prejudge WSSD outcomes on partnerships and maintained throughout that the existing CSD’s multi-stakeholder dialogues are already engaging in this task. In the end, only 130(b) survived. It states that the ‘CSD should serve as a focal point for discussion of partnerships that promote sustainable development, including lessons learned, progress made and best practices.’

Action:             (a) Vigorously point out the potential pitfalls of going head long into dubious partnerships because they have the capacity to undermine the very basis of multilateralism and the Westphalian notion of sovereignty.

(b) Ensure equality of playing field for all stake-holders and also that monitors or watch dogs have resources and the capacity to do the job of counter-balancing other partners.

Corporate Accountability

The debate on this issue began from the consideration of a single line text provided by the Vice-Chairs i.e. ‘Develop an international framework for transnational corporate accountability.’  It bloated to six different paragraph alternatives provided by the EU, Switzerland, Norway, US, G77 and Hungary.  It was one of the most hotly debated items and had to be sent to a contact group. The developed countries felt this was a practical matter for national governments, that it was being dealt with elsewhere in the text and that if it must be mentioned here it should merely call for the promotion of corporate responsibility which at best urges the private sector to adopt best practices and leave the matter to purely voluntary initiatives and such as the GRI and the OECD Guidelines.

The G77 insisted that TNCs are one of the major players in sustainable development and that its members do not want to frighten away investors who can bring in resources and much needed technology.  However, it reiterated that it was important to get the issue on the table for WSSD.  Paragraph 122(j) of the Implementation Plan now has compromise language: ‘Promote corporate responsibility and accountability and the exchange of best practices in the context of sustainable development, including, as appropriate, through multi-stakeholder dialogues, such as the CSD and other initiatives’

This is very weak, especially when corporate scandals unfold and big business is exposed for unmaking good rules and writing new rules to legitimize their activities that are unsustainable. The undue influence of big corporations and their associations on government policy and law-making at the national and international levels is unacceptable and the WSSD has an opportunity to correct the omission in Rio that left big business unregulated, especially at the global level.

Action:             (a)  Utilising the Enron and Worldcom corruption, collusion and cronyism scandals the G77 case must be bolstered and big business made publicly accountable.

(b) The proposed Political Declaration in Paragraph 7 now carries language on ‘encouraging corporate accountability.’  In deliberations on this at the Summit, it is important to ensure that this language is strengthened  by substituting encourage with ‘ensure’ or ‘promote’  or that the existing language, at the very least, survives the deliberations at the Summit.

Participation of Major Groups

Recognizing the fact that implementation would in reality take place through the efforts of major groups at grass-root level, the participation of civil society secured a place in the Objectives section, 121(f) as well as in the final four paragraphs(150-153) 

In debates on this matter, the US maintained that while public access to information is relevant to its participatory role, it did not see the need for any multilateral guidelines such as the Aarhus Convention which was heavily promoted by the EU. And, the US sought to link the issue to good governance/ human rights. The G77 while not for binding global guidelines like the US was of the view that Principle 10 of the Rio Declaration and existing measures for involving major group participation were adequate.

Action:   The time and circumstances may not be right for forcing the hand of all national governments to adopt multilateral rules on access to information, public participation and access to justice in environmental matters.  The NGO community needs to be sensitive to the differences in political circumstances and cultural approach to the issue in other parts of the world and be aware of the implications of pitting NGOs against Governments or painting themselves into a corner by forcing their alignment with government, industry or both at the expense of the principles of sustainable development. Nevertheless, the commitment by all governments to implement Principle 10 of the Rio Declaration and regional agreements  at the national level must be honoured.

Good Governance

As expected, this issue was high on the agenda of all developed countries. The US in particular wanted good governance Ð the promotion of the rule of law and respect for human rights Ð reflected in all parts of the text including as part of the Objectives in Paragraph 121, 146 in addition to already having had it agreed in paragraph 4.  The US was supported by Canada, Australia, Japan, Switzerland and the EU.

The G77 argument to the contrary was that it is important to achieve a balance in governance structures, that good governance at the international level with openness and transparency of the IFIs and WTO was as significant as that of national good governance, that developing countries should be supported in their efforts towards this and that it should not be turned into a conditionality for trade and /or aid. Hence Para.146 stays bold and bracketed and will be discussed in Johannesburg. Paragraphs 123 and 124 also relate to this issue and are bracketed by developed countries.

Effective regulation at all levels to ensure good corporate governance and accountability has not received priority at the WSSD negotiations so far and good governance must necessarily include the corporate sector.

Action:             A holistic approach to the issue should be promoted at the WSSD.

‘Coherence’: UN, WTO, MEAs, IFIs; Synergies and Inter-linkages

This was one word that haunted the negotiations in Working Group III from start to finish. Ultimately the contact group established to look at its appearance in all parts of the Chapter reported some progress on the final day.  The unstated dispute surrounded the implications the word carried especially in relation to the need to rationalize WTO and MEAs and the need to also make the WTO and IFIs serve the sustainable development agenda.  The G77 was clear that this issue required a reconsideration of relationship between trade and financial organizations and their impact on WSSD issues. The US on the other hand, insisted that the WSSD process could not demand cooperation from organizations not under UN auspices, and that it could only ‘invite’ or ‘encourage’ them to ensure their efforts remain in line with these deliberations and outcomes.  And so the word coherence developed a life of its own and led to the bracketing of all Paragraphs on trade and finance being bolded and bracketed: Paras. 122(b), 122c, 123.

Action:             This will be the most hotly debated item and Northern and development NGOs must be partake in this debate in efforts to bring greater visibility to the issue.

Means of Implementation

In Bali the US and EU constantly scavenged the text seeking to excise all language on provision of financial resources and holding also that there was no need to go beyond Monterrey which they also maintained was not a pledging conference. Norway was the delegation that suggested the monitoring of pledges by the ECOSOC would give credence to earlier commitments: Para. 126(g)

Action:             Given declining ODA levels and the breaching of Rio promises this issue must remain on the front burner.  The Paragraphs 122(e) and 139(a) and (b) on the GEF remain in brackets and its replenishment is at stake come October.  Giving due attention to this matter is of utmost importance to developing countries which have benefited from its programs.

Time frames and targets

In Chapter X, the one and only time-frame suggested was the need for setting up national sustainable development councils by 2005: Paragraph  145(b). The EU went to great lengths to insist on this date but it faced stiff opposition from the G77.  The EU based its argument on the fact that Rio gave 1997 as a date for establishing national sustainable development councils and the like, Rio plus 5 extended that date to 2002 and that the present suggestion, 2005 was reasonable.   However, the G77 pointing to the fact that pledges of international assistance for capacity building in order to set up such structures were never forthcoming, insisted developing countries still faced technical as well as financial problems and it would be unrealistic to commit to a date. Japan, US and Australia all said national strategies do not deserve international support. The debate broadened to issues of debt cancellation and other failed HIPC initiatives leading to questions about commodity pricing and market access.  All of this merely illustrated the complexity surrounding the notion of national sovereignty and therefore prompting the G77 to produce its own paragraphs to be discussed in Johannesburg, namely  Para.146 bis-sept.  Elsewhere in the text the EU and especially the US are not happy to commit to time frames.

Action:             The issue will feature prominently at the WSSD and there must be commitment on time frames and targets that include and are interlinked with means of implementation.

International Environmental Governance

Paragraph 122(h):  Following protracted discussion the Cartagena package is to be sent to the General Assembly through the WSSD. The UNEP’s Governing Council/Global Ministerial Environment Forum ( GC/GMEF) meeting in February 2002 endorsed the strengthening of UNEP’s role and its finances, improving coordination among MEAs, boosting capacity building, technology transfer and country level coordination and enhancing coordination within the UN system.  Other decisions concerned a strategic approach to international chemicals management, compliance and enforcement of MEAs, enhancement of civil society engagement in the work of UNEP and implementation of the Global Program of Action for the Protection of the Marine Environment from Land Based Activities.  The Council also adopted draft guidelines on compliance with MEAs and on capacity strengthening and effective national enforcement.

On the question of universalizing the UNEP GC/GMEF, it became evident that the G77, Canada, EU and Japan appeared open to the idea whereas the US and the Russian Federation were opposed saying that would take UNEP beyond its existing mandate.

In paragraph 139, the G77 is seeking endorsement for the principle of non-discrimination among MEAs and underlines the significance of recognizing the Desertification Convention  and the importance of the resources required to ensure its implementation. The US, Canada, Australia and EU are all against this. And it is bracketed.

Action:   The IEG issue will not be reopened in Johannesburg  but UNEP will require additional resources if it is to fulfil its responsibilities and this is an issue where agency turf wars may erupt.  The problems of desertification however may linger on unless the African initiative addresses this. NGOs should perhaps consider this matter along with the GEF replenishment issue.

UN Institutions and the Future of Multilateralism

Role of the General Assembly:  Paragraph 125 states that the GA should adopt sustainable development as a key element of the overarching framework for UN activities. It is the body that will give overall political direction to the rest of the system.

The ECOSOC:  Paragraph 126 seeks to give ECOSOC the role of coordinating system-wide the efforts of the UN and its specialized agencies and subsidiary bodies using its high level, coordinating and operational segments.

The CSD: Paragraph 127-132.  The strengthening of the CSD has only occurred in relation to adding to its role the monitoring of partnerships (Para.130b) but otherwise its negotiating role has been reduced to every two years (Para.129d).  The text as it stands is a major setback, reducing and marginalizing the policy role of the CSD. Over the past 10 years (especially in the early years) the CSD provided a needed political forum for discussing and debating critical issues and enhanced multilateral environmental negotiations. Developed countries were largely opposed to setting up any new structure in Rio and it was the G77/China and some NGOs working together that created the political momentum for the creation of the CSD. Lack of sufficient resources and political support over recent years has led to frustration over the efficacy of the CSD and secretariat.

Action:             The CSD must not be reduced to predominantly a clearinghouse and register of Type II partnerships, and instead be revitalized to play the role of assessing progress and obstacles in the 3 pillars of sustainable development.  As Evan Luard has maintained, ‘If the UN failed to remain a forum for effective negotiation on world problems or to find the means to solve them by consensus and if it therefore failed to reach any decisions at all on many questions, it is the Western majority who must take the main share of the blame for it.’ It is therefore the role of NGOs and activists especially from the North to salvage a missed opportunity to strengthen the UN.


While Bali did not produce the desired outcome of a ‘Bali Commitment’ or ‘Bali Consensus’ it cannot be regarded as a failure because it has left the door open for further meaningful engagement to bridge the differences or at least raise further awareness on areas of contention. 

Clearly the UN Charter forms the basis of international law. But much has changed and corporate-led globalization has altered the landscape considerably. To continue to insulate the institutions dealing with trade and finance and put them out of the reach of the UN is untenable and will only serve to further exacerbate existing inequities and unaccountability.  Only if the WSSD makes concerted effort to address this disconnect will the sun shine on all the other issues the Summit hopes to speak to. 

In the final analysis,  even if political will is mustered by the time Johannesburg comes along, the ground level implementation of sustainable development initiatives will require strong institutions and mechanisms at national, regional and international levels with strength, capacity and resources to take the concept to action, to ensure its mainstreaming into thinking processes and its elevation to the status as the only viable paradigm for a sustainable future for humanity’s continued survival on this planet.