Political declaration in crisis

In Rio 1992 world leaders endorsed a renewed North-South partnership for sustainable development. Five years later, in the wake of failed promises, no political agreement could be reached at a Summit review. Will the Johannesburg Summit 2002 see any political will?

Goh Chien Yen & Saradha R Iyer

TEN years ago, the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development was hailed as a remarkable political achievement. Almost the entire world’s top leaders gathered to endorse a document that was both a renewed North-South partnership rooted in the core principle of ‘common but differentiated responsibilities’, as well as a conceptual breakthrough in integrating environment and development. 

That political declaration was the result of almost two years of intensive negotiations and, often, an amazing level of intellectual discourse, a sharing by the South of the realities of poverty and economic deprivations, and by the North of the lessons of environmental mistakes made by industrialisation. Even when the United States delegate pounded the table and asserted that ‘the American way of life is not up for negotiation’, the moral force of the day and the rising tide of public attention and expectations for Rio could not be stopped. Yes, there were compromises in the package of agreements including the two conventions on biodiversity and climate change which were fought out in parallel processes. But in the wake of the close of the Cold War, there was a euphoria of new possibilities and hopes for freed-up resources to finance sustainable development.

Today as another Summit awaits us to look at the world 10 years later, the diagnosis is that the past decade has failed to fulfil the promises and hopes of Rio. Behind the glare of Rio lurked the shadows of the Uruguay Round trade negotiations that transformed the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) into a World Trade Organisation (WTO) with a wider scope and powerful enforcement machinery that put the corporate agenda at the centre. Many NGOs in Rio were already warning that one fundamental weakness of the UN Summit was the removal of global regulation of corporations and the embracing of the sector as a partner in sustainable development.

Not surprisingly, the Rio + 5 Summit concluded in June 1997 without a political statement because the North-South divide had dramatically deepened while the world’s environment continued to deteriorate and corporate power grew. The promise of Rio for a new global partnership was broken, and sustainable development remained rhetorical as the political will of  the major Northern countries weakened. Southern governments also weakened in their resolve, and for the poorer countries, the will to act was not matched by the promised support from the North.

Devoid of political will

The road to Johannesburg is now even more devoid of political will. The Doha WTO Ministerial Conference has succeeded in further expanding the scope of the WTO. Multilateral environmental agreements risk staying on  the  shelves  as the momentum to ratify slows down. The US is on a more aggressive path of selective multilateralism, and has no desire even for a political declaration. In short, let everything be national and promote partnerships that centre on the private sector (especially big corporations) as the provider of funds and technology - at market rates.

Against this bleak backdrop there was precious little discussion or sense of urgency at PrepCom 3 as to the kind of political declaration needed to move sustainable development forward and address the crisis in implementation. Delegations had come prepared for a discussion on the elements for such a declaration, but it did not happen. Rather energies were expended on promoting and formulating controversial partnerships, in spite of the repeated emphasis of almost all government delegates on the absolute importance of politically negotiated documents over voluntary outcomes.  Many NGOs also raised serious questions, and in fact warned governments and the Secretariat about the pitfalls of the partnership approach.

Elements for political declaration

At a side event organised by Third World Network to discuss elements for Johannesburg’s political declaration, participants obtained a flavour of what government speakers on the panel had in mind.

Makarim Wibisono, head of the Indonesian delegation, talked about his country’s efforts to move the process forward. As host of the final and ministerial-level PrepCom, Indonesia wants to see the highest level of political commitment to the declaration. The parameters he laid out for the declaration included the idea that such a document should be concise, focused, inspiring, visionary, forward-looking and send a message of hope and peace.  He stressed also that it should reflect the collective responsibility of all stakeholders and show recommitment to Rio, Monterrey and the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).

The European Community delegation head, Jos Delbeke, outlined the Brussels process and explained that all EU Ministers in the areas of Environment, Trade, Development, Economics and Foreign Affairs will be preparing inputs for the 15 heads of state who will be meeting soon to discuss the WSSD process.  He recognised that ensuring that sustainable development is put into practice in the EU is key to its credibility in preparations for the WSSD. He stressed the need for the declaration to reflect a vision of a world in which sustainable development is the basis of democracy and improved governance in the North and the South. The EU’s primary goals for the declaration include a focus on: poverty eradication; changing unsustainable production and consumption patterns; water; energy; governance at all levels; and the integration of environmental, social and economic decision-making.

Nombasa Tsengwa, of the South African delegation, stated that South Africa views the declaration as a political deal that should include concrete deliverables and partnerships.  Of this she said that the declaration can be seen as comprising two parts. First the preamble, which should be inspirational and visionary with a resounding message of hope.

Secondly, the main part of the text should be a crisp, concise statement of the challenges faced in the past decade through specification of priorities to be addressed in the next decade.  The themes around which action will take place will be based on Agenda 21.  She alluded to the South African ‘non-paper’ circulated during the preparatory committee meeting, which addresses action around six key areas: water, energy, agriculture and food security, health, technology, and education, with particular emphasis on the economic dimension of sustainable development. In this regard she said her delegation would release a more concrete document before PrepCom 4 in Bali.

She emphasised that heads of state must express their willingness to change the economic power relations of the world, taking action on the debt issue and investment flows, and give life to decisions taken under other fora such as the WTO and the Financing for Development process. She also stressed the need for mechanisms to ensure follow-up from Johannesburg and accountability and coordination of governance issues.

The EC and Indonesian delegates presented the usual government expectations in the political declaration such as building on previous international conferences, and affirming those principles, values and targets such as the MDGs and Rio Declaration. Although they both insist on the highest political commitments from their governments at Johannesburg and the importance of a visionary and inspiring political declaration, it is hard to see how that would be the case if the fundamental problems of the WSSD are not admitted to, which include the crisis in implementation, the lack of political will, and the need to restructure the international economic system and rein in corporations.

In this respect, the presentation by the South African delegate was a pleasant surprise. She was emphatic on the point that there must be a commitment made within the declaration to reorder the power dynamics and politics of international economic relations between the North and South, in order for sustainable development to be realised after Johannesburg. Her presentation was therefore much welcomed by the NGOs present at the meeting.

Jan-Gustav Strandenaes of ANPED (Northern Alliance for Sustainability) underscored that full implementation of Agenda 21 will not be possible without public participation and full recognition of the crucial role of civil society, including NGOs. He noted the absence of strong language on trade in terms of sustainable development thus far, and stressed that WTO agreements must be subject to UN agreements and multilateral environmental agreements. He highlighted several NGO priorities for the declaration to address, including: full corporate accountability; a rights-based approach to the environment; the right to clean water; shifts in consumption and production patterns; poverty eradication; and ratification of multilateral environmental agreements, particularly the Kyoto Protocol.

Given the failure of PrepCom 3 to achieve any of its stated objectives the workload for Bali is even more daunting. The glaring neglect so far of the political declaration could lead to a rushed document encapsulating the lowest common denominator and falling short of the Rio Declaration, or lead to no political declaration. Either way, it may deal a decisive death-blow to the WSSD.           

Goh Chien Yen and Saradha R Iyer are researchers at Third World Network.