After a difficult negotiation process that highlighted the deep divisions within the United Nations, Member States reached consensus on a new 50-page document titled ”The Future We Want,” at the the Rio+20 UN Earth Summit, taking place in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil June 20-22, 2012. The document is meant to represent the aspirations for a sustainable future for our planet for present and future generations.
Negotiated in the midst of multiple and overlapping crises, this non-binding agreement was reached in the presence of 110 Heads of State and as 50,000 members of civil society came to Rio to urgently demand action. If patterns hold, this document will be a template for the next 20 years and set the framework to deal with the three pillars of sustainable development: economic growth, environmental protection and social development. This means that this document will gain strength selectively as it is referenced and used by different interests over the coming years to promote particular visions of the future.
Herein lies the cautionary note of Rio. Social movements, civil society and NGOs have broadly recognized this as a bad outcome, mostly because it has no aspirational elements and provides no concrete action to deal with systemic and advancing crises in all three spheres – economic, environmental or social. There will be no new binding treaties and no new multilateral mechanisms with clear targets and accountability to begin to heal the deep wounds we have inflicted through human impacts on our environment. There will not even be attempts to deal with the global financial mechanisms that are patently unfair and damaging to communities. There is no mention of food speculation, a financial transaction tax, or regulation and limitations for corporations that now make up the majority of the 100 biggest economies. On those rare occasions when progressive governments are in power, the reality of trying to challenge existing neo-liberal structures becomes apparent. Trade and investment rules are compounded by arbitration and enforcement regimes that favour corporations and investor rights over states’ abilities to regulate. There is no recognition of planetary boundaries, environmental tipping points, or lifestyle changes. This document seeks to rationalize the past and entrench current power regimes, not chart a course for the future.
“The Future We Want” is a dangerous document. At its core it is a neo-liberal document in the purest sense. Transnational Corporations and the States that promote their interests are visibly pleased with the outcomes of Rio+20. Of course they wanted more, they wanted a defined roadmap for the Green Economy to be able to push forward vigorously, but they are still pleased with the language adopted. That language opens up opportunities. Greased with money through current and future “innovative financial mechanisms,” and coupled with political will from strong advocates, they see a path toward their goal of commodifying and privatizing nature. Corporate interests will put great energy into defining the SDGs to meet these goals. It will be imperative for social movements to mobilize and put forward clear ways SDGs can protect the commons, human rights and equity for a just and sustainable future.
It is unbelievable that in the midst of an ongoing global financial crisis, which began because of the excesses of capitalism and the failure to regulate those excesses, that we would have a document that so thoroughly promotes the role of the private sector over the role of the public, and which leaves the most vulnerable even more at risk. “The Future We Want” essentially signals a unilateral withdrawal of the United Nations in regulating at the global level and signals a tacit systemic abrogation of the States in their responsibility to respect, protect and fulfil human rights and to promote sustainability for future generations and the planet. This is because human rights and sustainability fulfilment are incompatible with the market, property rights and the financialization scheme embedded in the Green Economy and already operational through the climate change negotiations. REDD+, Clean Development Mechanism projects and the Green Climate Fund are all models for the Green Economy.
Just when strong regulation, control and governance is needed most in order to protect people and the environment today and for future generations, Rio+20 has handed us a weak, voluntary agreement that promotes private over public and signals an unacceptable abrogation of responsibility by UN Member States. There must be a clear and strong response from social movements and alternate voices. Rio+20 has proven, in what is arguably the most important moment for multilateralism, that the UN continues to fail to deliver. The corporate capture of the UN, facilitated by powerful governments and elites who are in key positions, is almost complete. Some UN Member States and civil society tried to push back, but with the EU and US together, supported by Canada, Japan, South Korea, Australia, New Zealand and Israel, with broad support even from those governments whose citizens are the most vulnerable, the outcome was certain.
If we look at the outcomes of Rio, there are three areas that stand out as “new”: the Green Economy, the enhancement of the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Each come under criticism for different reasons. The Green Economy has been exposed for what it is, a bold attempt to extend and entrench the current failing economic model into nature itself. The UNEP and its head, Achim Steiner, has been the lead promoting body for the Green Economy. Giving the UNEP more power will provide greater resources for Green Economy implementation. The SDGs, judging by the first drafts that Europe has circulated (which call for pricing of water and cost recovery with no mention of human rights), are probably the most troubling, but are also one area where there still may be opportunity as they are yet unwritten.
The SDGs will need to be debated and drafted by a team of 30 experts over the next year and are being set up to be the implementing protocol for the Green Economy. Much will hinge on these SDGs; if social movements can work with progressive governments and take a strong position on the SDGs they could be turned into something positive, but this will not be easy given the entrenched interests already moving them forward. As with the Millennium Development Goals, the SDGs are, at their core, problematic. The SDGs have no accountability mechanisms and are open-ended in terms of not holding individual states accountable. They will undoubtedly be used to push governments to open up market opportunities for corporate interests if there is no strong campaign to ensure safeguards, or to ensure they are drafted in ways that will broadly serve people, communities and the environment.
One other important development is worth noting. The recognition of the Human Right to Water and Sanitation survived these negotiations despite being attacked by many powerful governments, and is the only right referenced in the body of the document. The US, UK, Canada and the EU were all trying to delete reference to the Human Right to Water and Sanitation at various times in the negotiations. After concerted efforts by civil society, weakened, but still important text remains. Pushing ahead on the implementation of this right, not just the recognition of it, could provide an important counterpoint against some of the concern raised above. This is because water broadly impacts the three pillars of the economy, the environment and social development. Now that there is unquestionable consensus, even among the most hostile States on the human right to water, social movements and campaigners must strongly demand implementation, take up campaigns in their own countries to move implementation forward, and expand the scope to include collective rights and rights of water to ensure nature is protected. Water can be a rallying point for many different movements and help show a positive way forward.
Outside of strategic interventions, what we need now more than ever, is to build our alternatives and a plan for implementation. This means much more local and regional work and cooperation. It means becoming innovative in how we organize and finance initiatives, and it means using the tools we have to connect together and support each other. This model has been apparent at the People’s Summit in Rio and has been given a foundation by the World Social Forum processes. There is now broad agreement that we are in a phase where acting and implementing are the only ways to ensure the better world we know is possible. The future we want is still there for us. This terrible Rio outcome should be viewed as a call to action. The future is now – and has always been – in our hands.