rio+20 towards and beyond
The Perils of Intergovernmental Negotiations
June 2012
(29 May - 2 June 2012, New York , the United Nations Headquarters)
From 29 May through 2 June, governments and non-state actors met at the UN Headquarters in New York City for an additional third round of informal informals in preparation for the UNCSD Rio+20 Conference, which will take place from 20-22 June in Rio de Janeiro. This session was not originally planned, but due to a perceived lack of time for the remaining negotiations on the outcome document, the UNCSD Bureau decided to allocate time and budget for these additional days.
Effectively, this was then the last round of negotiations before the actual Rio+20 conference. Prior to this session, the draft outcome document contained 422 paragraphs, of which 21 had already been agreed upon. After this round of informals, the document was reduced to 329 paragraphs, of which 70 have now been agreed upon by the member states. This means that the three days of negotiations that are planned from 20-22 June in Rio, need to make progress on the remaining 259 paragraphs, indeed an ambitious undertaking.
Governance and Capacity Group
During the extra days in New York City, governments split into smaller ‘splinter groups’ for more focused and intense negotiations, as the Co-Chairs of the conference decided this would be more efficient. During these five days, 49 paragraphs were agreed ad ref. That is roughly 10 paragraphs per day. With this tempo, the remaining paragraphs would require an estimated additional 26 negotiation days. But there are only three official days of negotiations planned in Rio from 13-15 June during the 3rd Prepcom. With such little time remaining to hammer out the most contentious differences in countries’ positions, the task ahead seems almost insurmountable.

Given the large number of pending paragraphs, it may be unjustified to precisely pinpoint which are the most contentious areas of disagreement. But it appears to the observer that the overarching issues pertain to the strength of the intergovernmental agreement and the extent to which it should be voluntary or mandatory and transposed into countries’ national legislation. Some of the outstanding sticking points pertain to:

  * Proposals involving monitoring and reporting mechanisms as a part of a reformed institutional framework for sustainable development (IFSD) - arguably a crucial part of the policy-implementation cycle.
  * Multistakeholder and civil society consultation and participation in decision-making is another contentious issue, which some countries are more positively inclined to include than others.
  * Civil society lobbies for inclusion of stronger language on Rio Principle 10, providing the legal backdrop for transparency and accountability in governance.
  * The proposal to establish a High Level Representative for Future Generations seems to be gaining some traction among governments, although it is too early to say whether it will be among the conference outcomes.
  * The longstanding issue regarding the upgrade of UNEP into a specialised agency also remains unresolved, as does the proposal for establishing a sustainable development council. But at least governments have managed to flesh out a number of important functions, which should be a part of a reformed UNEP as well as for a strengthened IFSD. If some of these can find agreement it would constitute an improvement of SD-governance mechanisms.
  * The choice between Green Economy policy tools or roadmaps represents another challenge for the upcoming negotiations, where the sticking point relates to whether all countries should commit to introduce a number of policies for Green Economy, or whether it remains completely arbitrary and voluntary.
  * At least deciding on the 10-year framework for sustainable consumption and production, the planned (but failed) outcome of last year’s CSD-19 could constitute a low-hanging but important fruit that countries must not overlook.
  * While the SDGs are an important potential outcome of the conference,it is unclear whether Rio+20 will set a lengthy process in motion, or whether actual thematic and crosscutting goals could be agreed upon at the conference. In the case of agreement on a process, a sticking point remains as to whether SDGs should be developed through an intergovernmental process, perhaps at the General Assembly, or by an expert-based process organised by Secretary General (SG). An intergovernmental process would provide more transparency and inclusiveness, but might take longer.

Achieving consensus on these and several other issues will require flexibility and especially trust among the negotiating governments. But in times of economic downturn, other more immediate national level interests may preoccupy governments and hinder consensus on multilateral action for sustainable development. The way forward to reach consensus could be (as was heard in the corridors during the informal negotiations) to add additional negotiation covering the days between 16-19 June - days that were originally dedicated to thematic ‘sandwich’ days. Additionally, there are speculations whether the Brazilian hosts of Rio+20 may be holding their ears increasingly close to the ground, whilst preparing an alternative outcome proposal. After all, the host should be very keen to see this conference as a tangible success worthy of signature and agreement by those heads of state that decide to join the final negotiations from 20-22 June.

*** The contents of this commentary are the opinions of the author(s) and do not reflect the views of IGES.

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