Reflections on Rio+20 and
our global democratic rights
by Farida Akhter
WE ARE usually more concerned about our ‘democratic’ rights at the national level. We demand for freedom of expression to criticise our rulers and by having an elected government we are happy, because it means a ‘democratic’ government. But our rights and our lives are also in the hands of the global actors, but who control our resources. In fact, our democratic rights are violated at the global level more than at our national level, which is becoming more and more visible these days as we are interacting with global forces.
Peoples’ rights can be just taken away by few governments dominated by their multinational corporations as has been experienced at various forums such as the Summits on Climate Change and the most recent Rio+20 summit on sustainable development. Rio+20 summit, held in June 22-24, 2012, did not bring any good news for the people who are suffering from poverty, underdevelopment, social, political and gender discrimination, injustice, environmental destruction and overall disasters due to climate change. The focus was on ‘green economy’ and sustainable development. These agenda are decided by the rich countries of the world and we do not realise how the decisions made at those ‘high’ levels can affect billions of poor around the world. Is this democracy? Unfortunately the actors are from the ‘democratic countries’. They have zero tolerance on dictatorship so they can even ‘attack’ developing countries, if they have dictatorial governments! They raise questions about women’s rights, human rights, environmental destruction, poverty and all kinds of modern buzzwords which justify their military intervention.
The Rio+20 Summit is a very good example of the struggle for expression of opinions for the sake of the global majority of people and how the democratic rights are violated. The summit was about sustainable development but the demands for very basic aspects of sustainable development were just not heard by the decisions makers. Parallel to the Rio summit, the People’s Summit was organised for the activists to raise their demands. If these voices were heard and recognised, we could have seen a democratic process in Rio. Let me start with women’s demands. Women from the Asia-Pacific region (with purple scarves as the sign of solidarity) called for all stakeholders’ commitment to gender equality and women’s rights as basis for sustainable development. In an event organised by the Asia Pacific Women, Law and Development, they demanded equal and enhanced access of rural, indigenous and migrant women to productive resources. Living wages, health care and social services, land, finance, sustainable and appropriate technologies, information, education, training and markets are crucial for just and sustainable development as well as eradicating poverty. For a family to live in dignity is a basic human right. Women were against militarisation, because it only fuels conflict in communities. Violence against women increases with military defence of natural resource extractions. Persistent inequalities — including economic, social, cultural and political — prevent rural indigenous and migrant women’s full and meaningful participation in policymaking, development programmes and implementation. Global initiative of women called ‘Women’s Major Group’ had three main statements: 1. Human and women’s rights is a cornerstone of all agreements in Rio+20; 2. Poverty eradication is the basis for sustainable development; and 3. Gender equality is a basis for all agreements in Rio+20. Among many other demands, they talked about halting land grab and assuring food sovereignty, redistribution of wealth and access to energy and resources for women, women’s economic rights.
The farmers groups including artisanal fishers, pastoralists, agricultural workers, youth and indigenous peoples led by La Via Campesina made statements that the new path of development entails the empowerment of these constituencies to produce and harvest. This requires the rights to equitable access to land tenure — regardless of gender, marital status, religious or ethnic origins — and to productive resources, including seeds, inputs, trade and markets. Food sovereignty, which places at its centre sustainable family farming, peasant agriculture and small scale fishing, not only feeds the people with healthy, nutritious culturally appropriate food, but it puts the aspirations and needs of those who produce, distribute and consume food, at the heart of the food systems and policies. Farmers around the world produce all the world’s food and fibre needs and require a framework that allows sustainable practices such as organic agriculture, innovative farming techniques and integrated management. In this, they gave special attention to the needs of family farmers, peasants and artisanal fishers.
There have been numerous groups like this to raise their demands in a democratic manner, although the distance from the actual Rio summit and the Peoples Summit was at least 45 kilometres away. However, their representatives went to the summit to make the statements. Yet, Rio+20 outcomes did not recognise the people’s demand. Not only that, governments of rich countries failed to recognise the multiple crises — of ecological limits, of inequality, of constraints on social development. Their commitments for their own interest, revealed in the document called ‘The Future We Want’, an undemocratic and unilateral imposition on the poorer countries of the world. They happily forgot the Rio Commitments of 1992 which outlined a comprehensive vision for how international cooperation on sustainable development can be achieved based on equity and rights. Right to development of the billions of people was not recognised and unilateral trade measures were imposed in the name of trade rules and even using so-called ‘green concerns’ to block emerging industries of the south.
The ‘transfer of technology’ to developing countries is considered an essential element of the existing commitment of developed countries, particularly in relation to intellectual property rights and the negative effects they can have on agriculture, food, health and biodiversity in the South. ‘Technology assessment’ allows for the independent determination of the real impacts of technologies on people, communities and the environment. Therefore, need to strengthen the capacity of developing countries to conduct technology assessment is key, especially in the light of new and emerging and potentially risky technologies such as geo-engineering and genetic engineering.
While the rich countries failed to acknowledge people’s rights and demands they were well organised to impose an un-defined and vague concept of ‘green economy’ to plunder the resources of the developing countries further. This concept is undemocratic because it has not been agreed on at an international level. It is not a tool for all countries or an idea to be applied internationally. Without defining the ‘green economy’ it could lead to the commodification of nature and to converting natural systems into ‘services’, which can be traded and exchanged globally through market mechanisms. Activists have termed it ‘greed economy’ and ‘green-washing’.
Another very crucial issue of concern was the setting up sustainable development goals. We are familiar with the Millennium Development Goals and the target period to achieve the goals is 2015. Just three years before the target period, new concepts of SDGs are developed without evaluating why the MDGs could or could not be achieved. The SDG processes are not open, transparent and democratic. The SDG process must be intergovernmental, so that all countries can express their opinions about what they want. But this process is led by the UN secretary general with selected ‘experts’. This is not acceptable. The SDGs cannot be discussed without economic aspects on ODA levels, financial system reform, reform of the international financial institutions, establishment of mechanisms to prevent external debt crises and debt restructuring, regulation of commodity markets, review of free trade agreements for their negative impacts and a halt to further expansion of such agreements, etc. Trade rules are very much connected to sustainable development. References to controls and regulation of production must be balanced with controls and changes in the patterns of consumption. Sustainable development cannot be achieved without changing consumption patterns and production systems, particularly in the North. In the main outcome of Rio+20 the plan for sustainable development goals was set, which the host country Brazil described as the ‘crown jewels’ of the conference. But according to the activists, the gems have not yet been chosen, let alone cut, polished and set. Negotiators at Rio were unable to agree on themes, which will now be left to an ‘open working group’ of 30 nations to decide upon by September 2013. Two years later, they will be blended with Millennium Development Goals.
The entire undemocratic process of Rio+20 is set to establish corporate rights over human rights. Governments do not listen to people but they respond to corporations and serve their interest. There are many examples of corporate exploitation of people and nature in the pursuit of profit. The Corporations have been blocking the UN global framework, or international binding code, for regulating and disciplining trans-national corporations since the Rio conference in 1992 and still remained unfinished in 2012. On the other hand, endorsements of ‘corporate social responsibility’ or improving reporting systems are grossly inadequate. CSR is a voluntary approach run by the corporations themselves without any accountability to the governments or to the public. It rather gives legitimacy to their exploitative ventures. In Rio+20 there was demand that there must be globally agreed rules on corporate advertising and public relations activities that corporations use to promote consumption and drive forward the wasteful consumerist development model that generates corporate profits.
It is interesting to note that one of the contested issues in the outcome document was affirmation of ‘the continued need for increased voice and full and effective participation of all countries, in particular developing countries, in global decision-making’. But US wanted deletion of ‘increased voice’. The final adopted text does not have these two words. Is it democratic?
Developed countries are reluctant to reaffirmation of the original Rio equity principles; they are more bogged down with new exploitative concepts such as Green economy and the so-called Sustainable Development Goals. The Earth Summit of 1992 (officially known as UN Conference on Environment and Development) was a landmark event for raising concerns on environmental crisis, role of the rich countries and launching the ‘sustainable development’ as an internationally accepted concept. It connected the environmental problems in relation to and in the context of the development needs of developing countries. Standing on three important pillars — economic, social and environmental, there were deficiencies in the definition of sustainable development developed in Rio 1992. Yet it achieved the integration of environment, development and equity elements. The Rio+20 summit was named UN Conference on Sustainable Development. Before the summit started, the diplomats and officials were still discussing ten themes on sustainable development in June 16-19. Is it not enough to understand that the dialogues could not be democratic? How can they agree on such important issues in only four days and brief their respective country leaders? On the night of June 15, out of 315 paragraphs in the draft of an action plan only 116 of those paragraphs had been agreed to, and another 199 were still contested, meaning no agreements.
The developed countries fail to understand equity when they have to deliver their part. The common demand from the global south was about the Common But Differentiated Responsibilities, which brings equity in the centre of the obligations to save the world. All have the duty to take environmental action, but developed countries (due to their increased role in pollution, emissions and resource depletion, and to their higher economic standing) have the leading role in reducing their own environmental impact, and in providing finance and technology transfer to developing countries. Unfortunately developed countries showed reluctance to update their endorsement of CBDR. Most of them only wanted a reference to reaffirming the Rio Principles but not have a special mention of CBDR. Some countries don’t even want any mention of CBDR. They want developing countries to take on similar obligations as the North. Why? Interestingly, this is ‘equality’ in the eyes of the developed countries.
Developing countries are concerned that the ‘green economy’ will replace ‘sustainable development’ as the key paradigm in the environment-development nexus, with the loss of the Rio 92 consensus on the three pillars and the international commitments on finance and technology. Sustainable development goals were also ‘new issue’. It was not in the terms of reference in the General Assembly resolution that gave the mandate for Rio+20. For the developing countries to accept SDGs as a concept and an operational tool, a key principle should be CBDR, so that any obligations arising from the SDG process would be treated with in an equitable manner.
Activists discussed food security and sustainable agriculture and emphasised on small farmers, especially women, in developing countries, as the key to both the present and the future of agriculture. Empowering small farmers through access to land, credit, subsidies, storage facilities and transport, were thus essential. The expansion of national budgets and aid allocation to small-scale agriculture is a priority for strengthening of farmers’ organisations. The huge stress on chemical-based water-intensive agriculture had been a mistake because of its impact on the environment, including its being a main cause of climate change, and the dependence of small farmers to purchase fertilisers, pesticides and seeds. Genetic engineering is NOT a solution, due to food safety and environmental problems, as well as taking seeds out of the control of farmers. Thus, the agro-ecology approach should be given the chance it never had until now, through big support for research, extension and major support by international agencies, to show that sustainable agriculture is not only good for the environment but is productive enough to feed the world. The global trading system is allowing massive distortions in which rich countries subsidized agriculture by almost $400 billion a year and sold subsidized foods to poor countries at artificially low prices, thus damaging the livelihoods of small farmers. International policies are needed to assist developing countries with programmes supporting their small farmers through land access, credit and marketing, subsidies and appropriate tariffs; curb commodity speculation; change the terms of free trade agreements; and promote ecological farming.
At the close of the Rio+20 summit, heads of state and ministers from more than 190 nations signed off on a plan to set global sustainable development goals and other measures to strengthen global environmental management, tighten protection the oceans, improve food security and promote a ‘green economy’. On the other hand, the Peoples Summit had a 10-day mega-conference involving 45,000 people, negotiating on issues. The outcome document called the ‘The Future We Want’ was lambasted by environmentalists and anti-poverty campaigners for lacking the detail and ambition needed to address the challenges posed by a deteriorating environment, worsening inequality.
We have seen how the global democracy functions by taking away rights of people, disregarding people’s demands for mere survival needs. This is Not the Future We Want!
Farida Akhter is executive director, UBINIG. This article is written with information from various statements made in the Peoples Summit and from Third World Network Bulletins.