Press Conference by Civil Society Groups on ‘Rio+20’ Outcome Document Negotiations

27 March 2012

Press Conference by Civil Society Groups on ‘Rio+20’ Outcome Document Negotiations

27 March 2012
Press Conference
Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York

Press Conference by Civil Society Groups on ‘Rio+20’ Outcome Document Negotiations

Warning that long-agreed principles concerning human rights, development, and water and sanitation were in serious danger of being rolled back by short-sighted diplomats negotiating the outcome document of the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, a coalition of civil society groups today demanded that “real political impetus” be injected into the process, which would be crucial for improving the lives of millions of poor people worldwide.

“Business as usual negotiations in an age of crisis is just not acceptable,” said Oxfam’s Tim Gore during a Headquarters press conference summing up civil society’s deep anxiety and disappointment after the first round of “informal informal” intergovernmental talks on the draft outcome document for the Conference — known as “Rio+20” — which is set to take place in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, from 20 to 22 June.

With land being grabbed from people who depended on it; climate change dramatically altering growing seasons; and human activity wreaking havoc on oceans and other vital ecosystems, he said that it was “more critical than ever” that, in Rio, Governments set concrete, achievable goals.  Yet, last week’s contentious talks — which ran at Headquarters from 19 to 23 March — had produced nothing but hardened positions, weak pledges and eleventh hour amendments that eroded real gains in sustainable development. 

“It’s clear this process is going off the rails and its time for the Heads of State and Government to give some real political momentum to the outcome,” Mr Gore said, noting civil society’s belief that the long list of world leaders and high-level officials slated to attend Rio+20 were paying scant attention to the detailed negotiations — and their importance.  While diplomats in New York were “doing their jobs”, he said it was unacceptable that not a single world leader had stepped up to provide the talks with much needed “vision and direction.”

Also at the press conference, organized by the Department of Economic and Social Affairs, were Anil Naidoo of the Council of Canadians, Nathalie Rey of Greenpeace International, Anabella Rosemberg of International Trade Union Confederation, and Sascha Gabizon of Women in Europe for a Common Future.

Mr. Naidoo said non-governmental organizations were deeply concerned not only by the lack of any real progress, but by what they regarded as an attempt to delete human rights from the outcome document, currently titled The Future We Want.  “We will not stand idly by while a few States negotiate away long-standing rights regarding health, environment, water and sanitation, food and health,” he said, stressing that previous international agreements carried legal obligations “that are not up for negotiation.”

Key principles that had emerged from the landmark 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development — known thereafter as the Earth Summit — and its follow-up, the 2002 Johannesburg Conference on Sustainable Development, were “under attack”, he continued, explaining that Government negotiators were trying to roll back well-known principles such as “polluter pays” and “common but differentiated responsibilities”.

In response, the coalition of civil society actors, including those representing the United Nations-identified “major groups”, had delivered an open letter, “Rights at Risk”, to United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, as well as “Rio+20” Secretary-General Sha Zukang and United Nations Members States, expressing their outrage at attempts to “bracket” or eliminate completely nearly all references to human rights obligations and equity principles in the outcome text.

The groups were also concerned that the talks seemed to be setting the stage for a strong push for private sector investments and initiatives to fill in the gap left by the public sector.  “This risks privatizing and commoditizing common goods — such as water — which in turn endangers access and affordability, which are fundamental to such rights,” Mr. Naidoo said, adding that while civil society realized that this was a negotiating process, “some things just can’t be traded away.”

Picking up that thread, Ms. Gabizon said women’s groups were “outraged and shocked” by numerous attacks on gender equality principles.  Indeed, she said, the “Group of 77” developing countries and China had deleted key references to the rights of women related to land tenure and ownership.  That was an egregious move, because women were among the majority of the poor, as well as among the majority that depended on the land for their livelihoods. Therefore, women, as well as the poor and other vulnerable groups, needed land use rights.

She went on to say that the United States delegation had removed language regarding equity and the European Union had taken out the “right to sanitation”, among other long-agreed principles.  She said that the United States had also pushed through, “in the middle of the night”, an amendment on trade liberalization that, if agreed, would impoverish millions of women farmers.  “We feel what is happening is taking us back to the Middle Ages.  Governments are failing their citizens here,” she said.

Ms. Rey also expressed concern about the “worrying trend” of rolling back human rights.  Oceans were the least protected natural resource and were constantly under pressure from overfishing, pollution, and destructive fishing practices.  Therefore, urgent action was needed to pave the way for a truly “Blue Planet”.  Greenpeace had been calling for action on a new agreement under the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea to protect high seas marine life and ensure fair and equitable sharing of high seas genetic resources.  But, that effort was under attack by the United States, Japan, Norway, and Canada, who preferred to “keep things business as usual”.

She said that reaching agreement on previous commitments regarding a rights-based approach to environmental matters was proving difficult and Greenpeace was “very disappointed” in the European Union for not showing leadership on such issues.  “Oceans are vital; they are every second breath we take and we must not let this opportunity wash away,” she said, calling for renewed vigour from Governments to ensure that concrete actions emerged from the “Rio+20” process.

Looking to the past for inspiration, Ms Rosemberg, who moderated the press conference, said the Earth Summit had delivered major results for the global sustainability agenda; the major follow-up conferences should produce similar concrete achievements.  As for civil society’s focus on human rights, she said the very idea of sustainable development and its three pillars — economic, social and environmental — should be based on rights.  People’s rights must be protected in the transition to sustainability.

Trade Unions, she continued, believed that the protection and promotion of human rights must be accompanied by concrete decisions made by Governments to address major issues, such as unemployment, decent work and “job precariousness”.  As such, the International Trade Union Confederation was urging Governments in Rio to commit to three core goals:  ensure for all people a minimum set of rights — a “social protection floor” — that included unemployment benefits, health care, maternity rights, and pension and death benefits; set out a clear strategy for decent work, especially in sectors that protected the environment; and agree on a financial transaction tax, which would generate funds for sustainable development.

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For information media • not an official record
For information media. Not an official record.