Human rights and equity principles at risk at Rio2012

The side event organized by the UN-NGLS
and Social Watch in the UN Headquarters.
(Photo: IISD)

About a thousand people, most of them on behalf of civil society organizations from all over the world, have signed so far a petition to warn the United Nations and its member states about the possibility that the outcome of the UN Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio2012), to be held in June, “severely threatens the rights of all people”.

“We are witnessing an attempt by certain countries to weaken, or ‘bracket’ or outright eliminate nearly all references to human rights obligations and equity principles in the text ‘The Future We Want’” to be approved at Rio2012, remarks the letter addressed to the Secretary General of the Conference, the UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon, and the governments.

The petition, titled “Rights at Risk at the United Nations”, was propelled from a meeting co-organized by Social Watch and the UN-Non Governmental Liaison Service (UN-NGLS) at the UN headquarters in New York as a side event of the negotiations held last month in preparation for Rio2012. The negotiations will officially resume next week, on 23 April.

According to the letter signed by non governmental organizations, social movements, trade unions, universities and other civil society institutions from all over the world, some governments attempt to undermine or remove from the declaration to be approved by the Conference the “references to the right to food and proper nutrition, the right to safe and clean drinking water and sanitation, the right to development and others.”

“The right to a clean and healthy environment, which is essential to the realization of fundamental human rights, remains weak in the text. Even principles previously agreed upon in Rio in 1992 [at the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development] are being bracketed – the Polluter Pays Principle, Precautionary Principle, Common But Differentiated Responsibility,” adds the petition.

“We […] feel that is our duty to call the attention of relevant authorities and citizens of the world to a situation that severely threatens the rights of all people and undermines the relevance of the United Nations,” warns the letter.

“Many member states are opposing prescriptive language that commits governments to actually do what they claim to support in principle and […] there is 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,” adds the petition.

The signatories urge the official authorities to bring the negotiations “back on track to deliver the people’s legitimate agenda and the realization of rights, democracy and sustainability, as well as respect for transparency, accountability and non-regression on progress made.”

Five relevant civil society organizations (Eurostep, the Arab NGO Network for
Development, Social Watch, the Third World Network and ALOP) supported the petition in an open letter addressed to the 27 European Union environment ministers and urged them “to listen to these pleas”. The text remarks that human rights “are fundamental requirements for a sustainable world,” and appeals to the “EU’s laudable engagement on human rights, to improve democracy, inclusiveness and participatory approaches and increase the role of civil society organizations in decision making processes.”

“At the moment civil society organizations and other actors are anxious when considering the potential outcome of Rio2012. The EU’s position has contributed to these sentiments. Another outcome is possible - the EU should gear its actions towards an ambitious and fair outcome to the summit that is necessary to secure a better future for all,” urges the letter.


Informal dialogue

In the “informal dialogue” held last month in New York between the “major groups” that represent non governmental sectors of the society, Nicole Bidegain, from Development Alternatives with Women for a New Era (DAWN) said, on behalf of the Women’s Major Group, that the draft of “the Rio2012 text is imbalanced across the three pillars of sustainable development.”

“The social pillar seems to be only about poverty eradication and does not pay attention to gender and other inequalities. The economic pillar does not address the systemic issues such as the reform and coherence of international monetary, financial and trading systems. Without this the environmental pillar is weak and fails to tackle patterns of over-consumption and production,” Bidegain explained.

At the side event organized by the UN-NGLS and Social Watch, Iara Pietricovsky de Oliveira, of the Brazilian Institute for Socioeconomic Studies (INESC), said that the document reflects governments’ lack of commitment in this time of global crisis, and expressed concern regarding what will be agreed upon in the context of green economy and the proposed sustainable development goals (SDGs). She also cautioned against the dilution of the human rights framework during the negotiations on the zero draft of the outcome document.

On behalf of Social Watch, Barbara Adams raised concerns about the proposed plans for the SDGs. Though these goals may attract support as a concrete, time-bound, results-focused structure, they run the risk, as the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) before them, of narrowing the development agenda and defining a wide range of issues simply in terms of lack of funds.

Additionally, the SDGs could pose actual harm by promoting the financialization of water, etc, rather than protecting rights in the context of planetary/ecological limits. Adams framed the SDGs as placing the political burden of adjustment to climate change on the most vulnerable populations by emphasizing resilience, rather than redressing those issues through a rights-based approach. She raised the proposal for alternative, consumption-driven goals, to combat overconsumption and mal-production, and concluded by focusing on the human rights agenda and the potential dangers posed to it by the Zero Draft and Rio2012.

Another member of the Brazilian Civil Society Facilitating Committee for Rio2012, Andre Abreu, cautioned that the debate surrounding green economy should be transparent and ensure accountability. He also urged that the views of small-scale farmers, peasants and others be involved in the process.

Caterina Silveira, representing the Brazilian trade unions, underscored the necessity of social protection in the context of the environment, saying that the outcomes they wish to see at the Conference include guaranteeing basic rights to water, food and housing.

Dena Hoff, of La Via Campesina, remarked that the document does not distinguish between different agricultural systems and stated that “peasant farming” has always been a part of a green economy.

Paul Quintos, of IBON International, warned that the principles agreed at the Earth Summit held in 1992, also in Rio de Janeiro, are being lost during the negotiations. He said there is a need for strong integration of the three pillars of sustainable development, as well as less prescriptive language for civil society.

In another side event during the negotiations in New York to debate the question of Equity and Sustainability, Anabella Rosemberg, representing the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), supported a social protection floor as a first step for building intragenerational equity, particularly within countries.

Meena Raman, of the Third World Network, presented the example of the climate change regime currently under negotiation to depict how inequity is being threatened, as the principles of “common but differentiated responsibilities and capabilities” and “historical responsibility” are being wiped out from the new regime.

Petition “Rights at Risk at the United Nations”:
UN-Non Governmental Liaison Service:
Civil society press conference at the UN Headquarters in New York:
The Future We Want (Zero draft of the outcome document):