The main focus of the formal negotiations at Rio+20 is the outcome document, “The Future We Want.” The text, which was approved earlier this week and will likely be agreed upon by heads of state and U.N. officials, outlines a global framework for sustainable development and building a green economy. The text will have an impact on areas ranging from climate change to business to transportation, but the document’s biggest implications for governance is its references to Principle 10. By including this Principle and modest action, the outcome document offers glimmers of hope that citizens—including poor and marginalized communities across the globe—will no longer fall victim to environmentally degrading, exploitative development projects.
What is Principle 10?
Principle 10, which was established under the Rio Declaration of 1992, affirms that environmental issues are best solved with the participation of all relevant stakeholders—everyone from citizens to corporations to indigenous tribes. Better known as the “environmental democracy principle,” it also states that access to information and judicial and administrative proceedings are necessary in order to ensure meaningful participation in decision-making.
For example, large-scale projects like roads, airports and power plants are often implemented without soliciting participation from communities that are forcibly resettled or evicted to make way for these developments. Likewise, marginalized or poor communities are often unable to obtain basic information about pollutants from industrial facilities in their neighborhoods. Even when environmental harm can be proven, communities have nowhere to complain and obtain justice. Principle 10 seeks to change the way decisions are made by reaffirming respect for basic human rights and good decision-making procedures as a way to reduce harm and improve sustainability.
Since 1992, Principle 10 has spawned laws providing access to environmental information in more than 100 countries, public participation provisions in more than 120 countries, and environmental courts and tribunals in more than 44 countries. Despite this progress, major gaps remain, especially in developing countries. Globally, implementation of these laws is weak, and blatant violations of participatory procedures are widespread. Such violations often lead to protests and violence by local communities, who feel marginalized by the lack of information and accountability.
Rio+20 Document Can Strengthen Principle 10
That’s where “The Future We Want” comes in. The new text has the potential to significantly improve governance, especially by moving forward on Principle 10. Particular bright spots in the document include:
Clause 88(h), which seeks to strengthen the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP). The clause mandates that UNEP “[e]nsures the active participation of all relevant stakeholders drawing on best practices and models from relevant multilateral institutions and exploring new mechanisms to promote transparency and effective engagement of civil society.” The term “ensure” gives UNEP a strong mandate to take steps to improve implementation of Principle 10. “New mechanisms” could well include a global convention on Principle 10. The success of such a convention would depend on how well UNEP helps developing countries build their capacity to implement Principle 10.
Clause 85(h), which establishes a high-level forum to replace the Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD). The CSD was established in Rio 1992 as an intergovernmental body that would lead the way in sustainable development, but there was general recognition that it failed to perform its functions. The actions this new forum could take include promotion of “transparency and implementation through further enhancing the consultative role and participation of Major Groups and other relevant stakeholders at the international level in order to better make use of their expertise, while retaining the intergovernmental nature of discussions.” There are nine Major Groups recognized by the U.N. system for the purpose of participation in agency meetings. They include non-governmental organizations, trade unions, women’s groups, youth and children, local government, and business and industry. The role of Major Groups in U.N. processes leaves much to be desired, with confusion about how, when, and where to seek accreditation for meetings and participatory rights in international meetings. This clause gives hope that reforms might be in the offing.
Clause 99 expressly “encourages action at the regional…” level, opening the door to the negotiation of regional conventions on Principle 10. Soon after the outcome text was revealed, Ambassador Jose Luis Balmaceda of Chile made a public announcement at the “Choosing our Future” event in Rio. He received prolonged applause when he pledged that Chile, together with seven other Latin American countries, would take the lead in exploring the option of negotiating a regional convention for Latin America and the Caribbean. Several other Latin American and Caribbean countries have been signing up to the initiative during the Rio+20 conference. A regional convention could provide legally binding obligations to take specific steps to improve transparency, participation, and accountability in sustainable development decision-making at the national level.
Several other clauses in the draft (including 10, 15, 43, and 44) expressly refer to access to information, citizen participation, and access to justice in environmental matters. The declaration pledges to significantly improve implementation of these elements.
Hope and the Way Forward
It is perhaps too early to judge how the U.N. system will interpret and act upon the approved outcome text. But there is no doubt that it contains rays of hope for governments and civil society to improve implementation of Principle 10—and with it, ensure improved governance around environmental issues. If the text is taken seriously and the various steps outlined above are implemented by governments and U.N. agencies, there would be a significant improvement in transparency, accountability, and citizen engagement in local decision-making across the globe. Developmental decisions would likely be less environmentally damaging and more socially equitable. Such improvements would give communities the ability to influence decisions that affect their lives and provide the poor and vulnerable with a seat at the table. That would make a whole world of difference to the 2.5 billion people who live on less than $2 a day and to the communities affected by poorly planned, harmful projects.