The Rio+20 Summit and its follow Up The Rio+20 Summit and its follow up

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The UN Conference on Sustainable Development, more popularly known as Rio+20, to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the 1992 Earth Summit, ended with expressions of deep disappointment from broad sections of members of the media and the environmental NGOs, who saw little new commitments to action in the final text that was adopted by the heads of states and governments and their senior officials.


This was understandable, as much had been expected from the Rio+20 summit, the biggest international gathering of world leaders this year. This is also because the world is facing serious crises in the global environment and economy, thus there were hopes that some decisive actions would be taken, worthy of the 20th anniversary of the original Rio summit, the UN Conference on Environment and Development.


Thus, there was unhappiness and frustration that the hundred heads of state and government who came to Rio de Janeiro were unable or not asked to take decisive actions. There was a sense that the speeches, roundtables and panel discussions at the huge Rio Centro conference centre were part of a ceremonial function for the political leaders, while the tough decisions required by the crises were avoided or postponed.


But there are grounds for a more positive assessment of Rio+20. It achieved an agreed outcome, something that is increasingly rare in multilateral high-level meetings. It managed (just) to reaffirm previous understandings on sustainable development, thus maintaining the foundations for international cooperation. And it directed the diplomats and officials of all countries to continue negotiating and come up with solutions to important unresolved issues within one to two years—including on sustainable development goals, finance and technology, and a new political forum on sustainable development.


The summit adopted a 53-page document, “The Future We Want”. It reaffirmed or recalled what had been agreed to 20 or 10 years ago (at the first Rio Summit that produced the Rio Principles and Agenda 21, and the Johannesburg Summit that marked the 10th anniversary and produced a Plan of Implementation respectively). And it directed that the talks continue in the United Nations (in New York) to strengthen sustainable development and environment institutions, examine how and whether to provide finance and technology to developing countries, and establish new sustainable development goals.


Measured against the urgent tasks needed, there were no breakthroughs. But neither was the summit the failure that many portrayed it to be. [...]




While the Rio+20 Summit fell short of justified expectations that it would be a landmark in addressing the world’s current serious crises, it was fortunate that there was even an agreed outcome at all. The present atmosphere of international cooperation has deteriorated recently, as can be seen in the impasse in the WTO’s Doha negotiations, the failure of the Copenhagen climate conference, and the uncertainties surrounding the UNCTAD XIII conference. Rio+20 also became a victim of the reduced commitments by developed countries to support the developing countries in their development quest.


Despite some setbacks, the developing countries managed to secure many of their key positions and demands made in the negotiations. It says a lot about the current international situation that a reaffirmation of principles made 10 and 20 years ago is a sign of success.


With the outcome in Rio, the multilateral system in sustainable development lives to fight another day. The mandated actions in the Rio+20 text, on the high-level forum on sustainable development, the finance strategy and technology facilitating mechanism, and the sustainable development goals, point to more and potentially important work in the year ahead at the UN. The success of any conference is ultimately determined on the strength of the follow-up. Rio+20 could remain a disappointment, or could become the start of something significant. In that sense, Rio+20 has not ended, but only started, as the Brazilian President stated at the summit’s closure.

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