Reforming global sustainable development governance: a rights-based agenda Reforming global sustainable development governance: a rights-based agenda
Details of the Proposal


Achieving sustainable development entails a global transition—away from prevailing inequitable and ecologically destabilizing patterns of development, to modes of development based on shared prosperity and environmental protection. Global governance plays a crucial role in this shift. Global governance refers to the complex of institutions, mechanisms, norms, and policies that shape global processes, mediate relations between actors, and provide a framework for cooperation in addressing global challenges. Currently, it includes the United Nations system, the Group of 20, the World Trade Organization, international financial institutions, and hundreds of international treaties and soft law instruments on trade, the environment, and development.


In the context of a transition, global governance needs to enable a transformation of economic and social processes and structures to achieve development and environmental sustainability; to integrate areas of policy making to achieve co-benefits; and to address consequences (e.g. of environmental and economic changes to the poor) of their interactions. It will need to effectively regulate the behavior of states and non-state actors, mobilize resources, implement and enforce commitments, and give countries the space and capacities to successfully chart their own pathways to change.


Global governance for sustainable development will by no means be neutral. The process of sustainable development will have winners and losers: old technologies, practices, and forms of social organization – and actors invested in their persistence – have to give way to new ones. Global governance will need to steer this process in favor of the marginalized and voiceless: the poor and future generations. Governance for sustainable development requires a democratic, pro-poor, inclusive, and rights-based stance.


Proposals and abstracts

Core elements of sustainable development governance


The first Earth Summit – the UN Conference on Environment and Development in 1992 – described the general contours or guidelines of global governance for sustainable development through the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development, Agenda 21, and the Rio Conventions.


International action and cooperation


Governments of individual nations remain primarily responsible for implementing sustainable development, through national strategies, policies, plans and processes. But no nation can achieve sustainable development on its own. Environmental problems such as climate change are trans-boundary or global in nature and thus requires international responses. Moreover, underdevelopment and poverty in developing countries are to a large extent the result of unfavorable international economic relations, such as in trade, debt and development finance.


Deepening international integration and interdependence expose poor countries to instability and uncertainty in other parts of the global economy. International cooperation and governance play a crucial role in shaping international economic processes, managing environmental problems, and providing enabling conditions for the success of sustainable development efforts in individual countries, especially developing countries.


Differentiated action: the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities


International cooperation must follow the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities, whereby action demanded of countries is differentiated according their contribution to causing unsustainable development and capacity to respond to it. This translates to developed countries taking on greater commitments and supporting poorer countries by providing assistance such as finance and technology to enable them implement their own sustainable development commitments.


“Polluter pays” principle


Parties that are responsible for environmental damage must bear the costs of paying for or avoiding them.


Policy integration and coherence


Economic, social and environmental factors are interconnected. Sustainable development rests on the simultaneous and positively reinforcing advance of objectives in each of the three areas (e.g. poverty eradication, social empowerment, and environmental conservation). This requires the integration of economic, social and environmental concerns and goals in the design and implementation of policy interventions and legal frameworks. Coherence of approaches and policies across all sectors is also necessary to ensure that efforts in one sector support rather than undermine efforts in others.


Enhanced access to participation, information, and justice


Sustainable development requires the empowerment of a broad range of actors to participate in all levels of decision-making, including women, youth, indigenous people, non-government organizations, workers and trade unions, farmers, the scientific community, local businesses and local authorities. Authorities should foster public awareness and education, and people should have access to information relevant to their environment and development. People must also have access to means of redress and remedy. In short, governance must be based on democracy, inclusiveness, transparency, accountability, justice, and active citizenship.


Precautionary principle


Institutions of governance should allow for the use of caution when confronted with the threat of harm, despite the absence of scientific certainty on the likelihood or magnitude of the threat. Moreover, in the lack of scientific certainty than an action or policy is harmful, the burden of proof that it is not harmful falls on actors taking the action.


Reforming global sustainable development governance: to what end?


The world today is not lacking in laws, norms and institutions for advancing economic, social and environmental goals (see Table 1). A set of specialized global institutions in the economic and social-development domains were established around the United Nations system in the immediate post-war era. This includes the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (later the World Trade Organization), and various specialized UN agencies such as the International Labour Organization, the Food and Agriculture Organization and the World Health Organization, as well as UN funds and programs such as the UN Development Programme and the UN Children’s Fund (United Nations 2009). The 1972 UN Conference on the Human Environment kicked off the development of global environmental governance with the establishment of the UN Environment Programme in 1975 and the negotiation of a large number of international environmental agreements in the decades that followed. In 1992, the Earth Summit attempted at a convergence of development and environmental governance through the program of action contained in Agenda 21. The Commission on Sustainable Development was also created to monitor and review progress towards sustainable development.


Despite this impressive body of laws and institutions, the world finds itself far off track in realizing the vision of sustainable development. Global economic growth continues to severely strain the environment. Humanity’s ecological footprint now exceeds the planet’s biocapacity by over 50%, and three of nine planetary boundaries that define the safe operating space for human life on Earth have been breached (Rockström et al. 2009). Inequality is on the rise. In 2005, the ratio of the per capita income in the richest 20 countries to that in the poorest 20 was $59 to $1, from $42 to $1 in 1990 (IMF 2010). One out of three persons today or about 1.75 billion people live in acute deprivation in terms of health, education and material standard of living (UNDP 2010).


There are 80 million more income-poor people in 2005 compared to 1981 if the fast-growing economies of the BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia, India and China) are excluded. And close to a billion people do not even have the very basic condition for human existence that is adequate food. This failure reflects partly to shortcomings in the global sustainable development governance, at which there have been efforts of reform starting at least from the 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg. The perceived inadequacies of global sustainable development governance often center on institutional weaknesses and gaps, particularly the lack of integration, fragmentation, incoherence, weak implementation, and the weakness of the environmental pillar:

  • Current sustainable development institutions are too weak and fragmented;
  • Fragmentation – of treaties, financing, and overall authority for environmental and sustainable development governance – has resulted in a lack of policy coherence;
  • The three pillars of sustainable development – environmental, economic, and social – lack integration in the UN system and in global, regional, and national policies;
  • Enforcement capability is lacking in many cases, as are financial resources to aid implementation and/or build capacity for sustainable development, leading to a “policy-implementation disconnect”;
  • Integration of sustainable development into decision-making is lacking at all levels, especially in the wider macro-economic policy domains of finance and trade;
  • When considered in the context of international or global governance institutions as a whole, including the UN system and International Financial Institutions (IFIs), the environmental pillar is weak in authority, priority and profile, and capacity relative to the economic pillar (Bernstein and Brunnée 2011).


The main options for reform being considered attempt to address these weaknesses (see Box 1).
These options can be grouped into three main actions: strengthening the integration and coordination of the economic, social and environmental pillars; enhancing the environmental arm of global governance; and institutional streamlining.