Written By Rod Oram, Rod’s Rio Blog #7, Thursday 21st June:
The push back
Rumours swirled first thing this morning around the UN’s Rio+20 sustainability summit, claiming heavy international criticism had got to the Brazilian government. As host and chair it was so stung by complaints of the weak agreement it had plucked out of negotiations. It was seeking ways to strengthen the text heads of state would sign tomorrow.
At a minimum, it would restore to the text the long established international principle of women’s reproductive rights and it might strengthen the commitment to more effective forms of oceans governance and beef up the UN Environment Programme.
Optimists suggested there was a simple way to meet the tight timetable of the summit’s close tomorrow. All Brazil had to do was propose an addendum on those issues rather than run the risk of chaos and summit failure by reopening the whole text.
Such speculation was coming from some major global NGOs, the best organized, most forceful and savviest of protagonists. The boldest of the rumours suggested that a swath of such civil society groups would boycott the final agreement, robbing the UN of its cherished hope of a government-social compact on sustainability.
Lots of public comments stocked the rumours. Tweets the previous day from influential people had included these:
“Telling that nobody in that room adopting the text was happy. That’s how weak it is. And they all knew. Disappointing,” said Connie Hedegaard, the EU’s Environment Commissioner. She knows all about summit failure from her country’s chairing of the Copenhagen climate change negotiations in 2009.
Even the comments of UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon were taken as evidence he supported the push back by aggrieved parties.
““I hoped we would have had a more ambitious outcome document,” he had told a press conference. “The negotiations have been very difficult and very slow because of all these conflicting interests. This is not the end. This is the beginning of a process.”
Calmer and wiser heads offered, though, a more benign interpretation: yes, he was disappointed but he hoped continuing work at the UN in New York on the likes of Sustainable Development Goals, as the text directs, over the next new years would yield results.
By late morning the tide of rumours began to ebb. Time had indeed run out. Clearly, Brazil was toughing it out, putting summit face and efficiency ahead of leadership and effectiveness.
Meanwhile, a pandemic of spin-doctors were bending any ear they could find.
Todd Stern, the chief US negotiator was particularly upbeat: “It is a negotiated outcome, a negotiated document with a lot of different views from a lot of different players…everybody had things they were more pleased about and less pleased about, and certainly some things could have been improved, but I think it was a good strong step forward.
“We have done some important things institutionally, including significantly strengthening UNEP in the UN system, also establishing a new high-level forum on sustainable development in the UN in New York focusing on a variety of ways to manage our vital natural resources more effectively and efficiently.
“And I think all of these things…push in a direction where sustainable development proceeds and we more and more have the ability, as was first discussed in the 1987 Brundtland Report, to meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs. And that is a nice kind of summary of what sustainable development is all about.”
NGOs weren’t having a bar of that. They banded together, fronting four or five at a time in half-hour slots in the press conference rooms in the media centre to deliver their harsh judgments.
“The world we want won’t be delivered by leaders who lack courage,” said Sharan Burrow, an Australian who heads the international labour movement. “They agreed with a closed text with no commitment to civil society.
“We are bitterly disappointed…it is unbelievable that national leaders are frighten by cooperation, by green jobs. The world is bleeding for a different model of development.”
NGOs also kept up a barrage of their own initiatives. Greenpeace, for example, launched its campaign against oil drilling in the High Arctic. Richard Branson and Lucy Lawless turned up to help.
When Greenpeace’s Naidoo told the press she was waiting to be sentenced in New Zealand for occupying a Shell Oil Arctic rig for 72 hours, she lent across and gently corrected him: “…it was 77 hours and I felt every moment of it.”
Meanwhile the UN juggernaut rumbled on today. Day two of the summit plenary gave the opportunity for another 83 heads of state or their subordinates to present their views on sustainability. As yesterday, there were some unlikely champions such as President Medvedev of Russia
Similarly the 5-minutes per head of state rule was widely abused. The last succinct Russian leader was Khrushchev. Once in the UN he took off his shoe, and banged the heal repeatedly on his desk shouting “Nyet! Nyet! Nyet!”
No such drama was evident in the UN’s other Rio summit forum, the four roundtables that today began to consider how to implement the summit’s outcomes. Each roundtable has some 40 heads of states, ministers, UN and other officials plus representatives of business and civil society.
Here each speaker has only 3 minutes to deliver his or her view of the world. So once again it turns into a sterile exercise in state-posturing that runs way over time.
Thankfully, the roundtables are closed to lesser mortals. This left plenty of time for small, well organized demonstrations by civil society delegates in the huge covered walkway between Pavilion 5 where the UN plenary session is meeting and Pavilion 3 housing the media centre.
This is very considerate of the demonstrators. It means journos have only a few minutes walk between their desks, briefings, demonstrations and the enormous food court in Pavilion 2.
Best of all, fast free wifi means press releases, stories, photos, video clips and tweets pour out to the world drowning out the UN’s attempt to sell the summit.