- By Luke Kemp
The largest failure of Rio+20 was the actual process of negotiations under the Brazilian chairmanship and many of the disappointing outcomes are largely a result of this problematic process and the excessive power of the chairmanship.
My biggest issue with the outcome of Rio+20 is not so much based upon the tangible (or often non-committal, intangible) results, but the actual process. To be honest, I had (slightly) higher hopes for Rio+20 early on during the third preparatory committee prior to the actual conference (the high level segment that involved heads of states). That was until the Brazilians took over the chairmanship. One BRIC (emerging economies of Brazil, Russia, India and China) state threw itself through the window of opportunity in the lead up to the high level segment, shattering any notions of transparency, inclusivity or fairness.
As soon as the Brazilians stepped in as chairs civil society participation suffered. Many of the negotiating sessions became closed to ‘outside’ observers. There was one night in which negotiations were scheduled to begin at 6pm, but didn’t actually start until 8.30pm. This wasn’t a big deal since we were already used to ‘Brazilian Time’ (add on 1-3 hours for any schedule, it’s the opposite of German time). The problem was that we were repeatedly told that we would likely be allowed into the session once the Brazilian chair arrived and clarified things. Consequently we ended up sitting outside the room for two and a half hours before being informed that we were not welcome inside. This was not a logistical concern- there was only about six or so NGOs who wanted access (institutions are unfortunately considered very unsexy and attract little attention). However, it must be said that the disregard for civil society was nothing compared to the disrespect given to the EU.
The negotiations within IFSD under the Brazilian Chairmanship weren’t so much about dialogue- it was more like sign language, and the signs being given to Europe were not kind (they probably would have involved the use of a certain finger). Almost all of the European proposals going into the drafting text (especially for institutional frameworks) were not seen in the end document. They were deleted and replaced by text that looked strangely familiar- it appeared to be the position of the Group of 77 (developing countries). When the EU attempted to complain or request for the text to be reopened the Brazilian chair would treat them as if they were a spoilt four year old. In a world of over-the-top politeness and etiquette the Brazilian treatment of the EU was surprising to say the least. This included telling Switzerland at one stage, after a dissenting interjection, that they could either continue to give their bitter little speech or accept the text. There was no real choice given, Switzerland and the EU’s bluff had been called- the text was not going to be reopened.
The text going into the first Brazilian drafting process had a number of points of contention. Some of these included the form of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), the possibility of a high level representative for future generations and the role of ‘Green Jobs’ within the Green Economy framework. But almost of these issues were glossed over or absent in the end document- there is only one mention of Green Jobs (in paragraph 154), the high level representative has been scrapped and any decision or even discussion on the future form of UNEP is completely gone. While this allowed for the text to be more easily closed and passed by the heads of state it hinders progress in the long term. These issues are resolved and relationships built through long-term, deep dialogue on the difficult issues. Putting these contentions aside for another day is a short-sighted strategy that is ultimately detrimental.
Interestingly, the Brazilians are known to be fantastic negotiators, and some of the best of their diplomats were the ambassadors who became the chairs of the different sessions. It was not out of inadequacy or poor organising abilities that the text regressed in many areas and transparency was skewed. To the contrary, this was skilfully intentional and it was successful. The motive, I believe, was not an underhanded attempt to put in place G-77 positions that reflected interests. Interestingly, many of the points taken off the table by Brazil were contrary to their own positions. For example Brazil has been supportive of the notion of transforming UNEP into a World Environment Organisation for a number of years now. Instead the intentions of Brazil were more focused upon their international image and the city of Rio de Janeiro.
Rio is set to host both an upcoming World Cup and Olympic Games. The city is set to be in the center of international attention over the next few years. It will be a key representative for the emerging power of Brazil and accordingly, Brazil is determined to ensure that the image of Rio is not tarnished. By no means can the city be related to a failed conference. The result was a highly skilled chairmanship that was determined to get an outcome at any cost, regardless of the ambition or fairness of the end result. Although it must be said that this is not a new phenomenon- it is history repeating itself after similar actions in climate change negotiations by the Danish at CoP15 in Copenhagen and the Mexicans at Cancun at CoP16. The host nation and chairmanship of international environmental conferences has an incredible amount of power over the process and has recurrently distorted proceedings to ensure outcomes that often sacrifice long term progress and ambition for the opportunity to bang the gavel and declare a successful agreement.
So what is the lesson here? We (and the UN) need to be more aware of the power of the chairmanship and the circumstances and interests of the hosting country. Restrictions need to be placed upon the power of the host nation and progressive countries need to be willing to walk away from talks and play tough when necessary. If this were the case then the hardball tactics of Brazil would not have been as successful. Clearly the first lessons have not been learned considering the upcoming chairmanship of Qatar for CoP18, but hopefully the last lesson can still be of use.