The success and failures of Rio+20: interview with Henri Valot, CIVICUS Outreach Director

How would you evaluate the successes and failures of Rio + 20?

I have sincerely mixed feelings about Rio+20. What was definitely pleasant was that it was hosted by the wonderful city of Rio de Janeiro. Lucky country, to have such a spectacular and friendly city! Although, the conference was itself too big and the distances between Rio Centro and the People’s Summit were too far from each other. I had the impression that I was running frantically from one venue to another, which was quite frustrating.

So, most people say that if the summit did not result in a binding outcome document, then Rio+20 would have at least been a place for stakeholders to meet. But I would actually even challenge this. Rio+20 could engage in some multi-stakeholder dialogue only during the Sustainable Development Dialogue Days and in a few other venues. But again, I have this impression that CSOs and governments mainly talked to themselves, while the UN tried its best to get everyone to reach a common position. I was also surprised to see how the UN opened large avenues for the private sector, offering its representatives a fantastic marketing playing field. We need totally to rethink the engineering of these global events.

Realistically, we also need to raise the level of ambition of this summit. We were told that its main objectives were to get the green economy concept adopted globally and to strengthen the institutional framework for sustainable development. None of those actually succeeded. The G77, for many good reasons, still questions the green economy concept, and the proposed Sustainable Development Forum is not the political council many were calling for.

Having said that, there are some takeaways that I would like to highlight, such as:

  • Some excellent CSO positions, such as the results of the Civil Society Reflection Group, published in the June issue of ‘Development Dialogues’, or the Peoples Sustainability Treaties and the right-based approaches promoted by all;
  • The overall public awareness of sustainable development issues that the summit enabled;
  • The political consent that our GDP measures are not enough and that other indicators of development must be recognised;
  • The inclusion in the outcome document of some language on corporate responsibility. If CSOs do welcome the increased recognition of the role of the private sector in development processes, we need to re-affirm that any private sector action must be governed by the best practices of corporate responsibility and sustainability;
  • The future operationalisation of the 10-Year Framework of Programmes on sustainable consumption and production;
  • And finally, some positive steps were taken to establish more comprehensive development goals, now named Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). But for us, a solid engagement in this post-MDG agenda is starting and we will keep saying to all: ‘nothing about us, without us’. We want and need to be fully part of the multi-stakeholder development dialogue, which the SDGs concept should prompt.
  • CSOs will need to monitor the voluntary commitments made in Rio and keep putting pressure on governments and the UN.

As a Major Organising Partner what were the various responsibilities that CIVICUS discharged for Rio+20?

Our main roles as an Organising Partner were to enable meaningful CSO participation; to provide CSOs with information on processes, issues and events; to ensure that CSO voices were brought to the summit, and throughout the process; and to ensure diversity in the types of CSOs participating in processes and at Rio.

In order to enable an inclusive CSO participation and collective reflection, we supported the creation of thematic cluster groups in all sustainable development areas. Many worked very well from March to June 2012, defining common positions and advocacy strategies before, during, and even now after the summit.

How could the levels of civil society access, engagement and participation in Rio+20 be evaluated?

The question of civil society access, engagement and participation at Rio+20 needs to be broken down. The issue of access touches upon the formal processes established by Agenda 21 that mandated the establishment of nine Major Groups. During its 20-year history, Major Groups’ access and thus engagement with Member States was greatest during the first 10 years of the establishment of the UN Commission for Sustainable Development. Following the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg in 2002, Major Groups’ access was systematically reduced to what we have today, comprised mostly of two to three minute interventions typically at the end or beginning of plenary sessions, with little or no interaction by government delegates.

In contrast, the energy and enthusiasm of civil society engagement in the Rio+20 process was as impressive as it had been in the lead up to 1992. When the Rio+20 Bureau solicited inputs from Member States and all Major Groups last November, some 70% of the contributions of the compilation text came from civil society. As NGO Organising Partner, we were inspired by the dedication, passion, diversity and intellectual rigour of CSOs worldwide, whose ideas provided the basis for many of the innovative decisions coming out of Rio+20 that put the ethics and operation of the global economy at the centre of the sustainable development agenda.

What are CIVICUS’ plans in the follow-up to Rio+20?

In this transition period post-Rio, CIVICUS is willing to continue playing its role as NGO Major Group Organising Partner, together with ANPED and Consumers International, but would also advocate for a review of the Major Groups system. Many say that this mechanism, which was clearly innovative 20 years ago, needs to be strengthened and reformed in the proposed high level political forum on sustainable development which will replace the Commission on Sustainable Development.

We will also continue our analysis of UN/CSO relationships and advocate for truly multi-stakeholder global processes at the UN.

The 2012 CIVICUS World Assembly, in Montreal, Canada in September 2011, will examine the theme of ‘defining a new social contract’ along three dimensions: changing nations through citizens; building partnerships through social innovation; and reforming global governance. The many outcomes of Rio+20 will be considered at plenary sessions as well as through a diverse array of multi-stakeholder activity sessions.

At the World Assembly, we will be hosting a one day global civil society consultation in partnership with the UN on the post-2015 development agenda, where the relationship between the MDGs and SDGs will be considered. We also look forward to helping to provide civil society inputs into the country and thematic consultations being organised by the UN for this purpose.

This CIVICUS World Assembly will see the beginning of a three-year process to define the components of a new social contract, by convening key stakeholders across sectors. Initial results of the process will be launched in September 2013 and then a final report will be released in 2015 as a people’s post-MDG charter and joint action plan.