‘What is needed is a monitoring and accountability system for governments North and South’ – Rio+20 interview with Roberto Bissio, Coordinator, Social Watch

Roberto Bissio is Coordinator of Social Watch network and Executive Director of the Third World Institute. He serves as a board member of the Third World Network, the Women’s Environment and Development Organisation and of the Montreal International Forum. He is also a member of the Civil Society Advisory Committee to the United Nations Development Programme. Here, he talks about his hopes for Rio+20, and the need for sustainable development goals to combine human rights and sustainability agendas.

What are your expectations from Rio+20?

Rio+20 should at least reaffirm the Rio principles and resist the pressures to keep trusting in the kind of market solutions that have been proven a failure by the 2008 crisis. Ideally a Council for Sustainable Development within the UN framework should be created and an Ombudsperson for Future Generations appointed.

There is talk about the development of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). How do you see these in relation to the current MDGs and the post MDG scenario in 2015?

The human rights framework sets clear goals for wellbeing indicators. The rights to food, to health and to education impose the mandate to achieve universal attendance of all girls and boys in education, the reduction of infant mortality to less than 10 per thousand live births (since all mortality above this figure is related to malnutrition and poverty), the universal attendance of all births by trained personnel, the universal access to safe water and sanitation, and even the universal access to phone and internet services. Basically all of the first six goals of the MDGs can be read as a request to fulfil existing rights in accordance with the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. And human rights demand other goals, not included among the MDGs, such as the right to social security (article 22 of the Universal Declaration), now recognised as the basis for a ‘minimum social floor’.

Sustainability indicators, on the other hand, refer to the depletion of certain non-renewable stocks or assets. When those are part of the global commons, international agreements are required to ensure sustainability. Contrary to human wellbeing, which can be formulated in terms of goals, sustainability needs to be addressed in terms of limits. Limits can be formulated as an absolute ban on certain activities, such as the ban on whaling or on the emission of ozone depleting gases (the Montreal Protocol), or they can establish quotas to ensure non-depletion, which can be assigned to economic actors through different market and non-market mechanisms respecting principles of equity and solidarity.

Any formulation of ‘sustainable development goals’ that does not include adequate climate change targets, or does not address the human rights aspects and the sustainability aspects simultaneously and in a balanced way, risks derailing the comprehensive sustainable development agenda without any compensatory gains.

Instead of the establishment of new goals, what is needed is a monitoring and accountability system that can actually make all governments, North and South, subject to review for their obligations at home, and simultaneously creates an entitlement for support when those domestic obligations are met but the available resources are still not enough.

There is tension between civil society and governments on the adoption of the human rights-based approach in the Rio+20 outcome documents. Do you see a way out of the impasse?

That tension is implicit in the way that human rights governance is designed, with governments being accountable to their citizens but lacking mechanisms to make accountable the international system, corporations and finance structures that limit the policy space they need to promote and defend human rights. The only way to solve this dilemma is by reinforcing human rights governance at a global levels and giving it teeth over powerful countries, and not just over the weak ones.

How is Social Watch engaging with Rio+20 processes?

Social Watch is part of the Civil Society Reflection Group on Sustainability that will produce a report to Rio+20 in the coming days. Its 2012 report is on sustainable development, and the answers to these questions have been extracted from it.

19 April 2012

Social Watch: www.socialwatch.org