Approved Text at Rio+20 Raises Hopes for Principle 10.
Jun 19, 2012

Government delegates attending the Rio+20 Conference approved the text for the outcome document to be presented to heads of state and other high level officials for adoption when they meet from June 20-22 in Rio de Janeiro. The text was negotiated till the wee hours of the morning and Brazil, the host country, presented a new text to the delegates soon thereafter. Two days ago, delegates were seen and heard exchanging words on controversial issues such as the mention of the principle of common but differentiated responsibility, financial mechanisms to fund sustainable development initiatives and the proposal for a high level representative for future generations. Heated arguments erupted between the G77, the EU, the US, Swiss and the Brazilian delegates prompting the Swiss President to cancel his visit to Rio.

Despite the hot air and the widespread dissapointment about its content, the approved outcome document contains language on advancing the implementation of Principle 10 of the Rio Declaration that keeps the flames of hope on this issue alive. Principle 10 states that environmental issues are best handled with the participation of all relevant stakeholders, with access to information and access to justice. Better known as the environmental democracy principle, it has spawned laws providing access to environmental information in over 100 countries, public participation provisions in over 120 countries and environmental courts and tribunals in over 44 countries.

Despite this progress, major gaps remain, especially in developing countries. Implementation of these laws is weak across the world and blatant violations of participatory procedures are widespread. Often such violations lead to protests and violence by local communities who feel marginalized by the lack of information, consultation and accountability of government decision-making that affects them.

The Rio+20 outcome document text however provides some interesting hooks for moving forward on the enhanced implementation of Principle 10. In particular clause 88(h) which seeks to strengthen UNEP reads as follows: “Ensure the active participation of all relevant stakeholders drawing on best practices and models from relevant multilateral institutions and exploring new mechanisms to promote transparency and effective engagement of civil society”

The term “ensure” given UNEP a strong mandate to take steps to improve the implementation of Principle 10. “New mechanisms” could well include a global convention on Principle 10. The only international convention on Principle 10 is the Aarhus Convention which is applicable in the European Region. The model and experience of the Aarhus Convention would be extremely useful is crafting a global convention but many other issues of concern to developing and least developed countries would need to be addressed. A paper Jeremy Wates, Secretary general of the European Environmental Bureau and I wrote sets out these challenges in some detail. Some of these include the recognition that developing countries will need financial assistance and capacity building in order to reach the minimum standards set by such a convention and that compliance with the convention would have to be gradual and tailored to the needs and capacity of each country.

The success of such a convention would depend on how well UNEP helps developing countries build their capacity to implement Principle 10 and carefully prepares the ground to sow the seeds for such an effort. Clause 85(h) which establishes a high level forum to replace the Commission on Sustainable Development among the actions it could take lists the promotion of “transparency and implementation through further enhancing the consultative role and participation of Major Groups and other relevant stakeholders at the international level in order to better make use of their expertise, while retaining the intergovernmental nature of discussions.”

The consultativerole of Major Groups leaves much to be desired with confusion about how, when and where to seek accreditation for meetings and the rights to speak and participate in international meetings. This clause gives hope that reforms might be in the offing. Clause 99 expressly “encourages action at the regional…” level opening the door to the negotiation of regional conventions on Principle 10. Almost immediately Ambassador Jose Luis Balmaceda of Chile made a public announcement at a well-attended event in Rio “Choosing our Future”. Ambassador Balmaceda received prolonged and appreciative applause when he pledged that Chile together with several other Latin American countries would take the lead in exploring the option of initiating and negotiating a regional convention for Latin America and the Caribbean.

Several other clauses in the draft including 10, 15, 43, and 44 expressly refer to access to information, citizen participation and access to justice in environmental matters and pledge to significantly improve implementation of these elements that constitute Principle 10. It is perhaps too early to judge how the approved text will be interpreted and implemented by the UN system. But there is no doubt that it contains rays of hope and space for constructive engagement by governments and civil society on improving the implementation of Principle 10.


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