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Towards Rio +20: The Role of Civil Society - Panel Presentation by Christine von Weizsäcker

Panel Presentation by Christine von Weizsäcker, President of WECF's Board of Trustees from the GMGSF 12 in Nairobi, Kenya

21.02.2011 |Christine von Weizsaecker

GMGSF 12, Nairobi, 20 February 2011

Many important issues relevant for Rio+20 have already been addressed in this meeting. May I add a few observation on a few elements. Fortunately, within civil society, we can rely on a wide diversity of backgrounds, experiences and knowledge about the realities around us,

Before I go into the polite niceties of our discussion in the welcoming atmosphere of Nairobi and UNEP may I remind us of some ugly contests of our discussion.

On peace: There is war and military conflict out there in many countries. War, crime and corruption go hand in hand. The Global Militarization Index shows that a large part of our economies does not run strictly according to the lines of Adam Smith, Keynes, the Chicago School or other economic theories. What will the greening of economies mean? It should not only mean running military trucks on biofuels. Do not let us be naïve about power relationships and economics. We do know, however: Environment and economy are necessary elements of sustainable peace.

On speed: There are strong geopolitical and economic interests, especially governing North-South relationships. It is not always credible to pose as the leader in saving the world with an innovative quick solution whilst clearly promoting your self-interest. Making interests transparent and negotiating a fair way forward may be a slow process. But we should not take just any bus that is brightly coloured, drives fastest and leaves immediately. I may take us into the wrong direction. Many citizens around the world know the long and tedious way towards the rule of the law, human rights, democracy, environmental and social protection, decent livelihoods within decent communities. Do not let the press with their daily need for news on sensational successes and failures dictate the speed of multilateral negotiations, agreements and their implementation. Democracy and multilaterism are slow instruments, but the best ones we have.

On asymetries: Some stakeholders are quite powerful. Their budgets are bigger than that of many countries. They have strong lobbies in the capitals. They do not need a stakeholder forum as urgently as others do. There are no comparable opportunities for the poor and vulnerable, many of them children, old people, women, small-holder farmers, rural landless people, urban poor, workers, and, last but not least, indigenous peoples – strictly speaking the majority of people around the world. They remain mostly unheard. Please do strengthen our platform if you want to hear their voices. But do not unrealistically ask for ready-made consensus amongst the major groups and stakeholders. Consensus amongst us is as difficult to achieve as consensus amongs countries. There are asymetries of power, financial clout, recognition of experience and knowledge systems. Let me remind you of this by just giving one example: The poor cannot buy their survival on the world market competing with the buying power of the pigs and cars of the wealthy. The poor need rights to redress some of the existing asymetries and allow them the space for creating their own sustainable and decent livelihoods..

On multiple crisis: We have terrifying news from IPCC on climate change. We are informed by the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment and TEEB on rampant biodiversity loss. We have a barely overcome and not fully understood financial crisis. We have news about chemical pollution, loss of topsoil, scarcity of water, resource conflicts, depletion of fish from our oceans, floods, droughts, exploding food prices and poor health conditions, which combined with environmental destruction create preconditions for pandemics. Scientific studies in many disciplines, media and daily experience teach us that we are on a road of mutually enhancing destruction.

On political will: We have a good and urgent motive to do something. We cannot afford to fight about a priority list. We have to do it jointly with actors from different walks of life, each of them addressing what they are best at. We need an ecosystem of diverse activities. But with open eyes as to backgrounds and asymetries and, in Rio-language, differentiated responsibilities. Invariably, after every round of negotiations, negotiators shrugg their shoulders at the unsatisfactory results and say: There is a LACK OF POLITICAL WILL. Creating and staining political will depends on the citizens. This is where people come in. This is where the Major Groups come in.

On the continuation of the Rio Process: We cannot afford to lose the Rio Process. We must not lose the important elements already included and agreed on, although not implemented to satisfaction. We must not lose time by reinventing the wheel, in all probability less stable and less legally binding wheels than those that were possible in 1992.  We must not lose the existing UN platform for creating international legal environmental frameworks. They will not mend all ills of the world but they are a necessary element. The word “Commons” only make sense and does not lead into a tragedy if “Commons” are guarded by the ethics and rules and conflict resolution mechanisms of a “Community”.

Building on Rio: Starting from this somewhat lenthy introduction may I list some of the issues addressed by civil society during the past two days arising from the preparations within our groups and regions based on already existing Rio language:
•    Preventio, the Precautionary Principle (PP), Reversal of the Burden of Proof: If you know there is harm in store, prevent it. If you do not know yet, but have indications of severe or irreversible harm, decide to halt the introduction, at the same time trying to learn more about it. The poor who cannot discount the future, because they cannot save the return of non-existing investment funds and address the damage later, are most dependent on these gifts from Rio.
•    Polluter-Pays Principle (PPP): In case of damage the victims always pay, because they are affected. It takes a legal effort to make the polluters pay for the harmful effects of their activities
•    Financial obligations: If you intend to ruin the standing of any institutions you withhold the money they need for meeting their obligations and then blame them for not performing. The Rio Process is blamed for not performing. At the same time, clearly financial obligations were not met, although it could be shown that money for the environment is very effectively contributing to present and future human well-being compared to some subsidies or some financial emergency fixes.

On the Toolkit for Implementation: These basic Rio-Elements could help Rio+20 to systematically and reliably move towards environmental protection, sustainable development and a stable governance framework for the move towards a Green Economy, avoiding the pitfalls of investment ruins and job-losses as the comparative advantage circles the globe. In Rio+20 governments could design and make available tools a which allows and empowers civil society to be a motivated and vibrant structural ally and partner. We can do much better if we have the following tools in the “Toolkit for Implementation”

1.    Rules on Liability and Redress: The victims will actively go for their rights for compensation and redress. This can be used to mitigate the damage. Moreover, if trouble, scandal and costs for careless or criminal behaviour are forseeable, prevention and precaution are no longer only an obligation at the level of government authorities but there is also a strong incentive for decision-makers at the business level to apply them. If the promoters of potentially harmful activities – the risk of which is not yet identifiable or quantifiable at the time of decision-making – have to provide financial security, e.g. in the form of insurance, before entering the market, this early risk-pricing will be an even stronger incentive for using the precautionnary approach in their own decision-making. PP and PPP are mutually supportive. Elements for such rules an be found in the UNEP Guidelines, in the Stockholm Convention, in the Nagoya-Kuala Lumpur Supplementary Protocol to the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety, decided in October 2010. This tool relies on excellent interdisciplinary technology assessment. And this lead directly to the next tool.

2.    Systematic Assessment of New and Emerging Technologies: A decision on a place and structure for the systematic interdisciplinary assessment is urgently needed for such technologies as genetic engineering, nanotechnology, synthetic biology, geo-engineering, new agricultural crops and practices such as biofuels and biomass production and pharming, carbon sequestration, chemicals, in all their new and emerging forms, is urgently needed. There needs to be a place with enough funds for the necessary stable infrastructure and the necessary range of expertise in the core team and the building up of networks to tap outside relevant expertise. We need such a structure ready for a quick response to “surprises”. This is part of the implementation of prevention and precaution. The Advance Technology Alert System under UNCSTD, UNEP’s Scientific Assessment Branch and their Global Environmental Outlook, the Ad-hoc Expert Group on Risk Assessment under the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety and other more specific instruments provide experiences in this field. In order to take up some of  the recently more pronounced challenges several issues should be addressed in the mandate: Contradictory expertise/biased expertise and the need for transparency as to conflict of interest; regional balance; inclusion of Major Groups and other Systems of Knowledge. The latter problem has been addressed by the FAO Committee on World Food Security in their publication on “The Future of Knowledge”. A World Environment Organization, if decided on, could build on existing structures and be a very appropriate place for such a task.

3.    Implementation of Principle 10: public access to information, public participation and access to justice in environmental matters: This is overdue. The public needs these three elements to systematically and effectively contribute to a sustainable future. We need these tools to move far beyond the publication of “the scandal of the month” and the mutual signing of petitions and declarations. We know that the freedom of information act in the US is one of the - if not the - most important tool for ensuring environmental protection. Global Environmental information made available on the net must be complemented by the right of the public to access information on facts and decision right on the ground. There are many innovative ways to promote public participation: e.g. the inclusion of the public in the making of national reports and national strategies on MEAs; in the FAO Committee on World Food Security; in the negotiations of the Nagoya Protocol on Access and Benefit-sharing to the Convention on Biological Diversity, where there the “Vienna + Setting” used by the co-chairs allowed transparency and active participation even into the last stages of the negotiations, without unduely hampering effectiveness. We know that many countries in many regions have recently passed national legislation on these matters. We know that the Arhus Convention (in Wester and Eastern Europe and Central Asia) will address the issue of timely public information, effective public participation in decision-making and affordable access to justice with regard to international fora at their COP in June. They also will decide on opening the Convention to Parties from outside the Region. The time has come for seriously considering a Global Convention on Principle 10 (a Global Arhus) or other forms of legally-binding agreements with a compliance tool. Civil society needs it to contribute far more effectively.

On Justice: Justice very often is the driving force of political will. So is “Environmental Justice”.The element of justice is not new to the Rio Process; it is embedded in the many of the outcomes of 1992, e.g. in the third objective of the Convention on Biological Diversity.
Environmental justice will mean establishing reliable safeguards regarding climate, ecosystems, water, energy, land ownership and use, vulnerable individuals and communities, and, of course, human rights to which most of this is directly or indirectly linked. These safeguards need to be legally-binding and must go beyond PR-pronouncements of the good will of the powerful. There is a marked difference between charity and justice. We should and can avoid green-washing, participation-washing, responsibility-washing, financial contribution-washing from the very start in Rio+20. The Rio Process can count on civil society. Governments, do not forsake us!

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