Rio has not changed the North-South equation

The UNCED deliberations have to be viewed in the context of northern attempts to maintain hegemony over the rest of the world

By Muchkund Dubey
Published: Wednesday 15 July 1992

-- THE SOUTH today is in the most vulnerable situation it has ever faced in the last 30 or 40 years. Today, more than two-thirds of the countries in this category are in a debt trap and forced to go to the North for rescheduling repayments, forced to accept structural adjustment programmes and so on.

This vulnerability has coincided with a degree of confidence that the advanced countries have acquired, mainly because of the disappearance of the Eastern Bloc. A significant feature of international economic relations is the determination of the North, led by the US, to exploit the economic and political vulnerability of the South and force upon it economic and non-economic restrictions. This was not the case earlier.

For instance, the North has completely changed the character of multilateral agencies like the UN to maintain its hold on the world power structure. The New World Order, is just a concerted, multipronged attempt to maintain hegemony over the rest of the world.

We have to situate the Rio conference in that context. I feel that, for the first time since the mid-1970s, the South is perceived by the North to have bargaining clout in the environmental field. It is basically a question of the South being able to utilise this clout. Earlier, I had thought that the factors which made it surrender in other areas would lead to its surrender here too. So it's heartening that it has managed to close ranks.

This has been done more in terms of damage limitation than being able to extract any quid pro quo of a positive nature. Let me illustrate this. The South has succeeded in limiting its commitment on the climate change convention. It succeeded in warding off a commitment which would have hampered its potential for industrial development.

This gain is partly fortuitous and partly a success in diplomacy -- of taking advantage of differences between northern states. It was basically USA's uncompromising stand which got the South off the hook.

Given the current asymmetry between the position of the North and the South, an equation of commitment is almost impossible to negotiate. It has to be a compromise. The current asymmetry could have been taken into account only partially and not fully.

Secondly, on the biodiversity convention, the South has done well to not allow its genetic heritage to be subjected to the patents rampage of northern multinationals. It is an improvement upon the Dunkel Draft. It even strengthens the hands of the South in renegotiating the Dunkel Draft, if it is at all going to be renegotiated.

Thirdly, I think the commitment in the biodiversity convention on the transfer of technology as a matter of state responsibility is a departure from the recent negotiating position of the North, which has absolutely refused to assume any responsibility in this regard.

But I would add that the South has not been able to use its bargaining position as a leverage for enhancing the flow of resources to developing countries. No targets have been agreed upon. The promise in the climate convention is only a general one of enhancing the Global Environment Fund (GEF) resources.

There is also no commitment on meeting the general environment requirements of developing countries outside the climate convention. I doubt any breakthrough will be possible on this issue. The South will not be able to use the gains of the Rio conference as a precedent for negotiations with the North in the context of the general North-South dialogue. This dialogue is stagnant, if not dead. To the extent environmental issues provide an opportunity of serving some of these purposes, the outcome has been positive in Rio.

Finally, the unity, albeit in relative terms, that southern countries have demonstrated is encouraging and should therefore be maintained.

--- Muchkund Dubey is a former foreign secretary to the Indian government.

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