Commission of omissions

After prolonged negotiations, what the Rio summit has produced is a weak and poorly represented commission on sustainable development

 
Published: Saturday 04 July 2015

THE ONE lasting reminder of the Rio conference will be the Commission on Sustainable Development, which is to be set up under the aegis of the United Nations to supervise the implementation of Agenda 21.

There was much opposition to the idea of the commission from both southern and northern countries. The US threatened to open up contentious brackets at the last minute. "Everybody has a lot to hide," said Richard Sandbrook, director of the London-based International Institute of Environment and Development. The southern states resented the policing role of an international agency and apprehend that it might turn out to be another biased and intrusive system like the Human Rights Commission.

The earlier proposals sought to establish a powerful commission reporting directly to the UN general assembly. After the negotiations, however, a much weaker commission will report to the general assembly through the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) of the UN. The text agreed in Rio further states that, "The ECOSOC should organise a periodic review of the work of the Commission on Sustainable Development."

Governments will have to submit periodic reports to the new commission on their efforts to implement Agenda 21, a subject of considerable debate. The states can submit "information" to the commission "in the form of periodic communication or national report". But G-77 and some countries, like the UK and USA, were against national reporting. The final text states, in typical UN bureaucratese, that the commission will "consider information provided by the government, including, for example, in the form of periodic communication or national reports".

India was strongly opposed to the supervisory role of the proposed commission at "the international, national, and regional levels". But Venezuela, one of the prime movers of the commission idea, did not agree. The clause was finally retained.

The smaller nations, especially Benin, feared they would be marginalised as only bigger states in respective regions would get representation on the commission. "The question of equitable geographical representation of small countries is an issue which the countries will have to solve multilaterally at the regional level," explained Ismail Razali, the Malayasian diplomat who chaired the negotiations on post-Rio institutions.

The NGOs were thrilled by their inclusion as management partners. "Every country must accept the phenomenon of peoples' power," said Razali. Agenda 21 now states: "NGOs.... are important partners in the implementation of Agenda 21." This gives them an opportunity to participate in the negotiating process at the UN. NGO networking has already begun to plan for the future. But several NGOs were also disappointed at their failure to get a commitment on the specific terms of NGO participation.

The 47th general assembly later this year will determine the new commission's structure and other modalities. But Martin Khor of the Third World Network argues that, with the UN's social and economic departments being restructured, it is not clear how the new commission will implement its decisions, especially as the institutional capacity of the UN itself is being weakened. Observers already see a shift in social and economic issues away from the UN to Bretton Woods institutions, like the World Bank, which the North controls.

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