Legal sector holds key to Rio+20

A CLOUD of doubt has formed over the Rio+20 Earth Summit after countries failed to agree on acceptable language just two weeks before 120 world leaders arrive at the biggest United Nations event of its kind ever organised.  Members of the judiciary, however, could prove formidable in salvaging the process.

At the latest UN preparatory meeting in New York, Rio+20 negotiations fell into disarray.  Talks aimed at setting a new collective path for sustainable development splintered into 19 separate dialogues amid major disagreements.


Martin Khor of the South Centre in Geneva summed up the five key issues plaguing the negotiators.

FIRST is the reluctance of the developed countries to reaffirm the “Rio Principles” originally agreed in 1992, namely the common but differentiated responsibilities (CBDR). Under the CBDR, all countries have the duty to act but developed countries have to do the most in environmental action plus provide finance and technology transfer to developing countries so that they can move towards sustainable development.

SECOND is the apprehension of developing countries that the “green economy” may be used by the developed countries as conditionality to trade or aid. Worse, the former fears that the concept may even replace that of sustainable development.

THIRDLY, the developing countries have accepted Sustainable Development Goals as a concept and an operational tool. They want the three pillars (social, economic, environment) to be represented in a balanced way in selecting the goals, and they are concerned that the developed countries have put forward only environment goals.

The FOURTH issue is the institutional framework for sustainable development (IFSD). Negotiators are still deadlocked whether to replace the ineffective Commission on Sustainable Development with a high-level Sustainable Development Council, and whether the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) be upgraded to become a fully-fledged UN specialised agency.

FIFTHLY, the developing countries insist that Rio+20 should at least renew the original commitments of new and additional financial resources, and to make efforts to meet the aid target of 0.7 per cent of gross national product. However, even these minimal aspects are being resisted by some developed countries.

Jim Leape, director-general of the World Wildlife Fund, appraised the situation: “We are facing two likely scenarios — an agreement so weak it is meaningless, or complete collapse. Neither of these options will give the world what it needs. Country positions are still too entrenched and too far apart to provide a meaningful draft agreement for approval by an expected 120 heads of state.”

The Rio+20 summit on June 20-22 marks several important milestones in environmental history, including the Rio Earth Summit of 1992 and the 1972 Stockholm Conference on the Human Environment, at which the UNEP was created.

The world today is markedly different from the one considered by decision-makers in decades past. Many realities glimpsed in the early 1990s — from global warming and land degradation to biodiversity loss and increasing freshwater scarcity — are becoming less theory and more hard reality.

There are many instances of progressive steps towards integrating environmental sustainability in decision making. But it’s plain that somehow the pace and scale of responses have fallen far short of what is required.
Rio+20 is an opportunity of a generation to effect the changes we need.  It comes at a time of unprecedented evidence of environmental degradation and the importance of sustainability.

In Malaysia, interest in sustainable development has always been high. There has been genuine interest and concrete examples of efforts in many parts of our national administration to find ways to identify, accelerate and scale-up novel sustainability efforts.

Efforts to practise and embrace the green economy, led by Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak himself, is a case in point.  Put in place since 2009 are an array of national policies and guidelines, and even a ministry dedicated to nurturing green technologies as a way to advance our economic interests as well as our environmental ones.

Malaysia is also a leading supporter of UNEP’s World Congress on Justice, Governance and Law for Environmental Sustainability, being held from yesterday to Wednesday.  It will convene attorneys-general, chief prosecutors, auditors-general, chief justices and senior judges from around the world to examine law and governance aspects of environmental sustainability.

This effort reflects the critical importance of enforcing compliance with international environmental agreements.

Two preparatory meetings were convened in Kuala Lumpur (October last year) and Buenos Aires (April this year).   Participants agreed that the legal community can play a crucial role in advancing national and international efforts to attain environmental sustainability goals.

The legal community is essential for the successful shift in thinking about sustainability and in its realisation.

Shifting to a green economy requires legal incentives (and disincentives) to help remove barriers to promoting green sectors and deploy green technologies. Ending transnational environmental crime requires the effort of law enforcers, prosecutors and judges, and strong cooperation across borders.

Issues related to rights and nature have long been, and will continue to be, a core concern of the legal profession — the rights of individuals and groups of people affected by environmental degradation, for example, or the right to participate in environment-related decision making.

The legal community also deeply understands the limitations and difficulties that come with a fragmented environmental management approach, with laws that are hard to apply, with the lack of mechanisms that give teeth to legislation, and many other impediments to effective governance.

Hopefully, the World Congress will lay a foundation for work after Rio.

Much is happening in the legal community related to the development and implementation of environmental law — excellent experience that should be shared, replicated and further supported through stronger ties across borders and across professions, and through continued world dialogue on the progressive development and effective implementation of environmental law.

The writer co-chairs the High-Level International Advisory Committee of UNEP’s World Congress on Justice, Governance and Law for Environmental Sustainability

Article originally appeared in New Straits Times.

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