North-South Divide Looms Heavily Over Rio+20 Summit

UNITED NATIONS, May 29, 2012 (IPS) – The 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro was to a large extent derailed by a North-South divide: a battle between a coalition of rich industrial nations versus the world’s developing countries led by the Group of 77.

“North-South divide is deep and intense,” says Branislav Gosovic, who was a member of the South Centre delegation to the Earth Summit in June 1992. 

In some ways, he pointed out, the current divisions are more so than at the time of the 1972 U.N. Conference on the Human Environment (UNCHE) in Sweden, the first major international conference on the environment, and the subsequent Earth Summit 20 years later. 

“And no doubt the (North-South) division will affect the proceedings and outcomes of Rio+20,” predicted Gosovic, author of “The Quest for World Environmental Cooperation: The Case of the U.N. Global Environment Monitoring System,” and who served on the staff of the 1983Brundtland Commission which raised awareness of the world’s environmental and development problems. 

Gosovic said tensions remain high between North and South, as witnessed at the UNCTAD XIII meeting in Qatar last month. 

In an interview with IPS U.N. Bureau Chief Thalif Deen, he said that issues outstanding since 1964, when the U.N. Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) was launched, continue to spoil the North-South dialogue. 

“These will be present at the Rio+20 encounter,” he added. 

The Rio+20 summit, formally known as the U.N. Conference on Sustainable Development (UNCSD), will take place in Brazil Jun. 20- 22. 

Stressing the importance of the 1972 conference, Gosovic also insists on calling Rio+20 by another name: Stockholm+40. 

As weeklong negotiations began Tuesday, in another attempt to finalise what is known as the “outcome document” for the summit, the 193-member Preparatory Committee (PrepCom) remained divided. 

The deadlock between North and South is over several disputed issues, including financing and transfer of technology. 

“It should not be surprising that developing countries are rather suspicious of the ultimate motivations and practical implications of the recently launched concept of ‘green economy’ and of the institutional moves to create a specialised agency on environment,” said Gosovic. 

These, he said, would be outside the scope of the U.N. General Assembly, and more dependent for funding on developed countries and corporations. 

Excerpts from the interview follow. 

Q: As someone who participated in the 1992 Earth Summit, how confident or sceptical are you on the final outcome of Rio+20?

A: I am not optimistic about great achievements and major breakthroughs at Rio+20. This gathering is taking place at a difficult moment in global and national economies, and after 20 years of neoliberal globalisation predominance. 

The former means that the heads of state will be preoccupied with responses to the current crisis they are not sure how to manage and overcome; the latter has done damage to the global sustainable development agenda, and has stalled or rolled back some of the policy and conceptual advances made in the earlier period, up to and at (the summit) in Rio. 

Q: How much faith do you have in the Rio+20 outcome document currently under negotiation?

A: The document negotiated keeps many of the ideas and objectives alive. But, weeks before the event, bracketed paragraphs (indicating disagreement) and ambiguous wording on key issues signal lack of agreement and mean that the international community is in for a continuing period of drought. 

However, I dare be optimistic that in the longer run and following the neoliberal globalisation interlude, given the maturing of many issues and concerns and aggravation of global problems identified 40 years ago at Stockholm, Rio+20 may mark the onset of a more promising 20-year period of international cooperation on the way to the “Stockholm+60 i.e. Rio+40” gathering. 

Q: How best can these be achieved?

A: This will require hard work, commitment and leadership of some countries that are in a position to offer it, and involvement of social forces in a genuine global movement. 

And more importantly, it will entail major structural and paradigmatic changes in how the human society is organised, nationally and globally, a key which will open the door for achieving many of the currently elusive or unattainable goals. 

To no surprise, such changes will be resisted and fought tooth and nail, with all means available, by those who oppose them. 

Q: Do you think there is a repetition of the 1992 North-South divide in the current negotiations for the Rio+20 plan of action titled “The Future We Want”?

A: The North-South divide has been there for more than six decades, since the very early days of the United Nations. It affected and determined the outcomes of the 1972 Stockholm Conference, and the manner in which the whole environmental agenda was conceptualised, as an environment-development agenda. 

It was present in the report and proceedings of the Brundtland Commission, i.e. World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED), and then at Rio 1992 and at Johannesburg 2002. And, as the negotiations of the draft outcome document illustrate, it is going to play a central role at Rio+20. 

One can make a case that the environmental issues were piggy-backed on the international development agenda, and vice versa; global environmental problems could not be resolved and dealt with without the South and developing countries participating, developing and becoming equal partners in the undertaking. 

Thus environment-development twin at UNCHE and its more recent version of sustainable development, adopted at UNCED (the 1992 Earth Summit). They cannot be wished away, as some in the developed countries do, trying to find divisions and differentiation within the South. 

And they will continue until such time when the North changes its policy and assumes the position of solidarity and genuinely adheres to the Rio principle of “common and differentiated responsibilities”. 

Instead, one witnesses eager efforts to morph the environmental agenda into a major business and job creation opportunity, and to project the image of key developing countries as the principal global environmental threat, and in climate change-related negotiations to pit against them smaller groupings of vulnerable developing countries in their never-ending efforts to divide the Group of 77. 

In sum, North-South conflict is well and alive, it will be present at Rio+20 and it will continue for the foreseeable future. 

Q: How does agenda 21 and Rio+20 stack up against the landmark Bundtland Commission report? Have we made any substantial progress since that report and also since the 1972 Stockholm conference on the environment?

A: The Rio+20 document is a product of committee drafting process and negotiations. As such, it cannot match WCED or UNCED outcomes, both of which were produced by teams dedicated to the task who worked together over a lengthy period of time. 

On the other hand, most of the themes that were articulated in WCED report and Agenda 21 can be found in Rio+20 draft document, though often worded in a manner which indicates lack of consensus and of commitment to act. 

While progress has been made in a number of areas since UNCHE, WCED and UNCED, but on key outstanding issues and underlying conflicts, there has been little or no movement. These continue to be topical and will play a major role at Rio+20. 

As mentioned above, one of these conflicts has to do with North-South divisions, the international development agenda and the related issue of the existing global and political order which is being challenged. 

The other conflict, less visible to the eye, has to do with the nature of the dominant socioeconomic order, or paradigm, which is challenged globally as non-sustainable socially and environmentally. This conflict is present within the North and within the South. There has been little progress in practice on fundamental issues of this kind.

Article original appeared in IPS News.

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