United Nations

Earth Summit + 5, downbeat in its assessment of progress since Rio, sends NGOs home with new energy

UNITED NATIONS - Five years ago, after some 118 world leaders at the first "Earth Summit" in Rio de Janeiro adopted Agenda 21, a global program for environmental protection and economic development, it was greeted with banner headlines and diplomatic congratulations.

This year, when some 53 heads of state and government showed up for an"Earth Summit +5" meeting in New York to gauge the progress that has been made since Rio, the outcome was considerably more downbeat. Many government representatives themselves said that Rio's promise for a new spirit of international cooperation to promote "sustainable development" had not been realized, and many commentators flatly called the meeting a failure.

Yet some participants and observers found reasons for hope in the 23-27 June meeting's outcome, suggesting that through crisis new strength can be found for future action.

"This is an occasion when the non-governmental organizations should come to the rescue."

– General Assembly President Razali Ismail 

"This is an occasion when the non-governmental organizations should come to the rescue," said Malaysian Ambassador Razali Ismail, who chaired the New York Summit in his capacity as President of the UN General Assembly. "I think the job is clearly cut out for the NGOs to reexamine this document, see what is wanting, then go back to the grassroots and push and agitate for more sincere, honest implementation of all the aspects of Rio."

"Now I have the full belief that it is people that can save the world, not governments. Now it is up to civil society to save the planet. "

– Chief Bisi Ogunleye

And NGO representatives, who were also largely disappointed with the Summit's failure to resolve a number of key environmental issues, likewise resolved to work harder. "I'm going home with not only a lot of hope but a lot of strength to continue the work," said Chief Bisi Ogunleye of the Nigerian Countrywomen's Association. "Because now I have the full belief that it is people that can save the world, not governments. Now it is up to civil society to save the planet."

Unsustainable development

At its adoption five years ago, Agenda 21 sought to address a wide range of challenges, from the threat of global warming and the depletion of natural resources to the erosion of the ozone layer and the loss of biodiversity. Agenda 21 also linked these challenges to human needs, discussing the connection between environment and development in addressing the problems of overpopulation, excessive consumption, and the widening gap between the rich and the poor. In the process, the term "sustainable development" came to epitomize the world's desire both to protect the environment and improve the material welfare of its peoples.

Although there have been positive developments, including a continued rise in world food production, a slowdown in population growth, and a number of regional improvements in environmental quality, many of the trends and problems that faced leaders in Rio remain unabated or have worsened. Among other things, nations have failed to agree on how quickly they must reduce carbon dioxide emissions, a major cause of global warming, and how they must act to protect the world's forests, which are fast disappearing. (See "In Greece, NGOs organize a diplomatic event to protect forests" in this issue)

Beyond such details, perhaps the most serious shortfall in meeting the expectations of Agenda 21 was the failure of the North (the so-called "developed" nations) to meet a pledge to increase monetary aid and technical assistance to the South (also known as the "developing" world) so that the South can enjoy the benefits of development without causing the same levels of pollution and environmental damage Northern countries created during their development.

Unlike at other recent UN Summits, governments failed to reach agreement on a joint political statement about overall direction for action in the future. "The failure to produce a political statement reflects the crisis of credibility and confidence, as well as good will, between the rich and poor nations, between the North and the South," said Martin Khor, director of the Third World Network, an NGO coalition. "The compact [at Rio] was that the North would change its model of development and provide aid, and that the South would change its own patterns of development, so that it would not go the way of high energy use. But the aid given by the North did not rise. It fell."

Yet some said that the atmosphere of confession that evolved around the Summit may be good for international relations and cooperation in the future - and provide a forerunner of what the world can expect as it prepares to assess the results of other global plans of action from the UN conferences that followed Rio, such as the 1995 Social Summit in Copenhagen and the 1995 Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing.

"It is perhaps because of its acknowledged failures that the Earth Summit + 5 shows signs of a new level of maturity in the international system," said Lawrence Arturo, director of the Bahá'í International Community's Office of the Environment. "It is only from such a process of frank consultation that a new level of genuine international cooperation can emerge. In this regard, despite the missed targets and obvious divisions, we consider the outcome here quite hopeful and a harbinger of the kind of honest assessment and hard work that the international community will increasingly have to undertake if its common challenges are to be resolved."

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