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Multilateral diplomacy: Rio + 20: The UN Conference on Sustainable Development

by on April 3, 2013


Image Rio + 20: The UN Conference on Sustainable Development: ‘‘what a big name’’! Well, it’s only fair to have a big name for what some journalists were calling a ‘mega-summit’. A 10 days summit, within its core 3 days of high-level UN conference being attended by 88 heads of state,    hundreds of transnational corporations and NGOs.

  To highlight the importance of the topics being discussed as well as the magnitude of the event itself a mega structure was designed to support the summit. The main gathering centre where most of the buildings to hold the conferences was based had being previously researched to be as ecological as possible taking into account the more than 120.000 people walking by everyday.

Many pressrooms were scattered over the conference centre as well as around the city to attend to the needs of thousands of journalist covering the event. More than 15.000 security staff including military personnel were in charge of securing the event.

  An air blockage was imposed in some parts of the city during the length of the summit to improve the safety of the important participants against terrorism as well as to facilitate the exclusive transport of these important guests by helicopter.  A structure suitable for the biggest events on the planet. It is not surprisingly though that some uninformed Brazilian people thought that their biggest dream had come true (going to bed at night to wake up the next morning and find out that while they slept two years had passed and the World Cup was just about to start). If only that was true, but luckily for some and sadly for others it wasn’t.

  Instead, this mega event was supposed to deal with one of the most concerning global issues, an issue that has being on the minds of the nation states for sometime already. The environment had already being the focus of other important summits such as the Kyoto in japan. However, most importantly, this summit was intended to be a follow up of an equally important environment focused conference. In fact, it marked the 20th anniversary of the Rio 1992 Earth conference.

  When regarding the environment there is no better place to hold a summit than Rio the Janeiro. As the Brazilian saying goes, ‘Rio is a place blessed by God’, a city surrounded by nature with a beautiful costal area, forests, mountains, beautiful friendly people, an exotic fauna and above all these, a statue of Christ the Redeemer on top of the iconic Sugarloaf mountain with his arms wide open welcoming every guest. With all that has been established so far, A mega structure, 88 heads of state working together under the umbrella of the UN, very important topics, global coverage, and the perfect place to hold the summit, what could go wrong?

  The answer for that is very simple. Everything could go wrong and everything went wrong. However, the reasons why things went wrong are a much more complex. The size of this specific event with worldwide coverage was already a problem. When an event of this magnitude dealing with an important issue such as sustainable development happens, hopes of substantial positive changes arise. Therefore, when things don’t go quite as expected the feeling left over the situation is one of complete failure.

 Image Another reason regards the fundamental structure of multilateral negotiations that require consensus or at least the majority of votes for any major change to start to be applied. To better exemplify this situation, a few weeks ago during a seminar for the Diplomacy Old and New module at London Met, the students including myself were tasked to answer to some of the same issues discussed in Rio de Janeiro. The outcome of the seminar was academically positive. The discussions highlighted how engaged on the topic the students were, however, it also highlighted how difficult it is to reach an agreement when negotiating in a group.  Many diverting arguments were emphatically proposed, even some peculiar ones regarding how undemocratic diplomacy is and that there’s no scientific evidence that the human race is actually causing global warming, therefore, such a topic should be placed out of the diplomatic and political sphere, ‘none the less an argument’.

 If a group of perhaps 25 students who have no pressure and no second agenda couldn’t reach an agreement, it becomes nearly impossible for a group of 88 heads of state to agree on proposals in which the outcome could damage their own economies.  The despair of some heads of state regarding sustainable development was also a major factor to determine the negative outcome for the negotiations in Rio the Janeiro.

 ImageThe absence of the heads of state of Germany and the United Kingdom was excused on the grounds of the sovereign debt crises in Europe. Some negotiations conveniently were going to take place during and shortly after the Rio de Janeiro summit. Barak Obama had the elections coming up soon in the US. The head of state of Canada, a so thought green and nature concerned country was simply elsewhere, (the planet is dying, we are killing it but well, who cares, we need to sort out our economies first).

 The Rio Summit may have failed on its proposals, however, it showed how committed to environmental issues some if not all the developing or emerging economies are. During the conferences, the Brics supported by many African countries were the ones who tried the hardest to propose new ideas for new forms of sustainable development.  One last comment to be made on this tiring extensive blog.  The fact that the Brics countries were the ones really fighting for the environment brings hope for the future of the planet; if there’s really a power shift happening, perhaps a new from of sustainable development will displace the outdated western economic development model.  However, only time can tell that if there is still a planet worth saving in the future.


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