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2.4 The Road from Rio: Post-1992 and the WSSD

General background

The period after the Rio Conference was characterised by increased environmental activities, for example, the UN General Assembly adopted five resolutions on drought and desertification, sustainable development of small island states, follow-up on the Forest Principles, Conference on Straddling and Highly Migratory Fish Stocks as well the implementation of all commitments made at the Rio Conference. Various international environmental treaties on important matters were adopted, for example:

A particularly notable aspect of the post-Rio period was the extent to which the major multilateral international treaties now recognised environmental protection as a goal. For example, the 1994 Charter that established the World Trade Organization recognised environmental co-operation. Regional economic agreements likewise recognised the environment. Agenda 21 affirmed the primary responsibility of national and local governments in managing the environment. In the post-Rio period, there was also obvious acceptance of the need for international co-operation for many issues including those concerning the oceans, inland waters, and the atmosphere. On land, the Convention to Combat Desertification in those Countries Experiencing Serious Drought also represented notable international co-operation.

On the other hand, economic interests were also a countering force to the global environmental agenda. Globalisation with its doctrine of free trade, combined with the concerns of poorer nations, tended to compete against environmental objectives. Post-Rio globalisation may be viewed as becoming predominant. Conflicting interests carried through to the World Summit on Sustainable Development.

As the year 2000 approached, Kofi Annan proposed that the General Assembly in the first year of the new century be declared a Millennium Assembly. He further suggested that the agenda include a Millennium Summit. The latter was opened in the UN building in New York in September of 2000. 103 Heads of State and 89 Heads of Government attended the Summit. This was the highest level of representation at an international meeting in history. As an outcome, the participants unanimously adopted the Millennium Declaration (UN 2000a). It first states:

'We, Heads of State and Government, have gathered at United Nations Headquarters in New York from 6 to 8 September 2000, at the dawn of a new millennium, to reaffirm our faith in the Organization and its Charter as indispensable foundations of a more peaceful, prosperous and just world.'

It further affirms a basic message of the Stockholm and Rio conferences in stating that a fundamental value essential to international relations in the 21st century include:

'Respect for nature. Prudence must be shown in the management of all living species and natural resources, in accordance with the precepts of sustainable development. Only in this way can the immeasurable riches provided to us by nature be preserved and passed on to our descendants. The current unsustainable patterns of production and consumption must be changed in the interest of our future welfare and that of our descendants.'

This declaration of a 'fundamental value' clearly identifies the necessity for sustainable production and consumption. The Summit's declaration was the basis for the UN Secretariat delineating the Millennium Development Goals (MDG) (UN 2000b). There are eight goals, the seventh being:

Goal 7: Ensure environmental sustainability


Target 7a: Integrate the principles of sustainable development into country policies and programmes; reverse loss of environmental resources

Target 7b: Reduce biodiversity loss, achieving, by 2010, a significant reduction in the rate of loss

Target 7a and 7b Indicators:

Target 7c: Reduce by half the proportion of people without sustainable access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation

Target 7d: Achieve significant improvement in lives of at least 100 million slum dwellers, by 2020

Thus the 21st century began with the appearance of a firm international commitment to an environmental agenda. There was a clearly expressed duty to ensuring environmental sustainability. However, this commitment looked less secure as preparations proceeded for the tenth year review of the implementation of the Rio commitments, in Johannesburg in 2002.

Johannesburg World Summit

The United Nations World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) was held in September 2002 in Johannesburg, South Africa. Its title omitted the word environment. Rather, development was the key word although the declared purpose was to reaffirm commitments made in the Rio Conference and to take stock of developments since it was held 10 years earlier. In fact, as shown in its Declaration, a basic aim of the conference was to focus on the alleviation of poverty (UN 2002a). It was the biggest global environmental conference yet, attended by more than 30 000 delegates.

No Statement of Principles or treaties were adopted, but the Johannesburg Declaration on Sustainable Development and the WSSD Implementation Plan (UN 2002b) contained some general targets to achieve the UNCED goals through various commitments.

Perhaps after the celebrated success of the Rio Conference, the Johannesburg Conference would inevitably be more modest in its outcomes. It did not disappoint in being only a modest success. For example, the Declaration states: 'Between Rio and Johannesburg, the world's nations have met in several major conferences under the auspices of the United Nations, including the International Conference on Financing for Development, as well as the Doha Ministerial Conference. These conferences defined for the world a comprehensive vision for the future of humanity' (UN 2002a). However, neither of these conferences was notable for their recognition of environmental interests.

It may be noted that the continuing development of international environmental law since the Rio Conference in 1992 and the WSSD in Johannesburg in 2002, illustrates a shift towards procedural, constitutional and institutional procedures such as new monitoring and enforcement methods and the introduction of technical and interdisciplinary methods to achieve effective and practical implementation. Examples include the use of environmental impact assessments; the wider dissemination of environmental information; increased interaction with trade and financial factors; and the introduction of new methods of regulation that seek sharing economic benefits rather than pure reliance on command and control regulatory schemes. Humanitarian interests have also been increasingly linked to environmental considerations. In its General Comment No. 15, the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights proclaimed that: 'Water is a limited natural resource and a public good fundamental for life and health. The human right to water is indispensable for leading a life in human dignity' (UNHCHR 2002). The World Health Organization and other international bodies and charities also advocate for a human right to water, recognising its importance to life and dignity and that the availability of water is fundamental for reducing poverty. Thus is a basic environmental issue firmly linked to social and economic interests.

Note down any examples that you know about of the effects of the Rio and WSSD Conferences on environmental protection and management in the state or country in which you reside. Try to identify and list any official programmes that have been launched and legislation that has been adopted to give effect to the commitments that your state/country made at Rio and at the WSSD.