Rio+20 ends the era of grand global agenda-setting By L. MUTHONI WANYEKI | Tuesday, July 3 2012 at 08:55
Rio+20 is over. The 20th anniversary of the first United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, that brought us the three Conventions on Biodiversity, Climate Change and Desertification. But the candles on the 20th birthday cake for the Earth Summit fizzled out. And nobody seems to have come away from the party with anything but a hangover.
No new, legally-binding Conventions. From Kenya’s perspective, no new global environmental body. Just a feeble outcomes document with vague promises to strengthen the United Nations Environment Programme.
For a start, that the era of bold steps forward for international norm-setting is well and truly over. Think back to the 1990s and the momentum then. First, there was Rio on the environment in 1992. Next was Vienna on human rights in 1993. The global women’s movement went to Vienna with the slogan “women’s rights are human rights” and achieved the recognition of violence against women, in the private domain, as a state responsibility to end. Then there was Cairo on population in 1994. There, the women’s movement globally shifted the debate on population control to women’s reproductive and sexual health and rights. Finally, there was the fourth world conference on women in Beijing in 1995.
The UN norm-setting train terminated at the station with the Millennium Declaration in 2000, which gave us the Millennium Development Goals. The MDGs were condensed goals and achievable targets, derived from the norm-setting frenzy of the previous decade, towards which states could move.
On the peace and security front, the UN Security Council arguably did not recover from the essentially unilateral and illegal offensives against first Afghanistan and then Iraq. Protests were duly made but then everybody quietly got on with legitimising the occupations and rebuilding national, sovereign institutions.
So why did everybody troop off to Rio? What did people think was possible to achieve? Why does the UN now want a global rule of law discussion? Not that we don’t care about rule of law. But the North and South are, unsurprisingly, split down the middle on this — with the South wanting a focus on rule of law internationally and the North domestically. Why does the global women’s movement want a 20th anniversary for Beijing? We could place bets on how fast Christian and Muslim fundamentalists will descend on and wreck that party.
Everyone’s bitterly disappointed with the multilateralism we have — albeit for different reasons on different sides of and within the North-South divide. Everyone’s had enough of global governance — that everyone’s signed up to but everyone respects more in the breach. It is clear, like it or not, that states will do what states believe states must — even in the face of protests from their own citizens. On their own, if they think they can get away with it. With others, when they can’t.
But tossing our toys out of the pram won’t help us. We’ve used international law to leverage our own demands for change internally. We continue to do so to leverage our demands for change internationally. There’s no option to do otherwise.
However, we should start do so more strategically. Instead of investing effort, energy and money and time in global jamborees that cannot go anywhere anymore, we need to consolidate, hunker down and work with what we have. The time is not ripe for new norms. Let’s focus on realising the norms we have. From the bottom-up.
L. Muthoni Wanyeki is doing her graduate studies at L’Institut d’etudes politiques (Sciences Po) in Paris, France
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