Deleting our Rights, Bracketing our Future: why we need a People’s Summit at Rio+20

Paul L Quintos is Policy Officer for IBON Foundation, an international CSO engaged in capacity development of peoples’ movements around the world. He has held positions in academia, government and various CSOs, and before joining IBON, he was an organiser and educator in the progressive labour movement in the Philippines. Paul was a civil society representative at the ‘informal-informal’ negotiations and the intersessional meeting of the Preparatory Committee for the Rio+20 UN sustainable development summit, held at the UN Headquarters recently. As negotiations are beginning to heat up, governments are tussling over text of the zero draft outcome document for Rio+20, and key civil society asks are in danger of being deleted and already established principles pulled back from. Paul’s remarks were first delivered at a side event ‘Towards the Peoples’ Summit at Rio+20, held at the UN Headquarters, 23 March 2012.

I think the best way to appreciate the people’s summit in Rio is to look at what’s happening here over the last few days.

Here we have been witnessing a systematic attempt by some powerful states to weaken, ‘bracket’ or outright eliminate nearly all references to human rights obligations and equity principles in the text for the outcome of Rio+20.

Let’s take the section on food.

Text that refers to the “Right to food and proper nutrition” – delete, says one major power.

“Right of everyone to have access to safe, sufficient and nutritious food…” – bracket it!

But increasing agricultural productivity is fine. Improving access of small farmers to global markets is fine.

Text that says, “specific attention must be paid to challenges faced by poor smallholders, women and youth including their participation in decision-making…” – delete!

“Promoting access to land particularly for women, indigenous peoples and other vulnerable groups” – bracket or delete!

But “promoting open and transparent markets … promoting secure rights to land and natural resources…” – by secure rights they mean property rights. That is fine for them!

“Regulating financial and commodity markets to address price volatility” – delete!

The same story goes for water.

“Right to safe and clean drinking water and sanitation” – delete!

But they agree to “efforts to improve access” because they can always say that they are privatising water utilities in order to encourage private investments and therefore improve access. Whereas rights assign the duty to the state.

“Improving efficiency” – even better.

But it’s not just human rights that are under attack. Even principles already agreed upon in Rio in 1992 are being bracketed: the Polluter Pays Principle, Precautionary Principle, Common But Differentiated Responsibility (CBDR).

CBDR is particularly contentious, with major developed countries trying to eliminate any and all prescriptive language that would commit them to the provision of finance, technology transfers and capacity building in support of sustainable development efforts in the South.

All references to the Right to Development are being eliminated.

Language hinting at the need for reforms of international financial institutions, the multilateral trading system, the big banks – they are dismissed as being beyond the remit of Rio. What happened to integrating the three pillars?

It’s also hypocrisy, because at UNCTAD, which clearly has the mandate to push for reforms in the international trade, financial and development regime, there are also ongoing attempts by many of these same powerful states to remove any concrete and meaningful reform proposals in the outcome document for the UNCTAD XIII in April.

Here, even the goal of poverty eradication is being qualified to focus only on extreme poverty.

The powerful states are consistently opposing prescriptive language – in other words language that commits governments actually to do what they claim to support in principle. On the other hand, they are pushing for private sector investments and initiatives to fill in the gap left by the public sector.

They are even avoiding concrete targets and timelines or even defining the ‘green economy’. And I think this is deliberate. Because by keeping the definition open or vague enough, you can promote biofuels, or nuclear energy, or carbon trading, or financialisation of natural resources, or geo-engineering as ‘green economy’ measures.

So with all these attempts by powerful states to remove rights, eliminate equity, whittle down Rio principles and avoid concrete commitments to meaningful reforms in social, economic and environmental policies and governance, then what are we left with?

CSOs and social movements are already asking the question of whether we are better off with a weak agreement in Rio or no agreement at all.

There is a narrative emerging from these negotiations which can only be understood in the current global context. This is happening in the middle of the gravest crisis of the global capitalist system since the Great Depression of the previous century.

Capital is desperately seeking new investment outlets, new markets, new sources of raw materials and new ways of squeezing more profits from the toil of working people.

But they can’t privatise if we assign clear obligations on states to ensure universal access to water and so on, which is what rights imply.

They can’t make as much money out of green technologies if we require technology assessments based on the Precautionary Principle.

They can’t easily expand to biofuel plantations if we have too many safeguards in place, such as respecting customary land use rights and practices of indigenous peoples.

They can’t speculate on commodities and derivatives if we have financial regulations.

They can’t talk about equity without us talking about the obscene concentration of wealth, or capital in the hands of a global financial oligarchy which is precisely at the root of the current crisis, the decline in aggregate demand, and the surfeit of capital that therefore goes to financial speculation rather than to the real economy, inflating asset bubbles and leading to financial crises and all the attendant consequences.

They can’t aim for ever-expanding capital accumulation if we insist on the redistribution of resources and environmental space within planetary boundaries.

That’s why we need the people’s summit!

Because this is the space where the people can more freely and openly discuss and question the fundamental underpinnings of the global economic and political order; embrace new paradigms for ‘development’ and sustainability; and explore truly transformative solutions, not the false solutions that we heard all week.

But we can’t completely abandon this space either. We have to send a resounding message to our purported leaders that we will not allow them to ‘delete’ our rights and ‘bracket’ our futures. We must not allow them to backtrack on the Rio principles and on human rights obligations. We must make it clear to them that this is not the future we want!

Paul Quintos, IBON

Kiva LaTouche

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