Governance discussion at UNEP International Consultation, Bonn

At the UNEP International Consultation in Bonn, 1 September 2011, on "Engaging with Major Groups and Stakeholders on Rio+20: the Role of Civil Society in Shaping the Sustainable Development Agenda for the 21st Century", Working Group 1 discussed governance issues. The following is a summary of the discussions.

Institutional Framework for Sustainable Development: what governance system do we need to address 21st century challenges?

The working group was moderated by Arthur Dahl, with Bradnee Chambers, Chief, Environmental Law and Governance Branch, UNEP, as Resource Person. Bradnee summarized the outcomes of the Nairobi-Helsinki process where the approach taken was that form should follow function, identifying functions and gaps, and reviewing the main institutional options. The UNCSD secretariat is now supposed to provide an analysis of these options.

With respect to the main building blocks of a reformed international environmental governance (IEG) system, most of the discussion has focused at the international level, not at the national or regional levels, yet IEG requires coherence across multiple levels of governance. The regional level is poorly integrated into the UN, and also lacks civil society participation.

International environmental law is not working, as there is no enforcement. We need international obligations, as in the World Trade Organization rules, to leverage action. There could be an international court for the environment. Governments cannot cope with the demands of a fragmented system of multilateral environmental agreements (MEAs), requiring a stronger IEG presence at the national level, with more resources and capacity building.

The major failures are in implementation, but governments do not want mechanisms for accountability, compliance and enforcement. Peer review might be a more acceptable option, and could provide a holistic perspective on commitments, but in Africa where peer review exists, nothing changes. UNEP does not have a mandate or resources for implementation at the national level, so this gap needs to be addressed. Another gap is in the management of global commons such as the oceans. Strengthening mechanisms for managing global commons beyond national jurisdiction could create institutional precedents without infringing on national sovereignty.

Rio+20 will be looking at the institutional framework for sustainable development, so the working group considered how the structure for IEG should fit into this framework. One need is for a global registry of sustainable development commitments and actions expected of governments, but also of subnational/local governments and business. It is important to focus in a positive way on good governance, showing best practices that earn the trust of stakeholders. Much of the failure to implement is due to institutional problems at the national level. Environment ministries are separate and weak. "Form follows function" should also apply at the national level, while adapting to different institutional cultures. A function of mediator is needed to address the inevitable conflicts between economic, social and environmental actions and perspectives, which need to be integrated in a long-term perspective. Business is an increasingly important global player in (un)sustainable development. Yet a study by the World Economic Forum showed that business leaders want strong governmental environmental regulations fairly enforced, so that they can innovate to respond to the needs of society in a level playing field. Governments have not understood this.

The links between human rights and sustainable development should be recognized, linking institutional arrangement for sustainability with reporting under human rights treaties. The debate on climate change in the Human Rights Council was a step forward, but did not go any further. Unlike other human rights violations, who is responsible for climate change?

On the role for major groups and stakeholders (MGS), there is no overall coherence in the UN system approach to civil society participation, which needs to be raised to a higher level. The Rio+20 web site encourages civil society contributions, and governments do look at the postings. Civil society should also advocate with governments at the national level, creating political will for action. Civil society should be making more concrete proposals and highlighting what are the critical issues. However if there are too many issues, there is no coherence. It is better to focus on a few proposals. There are good models for civil society participation at the intergovernmental level, such as in the role of advisors at ministerial meetings. Civil society representatives should take part fully in the work of UN bodies except in voting, as they already do in the FAO Commission on Food Security. The new information technologies are opening up wider possibilities for participation, which should be encouraged and developed. The UN itself should apply Principle 10 of the Rio Declaration and the Aarhus Convention on access to information, public participation and access to justice in environmental matters. Knowing that intergovernmental negotiations generally water down agreements to find the middle of the road, it is up to civil society to be ambitious and speak courageously, in order to move the middle of the road.

Finally, civil society has its roots in local communities, where much implementation must finally take place. Civil society can bring international commitments down to the local level, and work for local empowerment and responsibility. For example, there are growing initiatives in civil society using a commons approach to resource management, but these need government to provide an appropriate legal framework.