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Civil Society Engagement in Sustainable Development Governance

This report from CIVICUS prepared in collaboration with UN-NGLS summarizes the results of a side event on “Civil Society Engagement in Sustainable Development Governance” co-sponsored by CIVICUS, Citizens Network for Sustainable Development, Stakeholder Forum, Social Watch, Vitae Civilis, UN-NGLS and UNEP during the Rio+20 Second Intersessional Meeting, 15 December 2011.

It is meant to inspire discussions about what mechanisms should be put in place to represent civil society in the international framework for sustainable development to be decided at Rio and beyond. Complete minutes of the proceedings and additional documentation will be foundhere.

As a follow up, there will be a side event on “The Role of Major Groups in a Future Sustainable Development Council and UN Environment Organization” taking place Tuesday, 20 March, 1:15-2:45 pm, at the North Lawn Building, Conference Room B.

Global sustainable development governance reform proposals

In 1992 at Rio the leaders of the world agreed that the major cause of the deterioration of the global environment is the unsustainable path of consumption and production, particularly in industrialized countries, that aggravates poverty, inequalities and imbalances not just between countries but also within countries. Yet over the last twenty years, rights were created for corporations that far exceed the rights and commitments created for the people and the environment. What civil society is saying is that it is time to rebalance those rights.

To address this democracy deficit civil society groups are demanding that governments undertake their responsibilities to act and implement their commitments. Member States are now conducting multilateral talks in new groupings like the G20 comprised of ‘systemically significant’ countries where the economic pillar clearly dominates. For Rio 2012, ‘systemically significant’ should apply equally to the human system and the ecosystem – namely all three pillars of the sustainable development – if the adoption of a human rights and sustainability framework is to be ensured. Rio 2012 decisions must apply to all Member States through universal reporting, across all the three pillars, as well as across national and international commitments that addresses unsustainable consumption and production patterns and other sustainability challenges.

Regarding the proposed Sustainable Development Council, there have been calls for a universal periodic review process, as well as an ombuds-role for inter-generational rights, that should include the full participation and accountability of the Bretton Woods institutions. We also need to look at national-international policy coherence.

While MDGs were very appealing because they were concrete time-bound targets with which to hold governments accountable, they have narrowed the development agenda substantially, thereby changing the governance mechanisms and narrowing the financing frame. The proposed Sustainable Development Goals and Millennium Consumption Goals must not become a tool for further narrowing what all stakeholders are doing on the multilateral level.

A global conference should be talking about global problems related to sustainability, including climate, depletion of fisheries, and the monetary system which is in complete chaos and havoc and is creating financial unsustainability. Many developing countries, including some of the poorest, are creditors of the highly indebted rich countries, which could be seen as one of the root causes of why some of those countries are now destroying their environment and exploiting their people.

There needs to be further development of metrics beyond GDP that measures the progress of all three pillars of sustainable development. To transform the current economic system, governments at the highest level must commit themselves to using these new metrics as a way of developing new policy prescriptions and allocating budgets.

History of civil society engagement since Rio 1992

During the first period of CSD from 1993-1997 through the first and second CSD period through 2001, there was much more stakeholder involvement than what we have today. In 1996, on the advice of the CSD NGO Steering Committee, the UNGA Second Committee recommended that there should be multi-stakeholder dialogues at the Five-Year Review of the Earth Summit in 1997. This developed into a two-day multi-stakeholder set of dialogues, which was far better than what Major Groups have now with speaking rights of only three minutes.

The Major Groups Programme is based on Agenda 21. NGOs are asked to be the voice of people where the rights of marginalized groups like women, indigenous peoples and youth are defended. NGO participation also brings legitimacy to the UN. Yet the Major Groups concept was itself incomplete when it was put together nor is it adequately funded. The system is not designed to bring in additional groups like academics and faith-based organizations, while other groups like Local Authorities feel that they belong elsewhere. Moreover, the Major Groups Programme does not permit the results of consultations by significant multi-stakeholder platforms to be fully represented. While the UN pays lip service to the rights of participation of the most marginalized, there is no effort to include people in extreme poverty who are the ones suffering the most from the consequences of not having a genuinely sustainable world.

NGOs have felt most frustrated when they seek to replicate the roles that governments traditionally play (when it means for example spending a lot of time negotiating a three minute intervention that has no impact on the official process). As the volume of NGO participation has increased the opportunities for them to participate effectively has decreased. Moreover, the more important the issue being discussed, the less are the NGOs allowed to participate effectively in the diplomatic process.

NGOs have added value where governments themselves fail profoundly, in particular, in the area of mutual accountability where governments are typically reluctant to hold themselves accountable to the commitments that they make except to score political points. NGOs can make a significant difference in using the intergovernmental process to hold national governments accountable for the commitments that they have made to their own citizens.

Strengthening civil society engagement in the postRio+20 Institutional Framework on Sustainable Development

The aim is for a Rio+20 outcome that commits the UN to a process for improving civil society participation in the global sustainable development governance framework. There should be an on-going discussion up to Rio that looks at “out-of-the-box” proposals to make sure that we have the most up to date ideas on multi-stakeholder engagement to strengthen the proposed Sustainable Development Council and Environment Organization.

Some call for the establishment of a UN multistakeholder committee to achieve this task while others advise that civil society should devise such a mechanism for itself as it did for the FAO Committee on World Food Security.

The current approach by CSD and UNEP focusing on the nine Major Groups as the chief participation mechanism remains a source of controversy. Some argue that Major Groups does not equate with civil society which is much larger and diverse than the nine categories identified in Agenda 21. Then there is the role of business and industry which is neither civil society nor a marginalized group. (In fact, micro-, small- and medium-sized enterprises and cooperatives are not well represented in the present structure.)

There are problems with the current Major Groups system in the areas representation, participation and implementation. Regarding representation, at the UNFCCC process there is an analysis of NGO attendance that ensures that all groups are fairly represented that is data-driven and therefore more public and accountable. On participation, the UN should make sure that NGOs have observer status at all major decision points, are able to comment on draft documents, and receive agendas at the same time as governments. On implementation, there should be more space for citizen monitoring, reporting and verifying through ombudsman and compliance mechanisms, to push for states to follow through on their commitments under those processes.

In 2004, UNEP replaced its Global Civil Society Forum with the Global Major Groups and Stakeholders Forum, where the status of the 12 elected regional representatives was changed to “observers”. In the current revision of the UNEP Guidelines, there were calls for both the restoration of the regional representatives to the Steering Committee as well as the original name “Global Civil Society Forum.”

There are many examples of civil society and multistakeholder participation in the multilateral system. In contrast to the formation of the Major Groups structure, civil society organizations determined the mechanism adopted by the FAO Committee on World Food Security where they have eleven different constituencies as well as regional representation, each of which are facilitated by a global consultation process. It is perhaps the only other example comparable to the Habitat II process of civil society being able to engage in the drafting of text on a par with governments. If a government endorsed that text it became a live text. There was a proposal at the end of the Habitat conference that the UN Commission on Human Settlements should have a number of seats for NGOs, government, and industry, to do that kind of engagement putting forward recommendations into the negotiations.

There is the ombuds-role where there would be a window of opportunity for citizens to approach an international authority to hold their governments accountable for the commitments they have made internationally. Successes, though limited, have occurred in the inspection panel system of many of the IFIs, and the clean development mechanism under the Framework Convention where citizens hold their national governments accountable by being able to approach an international forum directly to voice their complaints. The Human Rights Council’s UPR is a mechanism for holding governments accountable to peer review which has generated a lot of civil society mobilization and political traction at the national level.

At the ILO, there are three groups where trade unions as non-state actors discuss amendments at the same level as states along with employers. Is it not only about having time to speak, or having advocacy capacity in the corridors and at capitals, but it is also about engaging in decision-making of the multilateral process. Non-state actors could then implement agreements that they have also decided upon, rather than just endorsing decisions already decided by governments at the international level.

There are also regional agreements like the Aarhus Convention that provides an example of on-the-ground implementation and cooperation where local law enforcement is collaborating with NGOs and community-based organizations to ensure that commitments are being kept.

NGOs face their own challenges of accountability. There is the significant gap between organized civil society and social movements which are at the leading edge of societal transformation worldwide. NGOs face the continual challenge of rising beyond their individual concerns in order to work together toward a common vision. Governments complain that Major Groups do not report back on how they are implementing decisions made by multilateral bodies.

If civil society organizations do not propose concrete recommendations on how the United Nations should engage them within the global sustainable development governance framework to be decided at Rio 2012, then there is a risk that a mechanism shall be imposed upon them. Now is the time for NGOs and Major Groups to agree upon a set of substantive proposals in consultation with governments and the UN in advance of the Rio conference and beyond.

The UN Non-Governmental Liaison Service (UN-NGLS) is an inter-agency programme of the United Nations mandated to develop constructive relations between the UN and civil society organizations.


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