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Bold, ambitious action needed from leaders at Rio + 20

By Savio Carvalho, Director of Amnesty International’s Demand Dignity Programme, writing from Rio de Janeiro (Follow him on Twitter - @SavioConnects)

Late into one of the negotiation sessions at the Rio+20 Summit on Sustainable Development, references to “freedom of speech and association” were struck from the draft outcome document in a move that took just minutes.

I was shocked to watch as it happened with little or no resistance from other negotiators – an apparent trade-off for larger battles frequently fought behind closed doors in these talks. It felt like human rights had once again been relegated to a mere bargaining chip amid the horse-trading for a final text.

The theme of the summit – “the future we want” – aims to further the goals set here in Rio 20 years ago. Back then, world leaders came together and agreed to work towards saving the planet, ensuring a healthy and sustainable environment for all. But rather than building on that strong foundation, the present challenge in Rio is to protect that very foundation from being destroyed.

These negotiations look absurd when seen through the eyes of vulnerable and marginalized groups, including minorities and those living in poverty.

While such people continue to face unrelenting challenges in their daily lives, the negotiators here in Rio have no sense of urgency, getting lost in turns of phrase, spending endless hours debating commas and wading through language – which in many cases had already been agreed in previous UN processes.

During the negotiations over the past few days, we have seen several member states engage in dangerous backtracking when it comes to human rights.

The wording around sexual and reproductive rights has been deleted, as has any reference to freedom of expression, association and speech.

Some states even suggested – incredibly – that women have no role to play in sustainable development.

The summit’s outcome document does not even mention the need to audit the human rights impact of actions.

On Tuesday, Brazil – as the summit’s chair and host country – threw a press conference to announce that the outcome document was agreed. They later released the text, which heads of state arriving for the summit are expected to sign.

Even though the journey to get this outcome document was long and difficult, our hosts said, they had delivered results well within a given time frame – so it has been a success in their eyes.

But don’t queue up the Carnival music just yet.

The reality is just the opposite, and Rio +20 has not delivered “the future we want”. If the current document is allowed to run its course, the future will be bleak.

Do we want a future that does not recognize women’s sexual and reproductive rights as human rights? Do we want a future where human rights are divorced from sustainable development? Do we want a future where corporations are not held to account for their actions within and beyond national boundaries? Do we want a future where previously agreed legally binding human rights obligations are sacrificed in a “spirit of compromise”?

Is the game over? No, not yet – We still have three days to go before the summit closes.

Even though the negotiations seem to have ended, Rio+20’s high segment – when heads of states and governments speak up and engage in the process – is about to begin.

World leaders can use their statements to call for human rights language to be restored to the outcome document. They can constructively challenge each other and push the boundaries on making a strong link between human rights, poverty eradication and sustainable development. However this would require a strong political will.

Over the coming days at Rio+20, heads of state have once in a lifetime opportunity to show their true leadership.

They need to heed the words of Navi Pillay, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights: “Incoherence between international human rights standards, environmental strategies and economic policies can under cut all three”.

World leaders need to ensure that the Rio summit’s outcome document and subsequent actions are rooted in non-discrimination, participation, justice and accountability. They must re-affirm their legal obligations to respect, protect, and fulfil human rights, which are essential for sustainable development, peace and prosperity.

I hope the heads of state attending Rio+20 step up and show they can lead from the front.

They will have to be bold and ambitious and refuse to settle for the lowest common denominator.

Most of all, I hope they will rise above their own national interest and look towards the overall good and well being of the planet and all her peoples.

Read more:

Rio + 20: Anchor sustainable development in human rights (News story, 12 June 2012)
Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch joint statement to world leaders gathered at Rio + 20 (Joint statement, 12 June 2012)
Rio+20 - UN Conference on Sustainable Development (Official site)
Demand Dignity (Campaign page)