20 June, 2012

Rio+20 Looking for a political outcome

A Technical Note on the Brazilian negotiation strategy at Rio+20

Sergio Abranches

How to postpone decisions and yet have an outcome? The Brazilian strategy at Rio+20 was a model of strategic postponing of substantive decisions on a multilateral political setting marked by polarized conflict.

Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said about the outcome of the conference, that he expected more ambition at Rio+20, but conflict was very difficult to deal with. There were a few alternative political strategies to deal with a highly conflictual agenda. The Brazilian diplomacy has chosen to use time as a political tool. They have done it in two ways: setting an almost inflexible deadline to have a document approved, and replacing decisions with processes that would take place over time. In other words, time was rigid to negotiate and outcome, and elastic to make substantive decisions. Therefore, Rio+20 has become a meeting to set an agenda for discussions not a meeting to make actual decisions as Rio 92 was.

The high conflict situation was clearly caused by an agenda that was too broad to be tackled at the time frame set for the conference. Even fractioning it out would not work in such short a time frame. Postponing decisions always works when deadlines are rigid. This happens frequently at UN meetings. It has happened, for instance, in Durban, at the climate change meeting, COP17. Negotiators have decided to launch a platform – i.e. a process – of negotiations to seek a global climate deal by 2015, to be implemented from 2020. The process was, however, set as a task for future COPs – the convention of the parties – under the UNFCCC. In other words negotiators have decided on a future task for themselves. In Rio, they did it differently: they transferred future decisions to the United Nations General Assembly.

This solution represents a clear example of a “shift the burden” strategy. Instead of attributing the burden of future decisions to themselves, a Rio+23 meeting, for instance, they shifted the burden to the UN General Assembly. By creating a process of negotiation instead of making decisions, negotiators have transferred conflict-resolution to future meetings and shifted the burden from Rio+20 to the United Nations General Assembly meetings.

The solution Brazilian negotiators have sought was a political one, opting for procedural decisions, rather than substantive ones. Whether the processes agreed will deliver future substantive outcomes only time will tell. In this sense it was an empty document, one devoid of substantive decisions.

As a procedural decision, it was also lacking. The mandate to negotiate sustainable development goals, corresponding targets, and means of implementation was not a fully specified one. It left too broad a margin of discretion to future negotiators. The mandate to strengthen and upgrade UNEP, the UN environment program, may have been too narrow and fail to create enough room for the negotiation process that could lead to its upgrading to a specialized agency.

In short negotiations aimed at a political, not a policy outcome. Policies will be a matter of future negotiations, in another, non specialized forum.