06/22/2012 09:27 am ET Updated Aug 22, 2012

Without Human Rights, Sustainable Development Will Fail

When the speeches are made and the headlines written, I have little doubt that there will be much acclaim given to the re-affirmation at Rio+20 of a series of key human rights principles enshrined in sustainable development at the 1992 Earth Summit. But that will not tell the whole story, and nor will it guarantee the realization of those rights.

The Southern NGO IBON International coordinates the "Rights and Equity Cluster" among NGOs participating in Rio+20. Alongside a small group of states -- including none of the leading Northern nations who readily pronounce their commitment to human rights -- IBON International and other like-minded NGOs have played a key role in a battle to have these rights recognized at Rio+20. And regardless of speeches and protestations to the contrary, the incorporation of these rights is one of the key reasons why the text drafted by at the 11th hour by the Brazilian government is so unpalatable to the richest countries of the world.

But why, 20 years after the Earth Summit, has there had to be any fight to get recalcitrant Northern governments which wage war around the world on the basis of "democracy" and "human rights" to sign up to putting rights at the heart of sustainable development? Why for example, did the richest countries on the planet line up to delete references to the Right to Development -- agreed by the UN in 1986 against the single opposing vote of the USA -- from the Rio+20 outcome document? And crucially, why has it been so easy for the corporate role in sustainable development, championed principally by the USA, to see a huge expansion without any parallel movement to ensure corporate regulation and commitment to human rights?

In a Tuesday side event in Riocentro, a panel including Rubens Ricupero, the former Secretary General of UNCTAD who played a key role in the 1992 Earth Summit, Navi Pillay, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, the executive director of UNEP, Kumi Naidoo of Greenpeace, Jessica Evans of Human Rights Watch, and myself, all broadly expressed the same belief -- that without human rights at its center, sustainable development will fail. And placing human rights at the center of sustainable development means more than adhering to rights in name; it means creating the accountability mechanisms to enable the people to hold governments and, indirectly, corporations to account.

It is often forgotten that sustainable development goes beyond the environmental moniker it is so often reduced to; it comprises "three pillars," with economic and social on an equal footing alongside environmental. And this is with great reason: the systemic drive for endless economic growth is what has created social injustice and environmental destruction. Within our predominant system, with its leitmotif of perpetual growth, impoverished people become the tool for ensuring the unsustainable comfort of a minority, and the environment simultaneously both a resource base and dumping ground. It is impossible for all the people of the world to enjoy the unsustainable lifestyles of the Global North with the resources of our one planet alone. But in the 20 years since the Earth Summit, the world has increased its natural resource use by 50 percent -- North American per capita consumption stands at around 90 kg of resources per day, Europeans consume around 45kg per day, whereas in Africa consumption stands at around 10 kg per day. If the richest countries of the world care a jot for the notions of sustainable development and equity they have subscribed to, redistribution is the only way forward.

Enshrining rights amid a system of unsustainable production, consumption and distribution is a vacuous exercise. What use is a right to food when an inequitable mode of production guarantees not only the fossil fuel-generated climate change that lay behind the failure of crops in the Horn of Africa this year, but also promotes the internecine conflicts and uneven distribution that perpetuated it? What use is a right to food when marginalized peoples dependent on agriculture do not have sovereignty over what food they eat and where they get it from? It is these people, who shoulder the terrible burden of the negative impacts of our unsustainable development, who should have their interests and rights at the heart of sustainable development.

A key failure of Rio+20 is that the richest countries have in unison failed to put up the money to match their commitments. There remains no clear cut means through which the technology needed by poorer countries to enable their transition to more sustainable economies can be transferred to them. Yet again, the richest sought to ensure that their role in this was either voluntary or altogether eradicated, with the private sector taking on sole responsibility. The likely result of this will be that the poorest will again be castigated for their "failures," while the richest trumpet their successes in building the green technologies which they profit from selling to developing countries already struggling to meet their societies' needs.

The Rio+20 tagline is "The Future We Want." Who is the "we" in this? The process and its outcomes leave the conclusion that the future Rio+20 will bequeath is one wanted by corporations and their acolytes in government. With its failure to correct the unsustainable modes of production, consumption and distribution that profit a tiny elite while destroying millions of lives, devastating the environment and endangering humanity's future, the draft outcome document for Rio+20 might as well be an empty coffin in which to bury the promises of the Earth Summit.

Antonio Tujan Jr is the director of IBON International, which coordinates the NGO Cluster on Rights and Equity at Rio+20, and is one of three NGO representatives selected to speak at the Rio+20 "High Level Roundtables" where heads of state and Nobel laureates speak to civil society and the private sector. He is chair of two major international aid coalitions, Better Aid, and the Reality of Aid Network, among other organizations.