CIESIN Reproduced, with permission, from: Halpern, S. 1992. United Nations Conference on Environment and Development: Process and documentation. Providence, RI: Academic Council for the United Nations System (ACUNS).
UNCED:Process and Documentations

                       The United Nations 

Conference on Environment and Development:

Process and Documentation


Shanna L. Halpern


Popularly known as the "Earth Summit," the 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil marked the twentieth anniversary of the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment held in Stockholm, Sweden in 1972. The Stockholm Conference heralded the beginning of environmental awareness in the international community. When it was convened, the environmental movement itself was new. To the extent that any countries recognized environmental problems, they were primarily the industrialized ones. The problems that they identified were generally the correctable by- products of industrialization, including water pollution and smog. In 1972, even the United States, world environmental affairs leader, had an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) that was barely two years of age. The few existing treaties dealt primarily with shared natural resources, such as Antarctica or the high seas, and no formal international arena existed in which countries could raise environmental issues.

Stockholm placed the environment on the international agenda for the first time and set the stage for international actions over the course of the next twenty years--until Rio. From an international legal perspective, the 1972 conference's single most important achievement was the Stockholm Declaration, a non-binding statement of principles, "to inspire and guide the peoples of the world in the preservation and enhancement of the human environment." Principle 21, its most famous, held a state responsible for actions within its own borders that cross over those borders and harm another state; it has since become a binding international law. Institutionally, Stockholm's most impressive achievement was the creation of the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP), which today remains the world's primary international body that addresses global environmental problems from its headquarters in Nairobi, Kenya.

The success of Stockholm can be tangibly measured by the many international conferences that have since been sponsored by UNEP and the over 1,200 multilateral and bilateral treaties and other agreements on environmental matters that exist today. Virtually every country in the world has some form of environmental legislation or agency(ies), although the developed countries have made the most progress in these areas. And yet, "the global environment is worse now than it was two decades ago--Not one major environmental issued debated in Stockholm has been solved."

Stockholm also failed to prevent a second generation of environmental problems, including radical alterations to entire planetary systems, such as depletion of the ozone layer, and global climate change. In 1972, eco-catastrophes such as the chemical explosion at the Union Carbide plant in Bhopal, India and the Chernobyl nuclear power plant disaster in the former Soviet Union had not yet occurred. Only recently have certain natural disasters, such as the flooding and drought in Asia and Africa been recognized as the long-term results of human alteration of the environment. The world is now finally aware of the cross-sectoral relationships between the environment and the economy; international trade policies frequently consider environmental impact before being pursued by governments and corporations. The inequities between North and South--poverty, debt, and natural resources--provide the backdrop for major international negotiations. In spite of this progress, a fundamental bottom line has emerged: A country cannot achieve economic development when its environment is degraded, nor can it restore its environment in the absence of economic development.

The decision to convene the UNCED reflected these changes, but the last one may have been the most influential. In 1987, the World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED) issued its report based on a four-year study commissioned by the UN General Assembly. This report developed the theme of sustainable development, a kind of development that "meets the needs of the present generation without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs." The General Assembly quickly endorsed the WCED Report and shortly thereafter asked the Secretary-General to consider organizing a conference to take stock of the global environment twenty years after Stockholm. The response was favorable, and the General Assembly easily agreed that such a conference would "elaborate strategies to halt and reverse the effects of environmental degradation [by strengthening efforts] to promote sustainable and environmentally sound development in all countries" The name of the conference, according to the Governing Council of UNEP, should convey a sense of the current, broad concept of the environment and its linkages with durable, planetary management for the human race. It was thus titled the UN Conference on Environment and Development in distinct contrast from the Stockholm Conference, which focused only "on the Human Environment."

The difference between environment and development, which was meant to be reconciled by the concept of sustainable development, proved to be a point of contention from the outset. Basically, the developed countries (sometimes referred to as the "North") wanted all countries to take actions to protect the global environment. The developing countries (sometimes referred to as the "South") interpreted this as a situation in which those who had polluted along the way to development were now asking the rest to pay for their mistakes. Furthermore, such payments were in the interest of citizens of the North, who would continue to enjoy their comforts, as opposed to those in the South, who have yet to attain such levels of comfort. When the General Assembly initially discussed the UNCED, the G-77 nations announced that they would refuse to participate unless financial assistance and specific commitments on technology transfers were forthcoming from the industrialized countries. The U.S. opposed this linkage, but with Japan's support the developing countries won the argument. These "cross-sectoral" issues relating to financial assistance and technology transfer were to remain a major point of difference between the North and South throughout the entire UNCED process. Veteran UN observers noted that "until now, security-related issues on an East-West pivot have supplied the most vehement political debates within the UN context. But environment/development issues with a North/South polarization are taking over this role."

There were also great differences concerning the location of the organization of the UNCED Preparatory Committee (PrepCom). The establishment of a PrepCom is an extremely important administrative step in the process of a conference because it refines conference issues in seeking consensus. When world leaders meet at the conference itself, their only task is to approve pre-negotiated documents. In the instance of the UNCED, the North favored the UNEP Governing Council to function as PrepCom, while the G-77 favored PrepCom to be part of the General Assembly itself, where they felt their representation was stronger. A compromise was finally reached, and on December 22, 1989 resolution 44/228 was passed, which included the following: It noted the developed countries bear main responsibility for creating and combating pollution (para. 9),stressed the need for technology transfers (para. 10), reaffirmed the need to address financial assistance for developing countries (para. 10), and established the PrepCom as a committee of the General Assembly. The PrepCom was to meet five times. Once organizationally in New York, then four times substantively in Nairobi, Geneva, Geneva, and New York. Maurice Strong, former Secretary- General of the Stockholm Conference, was appointed Secretary-General of the UNCED.

When the UNCED conference finally convened on 3-14 June 1992, virtually every country in the world was represented (178) and more than 100 heads of state attended. In addition, the preparatory process involved the public from the outset. More than 1,000 non-governmental organizations (NGOs) attended the Rio conference; many participated in specific sessions as formal consultants. Tens of thousands of journalists also attended. The UNCED was also involved in assisting "The '92 Global Forum," a parallel and equally well attended non-governmental conference.

The participating world leaders signed five major instruments: The Rio Declaration (a statement of principles); Agenda 21 (an 800-plus page document that identifies priority actions and guidelines towards their achievement, and includes the creation of a new Commission for Sustainable Development); a Framework Convention on Climate Change; a Framework Convention on Biological Diversity; and a Statement of Principles on Forests. While this output was less than many had originally hoped when the preparatory process began in 1989, it was more than most had thought possible just prior to the conference. The UNCED would have never transpired without this PrepCom. With the exception of Agenda 21, which was 85% completed when the UNCED began, every document that arrived at Rio had already achieved consensus, thanks in large part to the preparatory processes.

Although the Climate Change and Biodiversity conventions were signed at the UNCED, they underwent separate preparatory processes. Each evolved through discrete discussions in a series of Intergovernmental Negotiating Committees (INCs), both of which incorporated pre-existing entities, e.g., the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and the UNEP ad hoc Committee of Experts on Biodiversity. The UNCED PrepCom had a broader mandate than the convention negotiators, for example examining atmospheric issues that included climate change, but also ozone depletion and transboundary air pollution. Since the UNCED was concerned with linkages between different environmental issues as well as with the relationship of these issues to the economic sector, the PrepCom's work was often useful to the INCs. This included research that focused specifically on climate change or biodiversity as well as work that focused on the cross-sectoral issues of financial assistance and technology transfers. If, for example, the PrepCom had been able to resolve the mechanisms of financial assistance to developing nations, both conventions could have used it as well.

Chapter one of this documentary essay addresses the UNCED preparatory processes, i.e., the PrepComs, then discusses separately the processes for the signing of the two conventions. Researchers should be aware that the preparatory processes created tens of thousands of documents, many of which were not official UN documents and many of which are poorly referenced. This collection contains only a small selection of the most crucial official reports, some of which had limited distribution and may not necessarily be available at official UN depositories. The interested reader will then need to follow-up references in these documents for other, less visible documents. Since much of the substantive work in PrepCom was completed during its final session, particular emphasis is placed on that session. The materials listed in chapter two are presented chronologically; to the extent an important, non-UN meeting occurred, it is also listed. It is recommended that the discussion of the processes be read first before attempting to review the documents. Finally, since no verbatim record of the final working session was chronicled, occasional references are made to Environmental Policy and Law (EP&L), a journal sponsored by the International Council on Environmental Law, which provided its own summary of this, meeting.