CIVICUS Director of Outreach, Henri Valot, interviews Nikhil Seth, Director, UN Division of Sustainable Development and Head of the Rio+20 Secretariat*


Listen to the interview


HENRI: What are your hopes and aspirations for Rio+20?

NIKHIL: My hopes and aspirations for Rio+20 are very high. First, I think it's going to be a very important convening of over 60,000 game-changers and people who have a deep impact on national policy. Representatives of civil society bring expertise in a wide range of areas, so it's not only a political governmental conference, but the ability to convene the largest UN conference in history, and the communities we will bring together at Rio will produce not one outcome which everyone focuses on - the political outcome - but thousands of outcomes, which bring together different communities of expertise, which has the potential for nurturing and brokering new partnerships. It has the potential of civil society engaging with different civil society from different parts of the world, so it's a mammoth assembly of people, and people forget that sometimes. So my hope is that in both the political outcome and in these other outcomes that I talk about that we will get real traction for the "future we want".

HENRI: In your opinion, what are the major challenges that the UN or member states are facing in establishing a concrete or ambitious outcome agreement? I know the problem on the Zero Draft and the negotiations that are happening. What are, for you, the main challenges?

NIKHIL: I think we are living in very difficult times. To start, news from all around the world is not good. The politics are kind of shot up globally, the economics are shot up globally, and people see only dark clouds in the global political, social and economic situation, so we are meeting in very difficult times, and meeting at such times, people wonder that groups will renege from the promises of the past, because the difficult situations mean difficulties for example, in financial resources. It means difficulties in various other commitments that have been made over the last twenty years, so the major worry is that other groups and countries might step back from their promises that will reduce the trust and the confidence and as a result people will not engage honestly and openly to solve the problems that we are out to solve. So my major worry is that the politics of the current times that we are living through will constrain significant progress.

HENRI: How do you see those sustainable development goals in relationship with the current MDGs and what is also being discussed within the UN on the post 2015 agenda?

NIKHIL: First, I think the mistake people make is by putting the initial M or S before "Development Goals". They confuse issues because it's not as if we are coming to replacing the MDGs or we are coming to something which is only sustainable development goals. I think what's going to happen in the post Rio period as we work towards 2015 is to establish a set of goals, you may call them sustainable, you may call them whatever, but these goals should reflect the UN's development agenda in the 2012 period and I'm confident that, for example if you look at the outcome document today, it defines 26 sectoral and cross-sectoral areas: each and every one of the MDGs is mentioned in these 26 areas. It covers poverty, it covers hunger, it covers food, it covers education, it covers health, it covers gender equality and empowerment, so all the MDGS are in a sense already there in the outcome document. What we have to do is capture the simplicity and capture the political and economic sort of organising principle that the MDGs had in what we define. We have to achieve the MDGs but do it in ways which are sustainable. That's what sustainable development goals are. We have to eradicate poverty, we have to end hunger, we have to improve education, we have to have gender equality and empowerment, we have to improve people's health, but in doing all this we have to also ensure that the health, education, hunger, food, poverty, these issues for future generations, are not compromised. That's what sustainable development goals are.

HENRI: And you saying so it is actually the same process?

NIKHIL: Yes, there will be one process post Rio which will define...

HENRI: It will start in Rio?

NIKHIL: It will be... the process will be given a political legislations and purpose at Rio and that then will become the basis for the subsequent work we do till 2015.

HENRI: We inherited the nine major groups from Rio and so we, CIVICUS, are one of the organising partners of the NGO major group. What do you think of this? Do you think that it's time also to revisit the idea of the major groups?

NIKHIL: Well all these things become a certain political legacy, and the nine major groups have become the political legacy of Rio, but I do think it needs a certain modernisation. There are groups that are not part of this. There are groups which want a more legitimate voice to be heard, and how we bring them to expand the concept that it is not an exclusive club. Civil society after all keeps evolving, changing, morphing. There are various other types of communities which want to become active, and the whole idea of civil society space and openness is to allow everyone to be in. So, if there is somebody there who wants to identify themselves differently different from the definitions of the nine major groups, I think we should do it, because the important thing is not limiting participation but expanding participation, and if there's a feeling in civil society that the definitions of major groups limits participation then we should scrap it and develop something which is more embracing and inclusive. That's the whole objective of civil society participation.

HENRI: Even outside of civil society the parliamentarians were saying today why we don't have a group... we're not there. We assured that there is no group for parliamentarians so they were proposing to rename the local authority major group as elected representatives and it could be local authority and parliamentarians, which I think is a good idea.

NIKHIL: I totally agree with you that whatever definitional changes are required we should do, because we need to expand this space for what I would call non-state actors to be active participants in Rio and in the follow up of Rio.

HENRI: And you think so that Rio might start a reflection on this order engagement?

NIKHIL: Yes I think the one heart of the institutional framework for sustainable development at Rio will be to create new political space, and in that political space I think it's very important that there is a more intensive involvement of civil society and major groups. Civil society itself has been mentioning the Rome based agencies, particularly the committee on food security, as a model for what they would like to have in engagement. In think all models should be looked at so that the engagement and the impact on outcomes in the post Rio period is much greater that what it has been. It has evolved a lot since Rio but we need to get to that destination where civil society is having a major impact on the outcome of these deliberations.

HENRI: Two last questions. If you travel today from South Korea to Brazil through India, China, you see that the world is quickly evolving. Do you think that Brazil hosting twenty years after the Rio Earth Summit wants to say something internationally... will Rio+20 show that this world is changing, will be in a sense a good example, a good proof of power relations totally changing in the world?

NIKHIL: I think you're right that it's not only a question of power relations. I think in this connection it's already also a demonstration of how the world has changed in the last twenty years. Rio is no longer the Rio it was twenty years ago and the fact that Brazil will be able to showcase its own contribution to sustainable development. They have done a lot on the economic, on the social, and on the environmental pillar, and so it's a case study of the success story, in fact, on sustainable development, so all these examples are good examples to show the world that given the political will and the commitment you can change things. So that way I think that it is good that they are doing. Of course a lot of the host government is projecting Rio+20 as not commemoration of 20 years after Rio. They're saying this is twenty years prospectively, so this is a conference for the future, not a reflection on the past; but I think in both ways, Rio+20 is going to be an important demonstration to the world.

HENRI: From your perspective or based on the negotiations, what do you think will happen in terms of institutional framework for sustainable development?

NIKHIL: First I think the broad message is very clear that to get sustainable development you need improved institutions, at all levels. In my own mind I think the heart of change is probably institutions at the local level, the institutions at the national level and only later, institutions at the regional, sub-regional and global levels, but there's a lot of attention, naturally because it's a UN conference, on the global level, and there's a great deal of focus on what happens after the Commission for Sustainable Development, what replaces it, and a great deal of discussion on UNEP and how do you strengthen UNEP, and should we be seriously looking at elevating it into a specialised agency now or have that discussion at a slightly later date? So all these issues are very much on the calendar, on the discussions, but I do think there will be a universal body which would be created to replace the limited membership body Commission on Sustainable Development, and it's in that body that I mentioned earlier we need to make sure that civil society has enough space to be able to influence the outcomes of that body.

HENRI: Thanks a lot. And final question, what is your message to civil society organisations that will be in Rio or that will be outside of Rio, I mean, that cannot fly, but will be following up?

NIKHIL: Well I want to laud civil society because 70 percent of the original Zero Draft, the contributions to the compilation text, 70 percent of the good ideas and 70 percent of participation in Rio would be from civil society. So if there is success at Rio I think the bulk of the applauds go to civil society for having made that possible. So my message to civil society is this that you are vitally needed. Sustainable development is a long term issue and it is part of a larger civil movement that will bring the change we want to see, whether it's changing consumption patterns, whether it's changing production patterns, whether it's demanding from all aspects of society to change the current path of development. I think that message has to come from civil society that everybody, all the key decision makers at the political level, at the government level, get that message loud and clear that people want change and that our aspirations as people are not being met. And that ability of civil society to give a message loud and clear to all the political leaders who are gathered at Rio is probably the most important task for them to take.

Many thanks.

* audio interview transcript

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