ASEAN Must Play a Leadership Role in Earth Summit II
The South East Asian region was the recent host of several key international meetings that were organized as part of the preparations for a major global conference that will celebrate the 20th anniversary of the landmark 1992 Earth Summit in June next year. Kuala Lumpur was the scene for one of the meetings meant to explore a possible Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) position for the Summit, which has been dubbed Rio+20, and is intent on strengthening the global governance of environment and sustainable development.
The ASEAN meeting was a key event not just for preparing for Rio+20, but also because it signaled that ASEAN countries are starting to wake up and realize the mismatch between their economic importance and their relative political weight in the world.
The sooner that ASEAN countries start to realize their rightful place on global issues the better. Relative power is shifting away from the US and Europe toward the emerging economies and mega population centers. In the next two decades the world will be a completely different place. It will be a multi-polar world and it will mark the reemergence in history of Asian nations. It is time for Asia and the ASEAN region in particular to start preparing for that future.
Though environmental issues for the moment are relatively weak politically, this is changing and the Rio+20 Summit is a good test ground for future ASEAN leadership. Environmental issues will continue to gain global importance over next two decades as overpopulation, scarce resources, food and energy security, climate change and rapid biodiversity loss will radically change our way of life and squeeze our relative comfort zone we live in right now. We must realize that these issues cannot be solved by one country alone but require concerted action of all countries.
Most importantly, if we fail to set in place proper institutions and governance arrangements now, the situation will be far worse in twenty years time. It’s critical that we begin to manage these challenges now and be prepared for the future. Such management begins by recognizing that the current governance arrangements are outdated and arcane.
Sixty years ago, when the United Nations was established, the world was a different place. Malaysia was still a colony, and most of the ASEAN countries did not exist as sovereign nations or were going through their own independence struggles and processes. Environmental issues were not even thought of then and hence there is no mention in the UN charter of them. Yet, today, the institutions that were designed back then are still being used to govern global relations. Instead of redesigning the UN for the modern world, we have created add-ons and used band aid solutions.
This short-sighted approach to managing the environment is detrimental and the ASEAN countries have realized this problem. At the Kuala Lumpur meeting in July, they began thinking how they can develop a common position for the Rio+20 Summit to solve some of these enigmas in the UN. Some ideas they flagged included the recognition that we can no longer keep building layer upon layer of institutions for the environment. The system has become too complex and developing countries can no longer cope or pay to participate in such a system. There are hundreds of environmental treaties and more than 40 different agencies working on environmental issues. There is a need for consolidation of these existing institutions and the centralization of the efforts to manage global environmental issues, into an institution such as a World Environmental Organization (WEO).
Another point that was stressed was that developing countries are falling behind in the fight against their deteriorating environment. They are rapidly losing their natural resources and ecosystem services, being the foundations for their economies, because they have not put in place a national environmental governance system. Developing countries have signed up for all the global commitments that come with promises of technical assistance, capacity building and technology support in good faith but no UN institution is delivering on these promises.
A good example of where there is a critical need for implementation support is for the Green Economy. As the Green Economy emerges as the wise and smart way of doing business, there is a need to ensure that it’s not an economy only for the rich but for all countries. For this reason there is a need to have a package at Rio+20 that will assist all countries to embark on the transition to a Green Economy and this will be a key part of a new central organization like a WEO.
Many ASEAN representatives remarked on the fact that there has been too much focus on negotiations and not enough on implementation. The failed Copenhagen talks on climate change are symbolic of this: we focus so much on negotiating the solution that we forget to actually get on with it.
In a multipolar world we need institutions that are democratic and representative, but at the same time build trust between nations to reach effective decisions and help every nation to be part of the global economy, share the burden we face and find solutions to solve common problems. This means, if we redesign a new governance system it must be of universal membership, well financed and principle-based. Key principles that must be embedded in the system are the Rio Principles, as well as emerging principles, such as a right to ecosystem services and its recognition as being a fundamental human right due to its importance for human wellbeing.
As we move closer to Rio+20, the ASEAN countries must take some of these common ideas and develop them into a joint vision at the next ASEAN Summit. It is incumbent on ASEAN countries to share their vision of the world to ensure that in twenty years it’s a world it shaped by them and not just shaped by others.
The opinions expressed in these articles are the sole responsibility of the authors and do not necessarily represent the official position of UNEP