The curtain rises Wednesday on the 20th anniversary of the "Earth Summit" in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. Once again environmental groups and global dignitaries will gather in Brazil to talk about saving the planet.
Last time the eyes of the world were upon the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development when George Bush (senior) joined 108 other heads of state, 172 countries, 2,500 official delegates, and about 45,000 environmentalists, indigenous peoples, peasants and industrialists came together.
"Helicopters thundered up and down the chic Copacabana and Ipanema beaches. Tanks guarded the bridges and tunnels. The favelas were in lockdown, schools closed and supermarkets stood empty," remembers John Vidal in the Guardian. "The Dalai Lama meditated with Shirley MacLaine on the beach at dawn, Jane Fonda and PelÃ© turned up, as did Fidel Castro, train robber Ronnie Biggs, and an obscure US senator called Al Gore."
The 2012 United Nations Rio+20 Conference on Sustainable Development that runs from 20-22 June event is a relatively tame affair but make no mistake, there have been major changes in the last two decades. One of the biggest differences is the enormous growth in corporate power.
Just before the first Rio Summit, the UN Code of Conduct on Multinational Corporations was abandoned, and just after the meeting, the UN Centre on Multinational Corporations was closed. Subsequent deepening corporate involvement with UN agencies stems from their accreditation to the summit, alongside civil society groups. A decade later, the international environmental organisation Friends of the Earth commented, "Some people date the rise of corporate globalization" from this period.
Yet as Helena Paul of EcoNexus points out, greater corporate participation has not been accompanied by greater obligations.
"It is strange that there has been so little discussion about controlling corporate power and exploitation in the run-up to Rio+20," she says.
That power and exploitation ranges from Olympic sponsor Dow Chemical's continuing failure to address the long-lasting effects of the chemical plant disaster in Bhopal, India, to the case against Chevron, formerly Texaco, for toxic waste dumping and oil leaks in the Amazon, and from Asian Pulp and Paper's forest destruction in Southeast Asia to Sun Biofuels' landgrab in Tanzania.
One of the few initiatives is Convention on Corporate Social Responsibility and Accountability, promoted by the Stakeholder Forum and Vitae Civilis.
It is countered by a proposal for a Convention on Corporate Sustainability Reporting, pushed by UK-based multinational insurance company Aviva and the Aviva-convened Corporate Sustainability Reporting Coalition.
The proposal would commit states to develop regulations or codes to "encourage the integration of material sustainability issues" in large companies' annual reports. There is an opt-out clause for companies, but they would have to explain their non-participation to shareholders or other stakeholders. The proposal says nothing about what shareholders could do if they didn't accept the company's explanation.
Use of the weasel word "encourage" is in line with the language of the Rio+20 documents. Lasse Gustavsson, the head of the WWF team at the conference, said on Sunday that "'encourage' is used approximately 50 times in the negotiating text, while the word 'must' is used three times."
The net result, in Paul's view, is that "At present, serious debate on international regulation of corporations appears to have been effectively marginalized."
A good beginning, Dr Alison Doig, Christian Aid's senior adviser on sustainable development, said at an event on Sunday in the Rio Centro hosting the negotiations, would be for multinationals to pay the $160 billion a year which the charity estimates is lost every year to tax dodging by multinationals.
- 104 Globalization