Sustainable Development


DividerEarth Summit

The Rio Declaration - Stepping Backwards


In the early stages of the Earth Summit, governments and NGOs alike imagined a Declaration from Rio that would address the twin crises of environment and development in a visionary way. But once the negotiations became serious in August of 1991, that original vision was quickly lost in the clash between North and South.

When the final Rio Declaration text is contrasted with earlier proposals, and especially with the Declaration adopted in Stockholm in 1972 at the UN Conference on the Human Environment, it is glaringly obvious that the desire for a text, any text, has been the driving force. Substance has become immaterial.

Climate change does not even rate a mention in the Declaration. It does contain principles setting down duties not to transfer harm beyond State boundaries, and requirements that States reduce and eliminate unsustainable patterns of production. But it does not appear that key negotiators, especially the US, appreciate or understand the implications of those statements for the serious and growing threats of global warming.

The proposed Rio Declaration, rather than building on the Stockholm Declaration and charting the way forward, undermines Stockholm 1972 in important respects. It also ignores the progressive evolution of international law over the past twenty years. Instead, the Rio Declaration provides the world with a bag of "principles" that are regressive, fragmented, or seriously devoid of vision.

It is a "trade-off" package -- which is exactly what its negotiators were told to accept in the final hours of PrepCom 4 in New York -- giving everyone a few pieces of what they wanted, leaving no guidance for solving the global environment and development crises.

Examples of the Rio Declaration's deficiencies include its handling of hazardous waste trade, weapons of mass destruction and the precautionary principle.


Governments have completely shirked their responsibility to demand a ban on the transboundary export of hazardous wastes, despite growing national and international support. Examples include the 89 national import bans by developing countries; the Lome' IV Convention banning exports of hazardous, including radioactive, wastes from the EC to 66 African-Caribbean-Pacific countries; the Bamako Convention; and regional declarations from the South Pacific, and Latin American/ Caribbean regions.

  • When Declaration discussions began at PrepCom 4, the G-77 proposed a principle that read: "Toxic and hazardous substances and wastes...shall be treated at the point of generation. Trans- boundary treatment or disposal of these substances shall be banned." 
  • By the middle of the PrepCom, the proposed ban on such exports was replaced by words that only called for the disposal of such wastes "in the proximity of their production." 
  • The final text doesn't even mention the weaker "proximity" concept, instead containing vague, general concepts, with no reference to the waste trade issue -- a far cry from the original G-77 waste trade ban. 


Principle 26 of the Stockholm Declaration boldly states that: "Man (sic) and his environment must be spared the effects of nuclear weapons and all other means of mass destruction. States must strive to reach prompt agreement, in the relevant international organs, on the elimination and complete destruction of such weapons." At the same time, the Stockholm delegations condemned nuclear weapons tests, calling on States to ban such tests.

But the Rio Declaration? Led by the US, which has fought for the exclusion of Stockholm-type language on this issue at all costs, the text now states: "Warfare is inherently destructive of sustainable development. States shall therefore respect international law proving protection for the environment in times of armed conflict and cooperate in its further development."  If this is progress, we are in deep, deep trouble.


Over the past five years, there has been a significant shift in environmental policy, toward the preventative approach to pollution control through clean production methods. These efforts are designed to achieve the reduction and elimination of hazardous wastes and substances.  This principle has been adopted by, among others, the Bamako Convention, the Bergen Ministerial Declaration, the London Dumping Convention, and UNEP's Governing Council.

But these agreements, and others, had little or no effect on Rio Declaration negotiations. With only a passing reference to the concept, it: 

  • Makes no reference to the essential role clean production must play.  
  • Provides a dangerous escape hatch by allowing the precautionary principle to be applied "by States according to their capabilities".  
  • States that any preventative actions should only be taken when "cost effective."

Money talks, the environment walks.

Source: Greepeace, Earth Summit Press Pack, 1992.