Dispatch from Rio+20: Ensure Good Governance and People’s Rights for a Sustainable Sri Lanka

Text of my news feature published in Ceylon Today newspaper on 21 June 2012

Hemantha Withanage in Rio de Janeiro

Ensure Good Governance and People’s Rights for a Sustainable Sri Lanka, urge civil society in Rio

By Nalaka Gunawardene in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

As world leaders gather in Rio de Janeiro for the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, 50 Lankan civil society organisations (CSOs) have issued a joint statement calling for good governance and respect for people’s rights in Sri Lanka.

Mere economic growth – by raising per capita Gross National Product (GNP) — can be a highly misleading indicator of development, the statement said.

“Better governance is a must for a sustainable society. Better environmental governance and environmental justice should be ensured for sustainable living,” it added.

The 15-page document is signed by 50 people’s organisations working on environment, development and human rights issues at the grassroots level. It urged the government of Sri Lanka to “follow the middle path in development as we proposed in 2002 for the World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD)”.

The statement has been released on the web and is being distributed to over 40,000 participants attending the major UN conference, also known as Rio+20. (Full text at: http://tiny.cc/SLRio20)

The government of Sri Lanka was also due to release its official report for the conference, but copies of it were not available. There was also no mention of it anywhere on the Ministry’s official website.

CSOs underlined the need to respect the basic rights of people while ensuring environmental safeguards and maintaining a slow growth. It emphasized that sustainable development and good governance were inseparable.

The statement called for greater media freedom, right to freedom of expression and right to dissent as articulated in Article 14 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and in Agenda 21, an action plan for sustainable development that countries adopted at the original Earth Summit in Rio in June 1992. Sri Lanka has committed itself to both.

“It is very well known that without access to information, public participation, accountability, rule of law and predictability — which are the basic pillars of good governance — you cannot achieve sustainable development,” said Hemantha Withanage, the statement’s principal author in an exclusive interview.

“The sustainable development principles agreed at the Earth Summit in 1992 had environment, social and economical pillars. But today, we know that without a political pillar, sustainable development cannot be achieved,” added Withanage, Executive Director of the Centre for Environmental Justice in Sri Lanka.

“The space for CSOs and recognition of their role in development is vital,” the statement noted, calling for greater civil society involvement in policy formulation in all areas of development.

The statement mentions a wide array of issues and concerns raised by ordinary Lankans who were consulted during its preparation. These range from local and national to global, and cover sectors such as agriculture, water, livelihoods, energy, public health, disaster management and biodiversity conservation.

“The world needs to move towards a simultaneous action at local, national, regional and international level to confront the social, economic and ecological crises which the present development model has caused,” it notes. “What we need instead is to defend our commons and total transformation towards sustainable consumption and production patterns.”

It explicitly called “to stop all kinds of corporate control, capture and monopolisation of natural resources.”

“Our demands are not only for Rio+20. After all, this is just another meeting of the world nations under the UN flag. We should not treat this as an end of everything. It is an on-going process,” Withanage said.

He recalled being involved in the ‘Citizens Report on Environment and Development’ that Sri Lanka civil society organisations collectively prepared for the Earth Summit in 1992. Many of its aspirations were never met, he lamented.

“Meanwhile, we have seen more deterioration of the social and environmental rights over the past two decades,” he said.

CSOs also called for an assessment of environmental and social costs of Sri Lanka’s prolonged civil conflict that ended in 2009. Its impact on natural resources remains little understood even as economic development projects are being rolled out in conflict affected areas, the statement said.

The CSO statement was produced at the end of Sri Lanka Civil Society Dialogue on Rio+20 held in Negombo on 17 – 18 May 2012. It was convened by the Centre for Environmental Justice/Friends of the Earth Sri Lanka, National Fisheries Solidarity Movement (NAFSO) and the Sri Lanka Nature Group.

Read my interview with Hemantha Withanage on Groundviews.org
Rio+20 interview: “Green Economy should not justify Greed Economy!”

Next Election or Next Generation? World leaders, time to choose is NOW!

Yugratna Srivastava: Lend me your ears...

Yugratna Srivastava: Lend me your ears...

This week saw the UN’s invisible man hosting mostly indifferent leaders at a Summit on one of the world’s most pressing challenges: climate change.

Nearly 100 world leaders accepted UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon’s invitation to participate in an historic Summit on Climate Change in New York on 22 September to mobilise political will and strengthen momentum for a fair, effective and ambitious climate deal in Copenhagen this December.

The call for action at the summit did not just come from world leaders – many of who simply can’t see beyond their next election – but also from the next generation who stand the most to lose if climate talks fail.

On their behalf, Yugratna Srivastava, a 13-year-old Indian girl, spoke forcefully at the podium, sending a wake-up call to those assembled. “We received a clean and healthy planet from our ancestors and we are gifting a damaged one to our successors. What sort of justice is this?,” she said.

She added: “The Himalayas are melting, polar bears are dying, 2 of every 5 people don’t have access to clean drinking water, earth’s temperature is increasing, we are losing the untapped information and potential of plant species, Pacific’s water level has risen,Is this what we are going to hand over to our future generations? Please……no!”

She said the three billion young people in the world need them to take action now to protect the planet for future generations.

Watch part of her speech in this TV news story:

Read full text of her speech

Read Indian TV news channel IBN’s interview with Yugratna Srivastava just after delivering her speech.

Read Ban Ki-Moon’s summary of the Summit, delivered at its end

All this news coverage reminded me of another passionate young girl who similarly addressed – and challenged – the world leaders 17 years ago at the Earth Summit held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

Her name was Severn Cullis-Suzuki, and she was a young Canadian environmental activist. Then 12-year-old Severn closed a Plenary Session with a powerful speech that received a standing ovation.

Raised in Vancouver and Toronto, Severn Cullis-Suzuki is the daughter of writer Tara Elizabeth Cullis and environmental activist and TV personality David Suzuki. When she was 9, she started the Environmental Children’s Organization (ECO), a small group of children committed to learning and teaching other kids about environmental issues. They were successful in many projects before 1992, when they raised enough money to go to the UN’s Earth Summit in Rio. Their aim was to remind the decision-makers of who their actions or inactions would ultimately affect.

Listen to the memorable speech at the Earth Summit by Severn Cullis-Suzuki:

Severn was every bit as sincere, concerned and passionate about the global environment as Yugratna Srivastava was this week. Seventeen years later, notwithstanding the lofty pledges at the Earth Summit and later gatherings, the environmental crises have multiplied and worsened.

Very few of the world leaders who assembled in Rio are still in office — and that underlines part of the problem. Governments have far shorter time horizons than what many of today’s global challenges demand. I am constantly reminded of what the eminent Indian scientist Dr M S Swaminathan told me in my first interview with him in 1990 (yes, even before the Earth Summit): “In democracies, rulers think in terms of the next election. In dictatorships, about the next coup d’état. Nobody is thinking in terms of the next generation!”

It was no small feat for the UN’s Invisible Man to bring 100 heads of state or heads of government together on such a long-term issue. But it’s going to take many more meetings, bickering and hard bargaining before the leaders begin to think in terms of the next generation.

Read my June 2008 comment: Message to the UN on World Environment Day: Kick your own CO2 habit!