15 JULY 2012


An "Alice in Wonderland" premise indicates that you have to run as fast as you can to remain in your place. Twenty years after a landmark Rio de Janeiro conference on Environment and Development, the new "resolutions" seem mainly a diligent effort to salvage the original ones.

Rio I in 1992 was distinguished not only for the issue involved (Sweden had been the first country to push for a U.N. Conference on the Environment). It was the determined spirit in pushing the issue to the forefront of international concerns and the combination of a savvy business networker like Maurice Strong and a pillar of Human Development like Nitin Desai to confront member states -- big and small -- with the potential risks of maintaining business as usual. It also helped that a new Secretary General, Dr. Boutros Boutros-Ghali was determined, with the end of the Cold War, to help shape a new framework for a new era. Another new Secretary General in 2007, Ban Ki-moon, saw in that increasingly pressing issue an opportunity to prod the powers that be into appropriate action. His determined priority in Copenhagen was to "seal the deal." Regrettably, "Hopenhagen" was not to be, for several reasons. (See related unforum items.)

Approaching Rio+20, the Secretary General once more highlighted his determination. But a U.N. Secretary-General is so busy pursuing so many priorities that he always needs a number of "pillars," not just "focal points" or "sherpas," to move the thinking and harness the inevitable maneuvering for a major conference. With all due respect, Mr. Kim alone cannot deal with it. Nor could the very qualified Robert Orr, who similarly has more than one basket to hold.

In fairness, the U.N. team was not alone in the lack of full-time preparedness. The "normal" new President of France, Francois Hollande, who did the right thing by traveling to Brazil, unlike the U.S., U.K., and Germany, had an awkward moment when it was discovered that his security team had forgotten their weapons suitcase in Paris.

One of the main differences between Rio 1992 and Rio+20, is that the grass roots groups seemed exhausted or subdued, while the mostly affected industrialized interests -- who would need to take required action by now - were ready and prepared to avert any inconvenience.

It is a sign of our current times that to "reaffirm" U.N. decisions taken 20 years ago was considered by some to be a significant success. "Alice in Wonderland" could have been an integral part of the final document!