Rio Declaration Essay

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The Rio declaration on the Environment and Development (the Rio declaration) is an international agreement of 27 principles signed by over 170 countries during the Earth Summit in 1992 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. The Earth Summit, formally known as the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED), was held to address and provide solutions to environmental degradation caused by unsustainable human development and the growing gap between the rich and poor.

The Rio declaration was one of five international agreements made at the Earth Summit, the others being: Agenda 21; a Statement on the Management, Conservation and Sustainable Development of all Types of Forest (the forest principles); a Convention on Biological Diversity; and the Framework Convention on Climate Change. Only the conventions on biological diversity and climate change are legally binding. Agenda 21, the forest principles, and the Rio declaration are voluntary agreements that cannot be enforced by international law.

The origins of the Rio Declaration draw from the 1972 Stockholm Conference on the Human Environment which resulted in the establishment of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and provided the impetus for the international community to commence negotiations on significant environmental treaties. By the early 1980s, however, it had become clear to the United Nations (UN) that negative human impacts upon the earth were escalating. In 1983 it established the World Commission on Environment and Development, otherwise known as the Brundtland Commission, to investigate strategies for how to achieve sustainability by the year 2000.

The commission produced the report Our Common Future, which identified the “global commons” (the oceans, space, and Antarctica), described how human development was causing unintended but significant changes to natural processes and explained that our present well-being should not be at the expense of future generations. The report called for an international conference to determine a process on how the world community was to meet the challenges presented in the report.

Thus, the Earth Summit was the outcome of the recommendation to hold an international conference and the principles in the Rio declaration were designed as a guide for countries on how they could protect the integrity of the global environment and adequately manage development. The document attempts to address significant issues associated with the complex relationships between the environment and pressures placed upon it from human development. The principles found within the Rio declaration build upon the assertion in Our Common Future that “the environment and development are not separate challenges; they are inexorably linked.”

Principles 1 through 4 primarily focus on the rights of a state to exploit natural resources, but contest that development should take place in a sustainable manner and that environmental protection should be an integral part of all planning processes. Principles 6 and 7 reflect on the needs of developing countries and the responsibilities they have to prevent environmental degradation and unsustainable development.

Principles 8, 9, and 10 describe mechanisms to promote sustainable activities such as population management, technological improvements and exchanges, and capacity-building through the provision of appropriate information and education to individuals enabling them to make decisions that promote sustainable outcomes. Principles 11, 12, and 13 identify the legal options that could be employed to lift environmental standards at both a local and international level; while principle 14 describes how states should limit the transfer of harmful substances.

Principle 15 describes the precautionary principle. Principles 16 and 17 provide mechanisms to ensure the polluter pays for any environmental incidents and argue for the instatement of strong national authorities to assess the likely environmental impacts of proposed developments before they occur. Principles 18 and 19 describe the importance of information sharing between nation states, and principles 20, 21, and 22 identify the roles that specific sections of a society can play in managing the environment.

Principles 23 through 26 describe the importance of managing and protecting the environment and natural resources in times of war and oppression and state that any disputes should be managed and resolved peacefully. Principle 27 asks signatories to commit to the agreement in a spirit of partnership and suggests that any future developments in international law should include the principles found in the declaration.

Since the agreement was signed in 1992, the international community has met twice, once in 1997 (Rio +5) during a special session of the General Assembly of the UN in New York and in Johannesburg in 2002 (Rio +10) to assess progress and build upon the agreements made in Rio de Janeiro. It is difficult to assess precisely the impact the Rio declaration has had due to its broad nature and lack of targets. The overwhelming evidence and opinion suggests, however, that although it has helped to promote the concept of sustainability, the importance of protecting the environment and ending world poverty to world governments, very little has actually been achieved.

Environmental indicators-including species extinction, greenhouse gas emissions, and land clearing-have increased and the division between the world’s richest and poorest nations has grown since 1992. After the Rio +10 meeting in Johannesburg, most industry and nongovernmental organization participants expressed profound disappointment. Oxfam issued a statement describing the outcomes as a “triumph for greed and self-interest, a tragedy for poor people and the environment.” A co-author of Natural Capitalism, Hunter Lovins, explained that it was no surprise that governments were failing to deliver effective policies because, in a globalized economy, it is big businesses, not countries, that are in an economic position to implement the principles identified in international agreements such as the Rio declaration.


  1. P. Chatterjee and M. Finger, The Earth Brokers: Power, Politics and World Development (Routledge, 1995);
  2. W. Harcourt, , Feminist Perspectives on Sustainable Development (Zed Books, 1994);
  3. A. Kirby, UK Hails Summit Success, (cited April 2006);
  4. World Commission on Environment and Development, Our Common Future (Oxford University Press, 1987).

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