Slow Going: Status Update on Zero Draft Negotiations

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RioCentro Conference Center, Rio+20.  A posse of well-appointed individuals leisurely stroll by, their security detail and a gaggle of media in tow.  They seem important and unconcerned.  They walk slowly.

The work of the 3rd Preparatory Committee, tasked with negotiating the text of the so called “zero draft,” is important. Today is the last day of negotiation listed on the schedule and yet a sense of urgency is strangely absent.

The “zero draft” with zero speed

The 3rd Preparatory Committee is negotiating the text of the zero draft.  The text of the draft can be divided in four sections: renewing political commitment, green economy, institutional framework (i.e. “upgrading“ UNEP) and the framework for action and follow-up (including specific topics like food or education).

Negotiations are not proceeding in sections or paragraphs or even sentences.  Rather,  representatives are struggling and fighting through this comprehensive document one word at a time.  It’s a gruelling, combative and tediously slow process.  Observing the negotiations here in Rio is like observing a crippled tortoise trying to cross a highway.  There is little doubt that diplomacy has its place and requires time and patience; however, yesterday’s progress was laughably small. Nor is this an independent observation: delegates to Major Group Representatives have confirmed the uncharacteristically slow progress.

In many working groups, a blockade created by different opinions about specific words and paragraphs has brought work to a near standstill.  Unsurprisingly, a major divide has developed between the G77 nations and those represented in the G20, primarily the US and the member states of the European Union.

The toothless lion

Concern is rising about the fussy and creeping progress of negotiations. However, the main concern among experts is not the slow progress or even the prospect of not having a full document ready for the UN CSD, when politicians will arrive to approve or reject the document. The real worry amongst experts and commentators is that a last-minute rush will weaken the document to a hollow shell of rhetoric. Civil society representatives are particularly concerned that there are those who would prefer a weaker document than a document that requires reaching a  binding compromise.

There is still time to produce a meaningful zero draft but negotiators must be willing to act quickly and make concessions. After all, the entire point of a negotiation process is to trade concessions in order to reach an agreement that is perfect to no one, but acceptable to all.


Michael McCullough contributed to this article.

9 thoughts on “Slow Going: Status Update on Zero Draft Negotiations

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    • Absolutely, in some cases you can sit there for two hours and they are still discussing the same two sentences which have been negotiated already in the 2nd preparatory committee meeting. Obviously they care about what’s happening here, otherwise they would not spend such efforts in these negotiation. Nevertheless, unfortunately is is totally different question what they are caring about.

  3. It’s great that attention is being drawn to a very important problem that has dogged so many conferences in the past – the lack of a solid document being drawn up…and agreed upon. The growing North-South divide is definitely becoming a spanner in the wheels of success and we really saw the effect of that in Copenhagen. But I’m concerned that you mention that “negotiators must be willing to act quickly and make concessions”. Depending on the concession being made, I’m worried that this could result in a weaker document which could allow governments to make nothing more than empty promises.

    • Currently, this is what happens at the moment with all my regrets. The document gets weaker and far away from solid. But I had just today a talk with the Swiss Ambassador of Environment Mr. Perrez with him saying that even a weak document might be enough to make the conference successful since the main message and all side events and connections made here in Rio are probably more important to start new initiatives and actions on the ground.

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