Stockholm Conference on Environmental
Law and Justice,  6-9 September 2006

Bo Kjellén (Uppsala): Justice in Global Environmental Negotiations: the Case of Desertification  

The UN Convention to Combat Desertification, signed in 1994, entered into force in 1996. Today, 191 countries have ratified the Convention, which makes it one of the principal international legal instruments on sustainable development. Many observers would argue that the Convention is one of the prime examples of procedural justice in the international system; however, its implementation seems to indicate that its potential for distributive justice has not been realized. My presentation aims at exploring these various aspects of the Convention and providing some thoughts on its future. The analysis will mainly cover three groups of issues.

FIRST, the Convention will be set in the broad framework of the Rio Conference on Environment and Development in 1992. Whereas its sister Conventions(1) were negotiated in parallel with the preparations for Rio, the question of a legal instrument on desertification and drought only came up towards the end of the work of the Preparatory Committee, as a result of an initiative taken by the African Group. It can be argued that the driving force was a strong sense among the developing countries that the Rio process was too heavily concentrated on global environmental problems, giving issues of intra-generational equity and economic development a lower priority. In particular, several of the least developed countries had strong feelings of injustice in this regard, strengthened by the relative lack of success of the UNEP Plan of Action to combat Desertification, launched in the aftermath of the disastrous Sahel drought in the 1970’s.

These arguments appeared with force during the third session of the Preparatory Committee for the Rio Conference in the autumn of 1991.(2) A few months later, African Ministers of Environment agreed to a proposal for a regional Convention on Desertification. This initiative was taken up in the Rio process, and led to the inclusion in Agenda 21 of a request to the General Assembly to establish an intergovernmental negotiating committee for the elaboration of a convention.(3)

The paper will elaborate on the process of negotiation, setting the author’s personal experience as a central actor in the perspective of the academic discussion on distributive and procedural justice, started by Rawls’ A Theory of Justice in 1971.

SECOND, the focus will be on the contents of the Convention, with the aim of demonstrating that it has incorporated a number of ideas on fairness and justice that were particularly emphasized during the Rio process itself: in this sense it may be argued that the Convention to combat Desertification represents a step forward in relation to other international instruments when it comes to such concepts as respect and participation. This is recognized in the first of the principles contained in Art. 3 of the Convention: “The Parties should ensure that decisions on the design and implementation of programmes to combat desertification and/or mitigate the effects of drought are taken with the participation of populations and local communities and that an enabling environment is created at higher levels to facilitate action at national and local levels.”

The general provisions in Part II of the Convention also reflect ideas of the same kind, including the question of poverty eradication, thereby foreshadowing the Millennium Development Goals. This part of the Convention also states clearly in its Article 7 the specific priority for Africa.

Of particular interest are also Articles 5 and 6, defining the obligations of affected country parties and developed country parties, respectively. One example is Art.5 (d), which states that affected country parties undertake to “promote awareness and facilitate the participation of local populations, particularly women and youth, with the support of non-governmental organizations, in efforts to combat desertification and mitigate the effects of drought.” These specific features of the Convention will be discussed in the paper, once again drawing on the author’s experience as Chairman of the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee.

THIRD, the implementation of the Convention will be reviewed, in particular to address the question of how the principles of justice embodied in the text have been realized. Many observers would probably express a sense of disappointment and frustration, mainly at the lack of sufficient financial flows from the developed countries to enable the Convention to play its expected role. The author shares this view, but also believes that a more nuanced and complex analysis is needed, both with regard to the general attitude towards sustainable development post-Rio, and the way in which different countries have come to regard different aspects of the international and national operation of the mechanisms of the Convention.

This is particularly important since the United Nations has proclaimed 2006 as the International Year of Deserts and Desertification. It is essential that this Year will not just be an occasion for lofty general statements, but also an opportunity to re-launch the Convention with the aim of realizing its potential to promote international and national justice. In its conclusions, the paper would aim at providing some suggestions in this regard.


(1) The UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (UNCBD), both signed during the Rio Conference in June 1992.

(2) The author was directly involved as Chairman of Plenary Working Group I, which dealt with chapters 9 through 16 of Agenda 21, including Chapter 12 on  desertification and drought.

(3) Agenda 21, Chapter 12, Art 12.40.



 Ansvarig utgivare är SMC | Copyright 2006