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Stockholm+50: Civil society wants effective governance of global commons

In March 2022, an unprecedented heat wave was registered in the Antarctic with temperatures around 40°C above average. Image: a melting glacier / Shutterstock

Ahead of the UN’s Stockholm+50 conference on the environment in June 2022, around 40 civil society organizations published a joint statement calling for a “critical paradigm shift” to ensure effective planetary governance. 

According to the declaration, global commons such as a stable global climate should “be at the center of a regenerative economy and be the foundation for global governance and new institutional solutions”. The document says that a “well-functioning Earth System” that keeps humanity in a “safe operating space within all vital and interdependent Planetary Boundaries”, must be recognized “as a fundamental global common in need of urgent stewardship.”

Specifically, the statement calls on the United Nations, its agencies, and all Member States “to act upon a four-step pathway”: (1) Implement the right to a healthy environment, (2) recognize, restore, and safeguard the global commons, (3) establish a regenerative economy, and (4) prioritize governance and institutional solutions.  

Global ecological governance needs to be inclusive, representative and accountable

From the perspective of ensuring democratic legitimacy and accountability, the fourth point is of special interest. It says that  “a permanent system of effective global governance” needs to be “inclusive, representative, and accountable to global citizens.” According to Democracy Without Borders, one of the organizations which endorsed the document, setting up a UN Parliamentary Assembly and a UN World Citizens’ Initiative represent steps in this direction. 

A specific proposal mentioned in the fourth point is to transform the inactive United Nations Trusteeship Council into “a multilateral space for the governance of the commons.” However, it is not spelled out in what way or to what extent this particular proposal will bring about an inclusive, representative and accountable global framework for environmental governance and law.

Adopted in 1972 at the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment, the original Stockholm Declaration marked the beginning of international environmental law. One of its revolutionary achievements was the “no-harm” rule, now widely recognized as a principle of customary international law, whereby a state is duty-bound to prevent environmental harm to other states. 

The UN conference in June, hosted by Sweden and Kenya, will include a high-level meeting to commemorate the 50th anniversary under the theme “a healthy planet for the prosperity of all – our responsibility, our opportunity” and to “celebrate 50 years of global environmental action.” 

However, following the civil society statement, it could be questioned whether there is so much to celebrate. “It is only too apparent that international environmental law has failed”, it is stated in the background information. The “no-harm rule”, it is also explained, does not include the global commons or the Earth System as a single whole. According to one of the initiators of the declaration, it has thus saved some “trees”, while the “forest” is disappearing.

Hans Leander
Hans is a board member of Democracy Without Borders-Sweden