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‘Common but different’ – the truth about words at Rio+20


Some of the language and terminology of UN processes like Rio+20 can be cumbersome, and sometimes belie the subtle, and as often not-so-subtle, realities of wider geopolitics. So in this slightly technical blog post I’ll be exploring, as an example, the differing interpretations of the delightful phrase “common but differentiated responsibilities”…

“Common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities” – it’s quite a mouthful. In fact you could say it’s a bit like a Brazilian dinner. They do like large portions out here – I ordered some barbecue ribs the other evening and was served near-half a pig on my plate. But I digress. The point is that words can mean different things to different people.

This text, which has its origins in Principle 7 of the first Rio Declaration outcome from the 1992 ‘Earth Summit’, has become a contentious topic in the current negotiations here at Rio+20.

Basically, it suggests that the countries of the world have a common view of the challenge of achieving environmental protection, but they have different (historic and current) levels of responsibility for the causes of environmental degradation. It also recognises that countries have different capabilities (resources, access to technology etc) to address the problem going forwards.

Rio+20 Watchwords © WWF-Canon / Franko PetriRio+20 Watchwords © WWF-Canon / Franko Petri

In 1992, it was relatively simple to see where both the responsibilities and capabilities lay – with the rich countries of the global north and west, who had built their wealth and prosperity on the depletion of resources (not always their own).

As a reflection of this binary rich-poor distinction, Principle 7 refers to “developed countries”, and although it didn’t refer to ‘developing’ or ‘poor’ countries, it didn’t need to – the singling out of the rich countries was all that was needed.

And so to Rio+20 and the current negotiations, where many countries are looking to insert references to ‘common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities’ (let’s save space and refer to CBDR from now on).

Fair enough, you might think – there are still rich countries and poor countries, and so it’s only right to continue to highlight that the principle of CBDR still holds true.

But there are two main problems with this.

Firstly, the ‘rich countries’ see this being inserted into the text in relation to social and economic issues, not just environmental ones. To accept this would, in the words of one senior negotiator, “blow open a whole host of issues” about respective responsibilities for issues such as global trade, education and health standards – things to which the concept was never intended to apply.

The second problem is that the world is a very different place today than it was in 1992. And this is where it’s interesting to note that it’s often countries like India and China – who have seen rapid economic development in the past two decades, to the extent that they now boast some of the trappings of rich countries (space programmes, overseas aid programmes and high-speed rail infrastructure etc) – who are keenest to insert CBDR references into the text.

This provokes a push back on the part of the ‘rich countries’, who say ‘differentiation’ should be different in 2012 than it was in 1992. It’s no longer quite such a simple world of ‘rich countries’ and ‘poor countries’.

The richest countries are still willing to help genuinely poor countries realise green economies, but are much more reluctant to see the emerging economies of Brazil, Russia, India and China (the so-called BRICS) get assistance. Not least because, they would argue, it diverts funds from those in greatest need.

So the view is that it’s acceptable – desirable, in many respects – to have that discussion about different differentiation of responsibilities and capabilities, but this discussion is not something for a forum like Rio.

It means CBDR, which has taken on a life of its own, is yet another issue of contention that slows down progress towards agreement.

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