How can small states with limited resources have an effective voice in the post-2015 negotiations? The Caribbean experience in Rio in 1992 tells us that regional collaboration is key.

The equal voting rights of UN Member States in international negotiations belie the reality that wealthy countries with large delegations and easy access to sources of technical expertise have a disproportionate influence over debates and decisions. In the post-2015 sustainable development negotiations now underway, the small island states of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) are looking to overcome the disadvantage of size through working collectively. Past experience with regional collaboration in international processes offers lessons that may be relevant to the current negotiations. In this blog, Cletus Springer examines the factors that contributed to a strong Caribbean presence at the UN Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) in Rio in 1992, which resulted in the international recognition of the special situation and unique environmental vulnerabilities of small island developing states.

UNCED was the region’s first major foray into international environmental diplomacy, yet despite their inexperience Caribbean countries were remarkably effective in using the Conference to advance the agenda of small island developing states (SIDS). Among the keys to this success were a clearly articulated regional agenda, which had been developed three years ahead of the Conference, and a highly effective task force supporting the countries throughout the process.

The story of the Caribbean success at Rio begins with the Port of Spain Accord on the Management and Conservation of the Caribbean Environment, which was adopted at the First CARICOM Ministerial Conference on the Environment in 1989. The Accord built upon and consolidated earlier regional collaboration on the environment, including the establishment of the Caribbean Environmental Health Institute in 1980 and the ratification by Caribbean countries of the Convention for the Protection and Development of the Marine Environment in the Wider Caribbean Region in 1983. The Accord was in many respects a groundbreaking document. Firstly, in providing a list of priorities and strategic approaches to address them, it gave clear guidelines for framing national agendas and helped to inform national and regional negotiating positions in international debates. Secondly, in embracing the value of economic pursuits “including small scale enterprises which are geared to the enjoyment and enhancement of the environment” it gave early expression to the notion of the green economy. And thirdly, it provided fresh political impetus to the development of policies, programmes and projects for addressing the deficiencies in the region’s institutional arrangements for effective environmental management.

The Accord coincided with, and to some extent ignited, a broader resurgence of attention on environmental issues in the region. In 1990, CARICOM created the Regional Task Force for Environment and began to mobilize and prepare countries for their participation in the upcoming Rio Summit. In the preparatory meetings ahead of the Conference, the region was always grossly outnumbered by the delegations of the large industrialized countries. To counteract this manpower deficiency, the Task Force devised a system of specialization and rotation, in which available members were assigned responsibility for tracking discussions within certain working groups and were authorized to speak on behalf of other Caribbean countries in these groups. The practice of countries accrediting personnel from regional organizations as their delegates, with authority to speak on their behalf, contributed to the success of the Task Force. Under this arrangement, for example, personnel from the Caribbean Environmental Health Institute were accredited as delegates of Saint Lucia.

The Task Force was greatly assisted by the consensus positions already articulated in the Port of Spain Accord and other regional policy documents; by the unfailing camaraderie and collective sense of purpose of Task Force members; and by the fact that at that time, delegates could intervene in the negotiations in their own sovereign right, rather than through the lead negotiator of the G77, as is the case today. Still, with six working groups meeting simultaneously and often through the night and into the early morning hours, Task Force members were hard-pressed to keep up. On occasion reliable delegates from among the member countries of the Alliance of Small Island States were enlisted for support. Many of these delegates also tracked negotiations on the climate change and biodiversity conventions and this helped to build an effective bonding that assisted the interests of small states in the UN process as a whole.

Caribbean delegates earned tremendous respect and support from the delegates and Chair of the Conference for their hard work, for the clarity of their interventions, for the fervor with which they defended critical positions, and for their willingness to seek compromise, without undermining their fundamental positions. The foundational argument of the Task Force was that the peculiarities and vulnerabilities of small states were such that they could not be adequately treated in a process like UNCED. Indeed during the UNCED negotiations members of the Task Force repeatedly took the floor to point out that the specificities of small states were being lost in generalizations and the one-size-fits-all tenor of the negotiations. These efforts were rewarded in several parts of the Rio Declaration and Agenda 21 that carry the “mark” of the region, for example, this section on SIDS in Chapter 17 of Agenda 21:
“Small island developing States, and islands supporting small communities are a special case both for environment and development. They are ecologically fragile and vulnerable. Their small size, limited resources, geographic dispersion and isolation from markets, place them at a disadvantage economically and prevent economies of scale. For small island developing States the ocean and coastal environment is of strategic importance and constitutes a valuable development resource. ”

Perhaps the greatest achievement of the Task Force, though, was garnering sufficient support from UN Member States for a Global Conference on the Sustainable Development of Small Island States, to deal on an on-going basis with the special challenges and vulnerabilities of small states. The Task Force continued to support the region at the first of these global conferences on SIDS, which was held in 1994 in Barbados.

This moment turned out to be the high point in Caribbean regional diplomacy. Following the Barbados SIDS Conference, the Task Force remained dormant for nearly seven years. It was reactivated in 2001 with an expanded membership to function as an advisory body on sustainable development issues and to coordinate preparations for the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg in 2002. It no longer exists in name or in function.

While the pool of Caribbean environmental diplomats has increased since the 1990s, with the exception of the UN climate change negotiations where the Caribbean acts as part of AOSIS, there has not been the same level of coordination and technical support to the region’s efforts in international negotiating fora. In addition, there does not appear to be any effective coordination of the region’s representation in the various international bodies such as the Global Environment Facility, the Adaptation Fund and the Climate Investment Fund. The perception is that these representatives sit on these bodies in a personal capacity, when in fact they represent the region as a constituency.

The coordination that is required goes well beyond the mere organization of regional participation in international fora. Since 1994, several unsuccessful attempts have been made to establish a regional coordinating mechanism to join up the political, technical and institutional aspects of sustainable development. The CARICOM Secretariat is best placed to perform this role, but so far it has not embraced it. There is an urgent need for the Caribbean to put its act together so it can take full advantage of the significant opportunities that are promised by the end of 2015, with the finalization of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and adoption of a new international climate change agreement to replace the Kyoto Protocol. The Caribbean need look no further than its only early efforts in environmental diplomacy for lessons about what should be done and how.