News / 21 June 2013

Voluntary Commitments

Exactly a year ago the United Nations organised the Rio+20 conference on sustainable development. Over 45.000 representatives of states, companies and civil society organisations were present, including Nathalie van Haren of Both ENDS. The conference will go into history as a failure. But there was a bright spot: the voluntary commitments made by individual governments, companies and CSOs. Ban Ki Moon called them ‘bricks and cement for sustainable development’. What are these commitments, what was promised, and what are the results, one year later? Peter Zomer, intern at Both ENDS, looked into the matter.

What are the voluntary commitments? What will be used for?
In the run-up to the Rio+20 the UN called on its members to send in proposals of voluntary initiatives for sustainable development. No less than 882 Voluntary Commitments were submitted by companies such as Microsoft, UNEP, Unilever and the Gates Foundation. There were promises made in areas such as energy, agriculture, health and education.

Peter reviewed the promises made by Dutch participants and  looked whether they are useful for the projects of Both ENDS. He also interviewed Dutch participants and concluded that the commitments look very promising but that little is clear yet. Although many of the interviewees are constantly working on the promised subjects, the UN shows little activity itself. There is a lack of communication about the specific promises not only between the proposers and the UN, but also between the proposers and their partners. The proposers do not seem to feel directly responsible for the promises made to the UN and it is not clear to them whether they have lived up to their promises.


How can we make sure the Voluntary Commitments are useful to the world?
The voluntary promises made under the UN do have potential. Many proposers have been working on a broad range of topics in many areas. Awareness about these commitments can promote cooperation and involvement. To help the proposers live up to their promises the UN should ask them to report on their progress. Furthermore, the work of the proposers as well as new commitments should stay focused on sustainable development. This can be (re)adjusted by setting the right conditions for new registrations. Ultimately the capacity of participants to realise their promises is essential and the UN and others can definitely play a part in this.


When will all these beautiful promises become reality?
Sustainable development can only be achieved when everyone participates. Sustainable development used to be a term used by scholars, civil society organisations and governments, but now many companies are also aware of its importance. The Voluntary Commitments are a good example of this: under the banner of the UN participants of the Rio +20 have voluntarily made their sustainability ambitions known to the world.


Voluntary agreements may be even harder to compel than multilateral environmental agreements: when the participants do not  fulfil their promises there are no sanctions. But this does not mean that one can just bail out irresponsibly: agreements are agreements whether they are voluntary or not and promise makes (moral) dept. We now have to make sure that words are not only transformed into action , but also that this action truly supports sustainable development. To uphold the credibility of the promises and of the UN itself, the UN should take a lead in monitoring the realisation of the promises. The UN Office for Sustainable Development (UNOSD) will host the first annual meeting on the implementation of sustainable development in November this year. The meeting will focus on the progress of the Rio+20 Voluntary Commitments.


 The UN-website about the Voluntary Commitments


Nathalie’s blogs on the Rio+20 summit

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