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Civil Society Participation in Sustainable Development Diplomacy.

Towards Global Stakeholder Democracy?

Karin Bckstrand
Department of Political Science, Lund University,
Visiting Fellow, Department of Politics and International Relations, Oxford University,


The democratization of global governance is implicitly conceptualized as increased civil society
participation, NGO representation and multi-stakeholdership in international negotiations.
The idea of civil society as a force to democratize global governance is a leitmotif in the IR
scholarship on transnational democracy. Through a case study of civil society activism in
sustainable development diplomacy culminating with the 2012 Rio+ 20 summit, this paper
examines to what extent the practice of civil society participation in sustainable development
diplomacy resonates with models of global stakeholder and deliberative democracy. A core
argument is that global stakeholder democracy, which represents a deliberative attempt from
international organizations to institutionalize deliberation between major groups across civil
society, government and business spheres, has been consolidated as the predominant model of
environmental multilateralism. Some implications of the rise of stakeholder democracy as a new
kind of public-private multilateralism are highlighted: the undermining of an autonomous civil
society, the rise of stakeholder accountability and the concomitant decline of public and citizen
The last 20 years have shown that we are in the middle of what has been called a transition from Madison (or
representative) democracy to Jeffersonian (or participatory democracy), and we are now entering a democracy by, of,
and with stakeholders. Stakeholder democracy is the idea that involving all participants, at every level, will results in
better-informed decisions being taken. (Dodds et al. 2012: 233).

The statement above reflects the view from NGOs participants of global sustainability
development diplomacy. This paper argues that notions of stakeholder democracy increasingly
underpinned multilateral environmental summitry, which was very manifest at the 2012 United
Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (UNCSD) or Rio+20 summit. In the closing
of the summit, the Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff stressed that the Rio+20 summit was the
most participatory conference in the history and can be conceived as a global expression of
democracy (ENB 2012: 1). Twenty years earlier at the 1992 United Nations Conference on
Environmental and Development (UNCED) in Rio de Janeiro, the organizer of the parallel civil
society Global Forum said: it has become the first international experiment in democratizing
intergovernmental decision-making (Dodds 2008: ix). In a recent book by practioners taking
stock of 20 years of UN sustainable development diplomacy, it is argued that civil society and
stakeholder participation holds the promise to close the democracy gap in global politics
(Dodds et al 2012: 231).

These statements reflect the dramatic participatory turn of international environmental

negotiations the past decades. Global environmental diplomacy has been a laboratory for
experimenting with deliberative and multi-stakeholder mechanisms to increase representation,
voice and consultation of civil society. Compared to other policy fields, global environmental
politics has the most advanced mechanisms for access and inclusion of civil society (Bernstein
2012; Bckstrand 2012). Paradoxically, the increased participation of non-state actors in
international environmental negotiations and the UNs experimentation with new mechanisms to
include civil society in partnerships, consultation and dialogue has not been matched by
implementation of agreements. Global environmental governance suffers from an
implementation or decision deficit (Bodansky 1999). The Copenhagen climate summit in 2009
and Rio+20 summit in 2012 have been framed as major setbacks for international environmental
diplomacy. The verdict of the outcomes from Rio+20 summit has been very harsh from large
segments of civil society (Clemencon 2012). Greenpeace described the Rio+20 summit as a
failure of epic proportions and process without substance as it did not generate any new
binding commitments nor adopt any new treaties (Powers 2013). The main outcome a 53 page
document titled The Future We Want mainly re-affirmed previous commitments from Rio and
Most scholarly attention has been directed toward the impact and influence of NGOs and civil
society in reducing the chronic implementation deficit of environmental governance (Betsill and
Corell 2008). Some authors argue that the capacity of NGOs to influence and transform global
governance is a criterion for global democratization (Friedman et al 2005). However, this paper
explores how civil society activism at environmental summits can be conceptualized in terms of
democratic theory. 1 The polycentric, hybrid and transnational character of environmental
governance pose challenges for theorizing global democracy. The idea of civil society as a force to
democratize global governance is a recurrent leitmotif in the IR scholarship on transnational
democracy. The ideal of democratic polycentrism focuses the participation and deliberation of nonstate actors, civil society and NGOs as a pathway to global democracy (Archibugi et al
2012:8;Tallberg and Uhlin 2012). Two accounts of democratic polycentrism - deliberative
democracy and stakeholder democracy - have been advanced as innovations to counter the
democratic deficit of global governance institutions.
Instead of asking whether civil society contribute to democratizing global governance, this paper
analyzes the major group system set up to structure civil society as a stakeholder in
partnership and dialogue with government and international organizations in the UN summits
on sustainable development. This paper is part of two ongoing projects that examine the
normative principles of global democracy that underpins contemporary practice of civil society
participation in the UN summits on climate and sustainability.2 Several normative ideals of global
democracy stakeholder, participatory and deliberate democracy have informed multilateral

The terms civil society, transnational actor, non-governmental actor and non-state actors are used interchangeable.
It is beyond the scope of this paper to conceptualize the different between these terms (cf Fridmann et al
2005:,Josselin and Wallace 2001; Keane 2003; Willet 2011). For the purpose of this paper I have an empirical
definition, i.e. those actors that have consultative status within UN ECOSOC.
Non-state actors in the new landscape of climate cooperation, funded by the Swedish Research Council and Formas
and Democracy Beyond Nation-State. Transnational Actors and Global Governance (Transdemos), funded by
Riksbankens Jubileumsfond.

environmental diplomacy the past two decades. They can be conceived of as different normative
re-imaginations of transnational democracy that find expression in UN summits and have
overlapping features.
The major groups concept was introduced two decades ago as an innovation to organize civil
society participation in the UN along nine societal stakeholders (such as NGOs, business, women
etc.). The idea of dividing civil society into societal stakeholders came from the 1992 Rio summit
and was pioneered by the United Nations Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD).
Twenty years of sustainable development diplomacy demonstrates that there shift in both the
language and practice: from civil society to stakeholders and constituencies, from
participation to implementation, and from consultation to partnerships. Through a case
study of sustainable development diplomacy, this paper examines to what extent the practice of
civil society participation in sustainable development diplomacy resonates with competing ideals
of stakeholder and deliberative democracy. Deliberative and stakeholder democracy differ on how
they conceptualize civil society: as an autonomous oppositional force and critique or as a partner
with government and business in collective problem solving, collaboration and implementation. I
argue that global stakeholder democracy, which represents a deliberative attempt from
international organizations to institutionalize or orchestrate (Abbott and Snidal 2010)
deliberation between major groups across civil society, government and business spheres, has
been consolidated as the predominant model of environmental multilateralism. The Earth
summits in 1992 and 2012 reflect the evolution and refinement of key principles of stakeholder
democracy. Interestingly, civil society itself embraces the stakeholder principle for organizing and
stratifying civil society into societal stakeholders along societal functions, identity and economic
position (Dodds et al. 2012). The Rio+20 summit has been branded as a new kind of
multilateralism with a greater emphasis on voluntary action and dialogues with civil society,
business and science outside the formal negotiations.
This paper consists of the following sections. The first section briefly discusses the rationale for
using global environmental summitry as a site for exploring normative visions of transnational
democracy. The second section reviews the scholarly debate on the role of civil society in
promoting global democracy. The third section outlines the features of stakeholder democracy as
one example of polycentric democracy and distinguishes it from deliberative democracy. The
fourth section moves on to the case study, analyzing the history of civil society participation in
UN sustainable development diplomacy. The fifth section explores how principles of stakeholder
democracy were applied at the Rio+20 summit through multiple interactive mechanisms to
involve civil society, government and business. This is contrasted with ideals of deliberative
democracy manifest at parallel Peoples summit The sixth section discusses the implications and
criticisms of the rise of stakeholder democracy in global environmental summitry.
UN summits on environment as a site for visions of democratic polycentrism
The UN environmental summits and various treaty bodies such as the Conference of Parties
(COP) have far-reaching mechanism to include civil society and represent sites for intense NGOstate interaction (Willett 2011). Environmental diplomacy can be seen as a prime example of new
forms of public-private multilateralism. By drawing on participatory observations and interviews
with civil society and governmental representatives at the annual UN summits on climate and
sustainable development, the paper is part of a project that analyzes what kind of global

democracy ideals that influence civil society participation at UN summits 3 The various
innovations to involve non-state actors in the UN climate negotiations (UNFCCC) and the UN
conference on sustainable development are compared. In comparison with other policy fields
such as international trade, security and finance, environmental politics is very inclusive and open
in terms of access for civil society and participatory and deliberative mechanisms (Bernstein
2012). Global environmental politics has the most developed mechanisms for access and
participation of civil society in negotiations (Steffek 2008). For this reason environmental
governance is often used as an example to confirm the democratizing force of civil society. For
example, Friedmann et al (2005) has used the UN summits on environment, human rights and
women as an empirical test case for the emergence and potentially democratizing impact of civil
society. If you do find evidence of democratizing impact of civil society in global environmental
governance, it will be hard find elsewhere. A repeated and justified criticism in this context is that
there is a selection bias towards successful cases of civil society involvement that verifies
arguments that NGOs promotes global democracy. Instead of reinforcing normative perspectives
that civil society participation contributes to the democratizing global environmental governance,
the project assesses what kind of democratic ideals that inform the practice of major groups
participation in stakeholder dialogues, partnerships etc. By taking stock of the various deliberative
practices and innovations for multi-stakeholder participation I will ask what kind of global
democracy is envisioned.
Contesting the democratizing force of transnational civil society
Is civil society a means to achieve a more democratic world order? While the role of civil society is
still at the margin on IR debates between realism and liberalism, constructivism and the global
governance literature has opened up for the analysis of non-state actors and civil society actors.
The question whether civil society, NGOs and advocacy networks can enhance global democratic
legitimacy has garnered attention among scholars (Dryzek 2012; Keck and Sikkink 1998;
Omlicheva 2009; Scholte 2011; Steffek et al 2008). Moreover, in global environmental politics a
subset of literature has emerged around the potential of civil society as a transformative force for
democracy (Betsill and Corell 2008; Princen and Fingers 1994; Wapner 1996). A general
problem is that the literature linking civil society and global democracy is replete with normative
assumptions and conflate prescriptive and descriptive accounts of civil society as a force for
Optimistic accounts stress the democratic potential of civil society while skeptics argues that
NGOs has become the most overestimated actor in the 1990s (Wahl cited in Hirsch 2002:
195). Normative accounts of the democratizing role of NGOs in global governance are tied to a
conceptualization of civil society as institutionally independent from state system and the market,
a bounded space between the market and sovereign state system. Civil society is framed as a third
force of voluntary associations (Florini 2000). It is watchdog on sovereign states, serves as
transmission between the citizens and the government and check on the markets. In this vein,
NGOs involvement in global governance will enhance the representation and empowerment of
marginalized societal groups, whose opinions can be channeled to policy-makers. Non-state
actors can improve the accountability in global governance by monitoring governments

The author has participated in the 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg, the 2012
United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (UNCSD) Rio+20 summit in Rio de Janeiro as well as
several Conference of the Parties (COPs) of the UNFCCC between Bali 2007 and Durban 2011.

compliance and implementation of international agreements. As Bohman (1999:506) states:

The greatest impetus for more democracy in the international arena lies in a vigorous civil
society containing oppositional public spheres, in which civil society organizes against the state,
or appeal to it when making violations of agreements public.
Skeptics are critical of civil society as panacea argument as a democratic agent to counter the
democratic deficit (Brhl 2010). The contest claims that NGOs represent an independent sphere
and countervailing power against states and markets private enterprises, emancipatory societal
change. The assumption of the credentials of civil society is nave in the light of the dubious
representative claims and the internal accountability of civil society (Halliday 2001:36). Civil
society is not a democratic bulk-work against unaccountable institutions of global governance, as
civil society itself is undemocratic and unaccountable (Colas 2002:138). NGOs do not have
democratic credentials, as they are not legitimated through electoral mechanisms. They are largely
self-selected and are frequently not accountable to their constituencies, isolated from broader
public interests, and, at worst, promote their own narrowly defined political agenda. Many
professionalized NGOs, are largely represented by Western, male and middles class elites, which
act as lobbyists closely aligned with many governments, have eroded their watchdog position and
role as credible representatives of marginalized stakeholder groups. Willets (2011:3) strongly
cautions against viewing civil society participation as a means to democratize global governance
institutions: Any claim for NGOs--- to have a vote in existing policy-making bodies, or to have a
new Peoples Assembly with decision-making authority, would not be democratic. Indeed it
would be nothing but anti-democratic elitism and corporativism.
Advocates of global democracy often equate global democratization with civil society
participation while skeptics rejects global democracy on feasibility grounds or the lack of a
coherent demos. However, there is middle ground between proponents and skeptics of civil
society as a pathway to democratize global governance. Little and Macdonald (2013: 24)
argues: Viewing global democratic institutions instead through a non-ideal and institutionally
open lens can help us to escape from this kind of binary way of thinking about the possibilities
for global democratic reform, in which either global democracy in all its idealised and
emancipatory glory can be realised, or all possibilities for democratic reform are completely
foreclosed. Furthermore, Dryzek (2012: 107) argues: Evaluating the activities of global civil
society in terms of some implicit ideal model of democracy is ultimately a pointless exercise. It is
more useful to think of the contribution of global civil society to processes of democratization.
Scholarly attention should be directed to the emergent democratic practices in world politics that
are informed by democratic values, such as accountability, transparency, fairness and inclusion.
Deliberative and participatory mechanisms to include NGOs and civil society in
intergovernmental negotiations and global governance institutions represent such democratic
practice. Working with the concept of democratic practices thereby helps us to perform our
task of analysing and appraising progressive processes of democratisation, where these
unambiguously fall short of realising a more comprehensive notion of fully formed democracy
(Little and MacDonald 2013; 6). This research strategy implies a shift in focus from the
attainment of global democracy to advancement of various democratic practices and means
bridging the scholarship on a normatively justifiable global order based on global democracy with
an empirically research agenda aiming to recalibrate theories to real world conditions
(Moravscic 2004).

Democratic polycentrism, stakeholder democracy and deliberative democracy

Stakeholder democracy has been highlighted as a model of global democracy given the pluralist
structure of global power and the various polycentric governance mechanisms (Bckstrand 2006;
Macdonald 2008). How is stakeholder democracy situated in relationship to other ideals of global
democracy and the dominant practice of intergovernmentalism? The scholarship on global
democracy revolves around normative ideals such as participatory democracy, cosmopolitanism
and deliberative democracy (Anderson 2002; Archibugi et al 2012; Holden 2000; McGrew
2002). The normative vision of democratic polycentricism, which relies on civil society in
shaping new forms of non-electoral of accountability, is framed as a more realistic path for
transnational democracy compared to cosmopolitanism, which focuses on institutional
transformation to democratic federalism and world government. Democratic polycentrism builds
on the idea to engage a multiplicity of non-state actors in multilateral processes
democratization from below - and thereby moving beyond predominant modes of
intergovernmentalism that focus on the association of sovereign democratic states representing
their citizens. Marchetti (2012:35) argues that democratic policycentrism deserves attention since
it represent the most feasible short-term reform of international decision-making in terms of
democratization. However, it needs to be unpacked as it draws on several alternative democratic
ideals, such as deliberative, participatory and stakeholder democracy. There is a tendency to
equate the pluralization of global governance and the rise of civil society and polyarchic
governance modes with the democratization of global governance (Colas 2002:158).
Intergovernmentalism is arguably the dominant contemporary practice of global governance. It
does not see global democracy as feasible or as desirable and largely reflects a procedural view of
liberal democracy extended to the global level (minus elections) and stressing values of
accountability and transparency (Buchanan and Keohane 2006; Keohane 2011). Legitimacy
stems from intergovernmental negotiations among sovereign states that have the formal decisionmaking authority. However, intergovernmentalism increasingly emphasize a role for a vibrant
civil society to channel its voices do decision makers as part of a shift from executive to
democratic multilateralism whereby external stakeholders, such as civil society are included in
decision-making process. Making intergovernmental institutions more open, responsible and
accountable to the transnational community of non-state actors beyond sovereign states reduces
the democratic deficit. International organizations need to increase access and accountability to
non-state actors as well as to the wider public and citizens. However, intergovernmentalism
primarily focuses on the accountability and transparency of international organizations to their
member states (McGrew 2002).
Stakeholder democracy has been advanced as most promising reformist strategy for tackling the
democratic deficit. It accepts the pluralist or polycentric structure of global public power and
calls for restructuring the boundaries of political decision-making communities (McDonald
2008). Democratic legitimacy in enhanced through the institutionalized participation and
representation of non-state actors in global diplomacy. However, institutional representation of
multi-stakeholder interests means a voice but not a vote and thereby do not provide a standalone framework for global decision-making a negotiations (McDonald 2008:8). Global
stakeholder democracy builds on vision of a bottom-up democratization of global governance
and shares features of deliberative and participatory democracy. Global democratization is

achieved by making the powerful agencies more democratic and accountable to those they affect
that is accountable to their stakeholders (MacDonald 2010). The need to develop new nonelectoral institutional mechanism fir authoritative decision-making that accord a greater role to
multi-stakeholder deliberative decision-making processes, since these can take better account of
differentiated interest intensity that can aggregative electoral alternatives (Archibugi et al 2010:
Stakeholder democracy shares certain features with deliberative democracy. Deliberative
democracy focuses on the role of transnational civil society in establishing democratic control
over the political discourse rather than institution building. Deliberate democracy is seen as more
compatible with contemporary structures of global governance given the non-hierarchical,
decentralized and non-electoral features of world politics (Dryzek 2006; Risse 2004). A key
component is the cultivation of transnational democratic spheres entailing a public dialogue
between agencies of public governance and those affected. The democratization of the global
order is achieved through strengthening the discursive quality of transnational public spheres.
The activities of vociferous nongovernmental organizations and transnational social movements
seem to be crucial for the emergence of a public sphere in global politics (Steffek 2010:58).
International regimes can be conceived as sites for a transnational public sphere enabling
deliberation between state and non-state actors on norms on transparency, fairness and
accountability (Payne and Samhat 2004). Civil society plays a critical role in deliberative accounts
of global democracy, in terms of the public scrutiny of arguments and debates over policy
choices. Reformist variants stress the possibility for deliberation to increase accountability while
more radical visions of discursive democracy highlight the transformative potential of
transnational civil society to challenge unaccountable sites of power. The greatest impetus for
more democracy in the international arena lies in a vigorous civil society containing oppositional
public spheres, in which civil society organizes against the state, or appeal to it when making
violations of agreements public (Bohman 1999: 506).

Civil society and NGOs participation from the Stockholm to the Rio+20 summit
In this section I examine the evolution of civil society and NGO participation in the UN
summits on sustainable development the past twenty years, where ideals of stakeholder
democracy has gained ground. In the scholarship on global environmental politics, the
democratization of global governance is largely conceptualized as increased civil society
participation, NGO representation and multi-stakeholdership in international negotiations.
The democratic participation of civil society was in the early 1990s a desirable goal in itself.
However, the achieving the effective implementation of international agreements has emerged as
the primary rationale for involving civil society. The mobilization of NGOs, civil society and
subsequently major groups is seen as a mean to strengthen the implementation of
intergovernmental agreements. In Agenda 21 it is stated one of the fundamental prerequisites for
the achievement of sustainable development is broad public participation in decision-making
(Agenda 21, 1992). Mechanisms to increase transparency and accountability, such as multistakeholder dialogues, public-private partnerships and civil society consultation, have evolved as
mainstream practices in environmental multilateralism, signified by the rise of NGO diplomacy
(Betsill and Corell 2008). The past two decades of Earth summits in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, in
Johannesburg in 2002 and in Rio de Janeiro in 2012 have consolidated a model of multi-

stakeholder multilateralism, where civil society participation and institutionalized representation

of major groups are emerging as democratic innovation. Agenda 21 organized civil society into
UN nine major groups. The UNFCCC has subsequently adopted this model and
institutionalized participation of nine constituencies, such as business and environmental NGOs,
known as BINGOs and ENGOs (Munos Cabr 2011).
The UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) rules for accreditation and participation were
amended in a resolution in 1996, expanding the access of NGOs (Martens 2005; Willett 2012:
52). The 1972 United Nations Conference on Human Environment in Stockholm can be
conceived as a milestone in terms of civil participation in global governance. More than 250
NGOs were accredited, mostly in their capacity as technical experts. Against the common
wisdom, it has been argued that the Stockholm Conference was more important in terms of civil
society participation than the Rio summit in 1992 (Willetts 1996). NGOs also held the first
parallel civil society forum in Stockholm. The United Nations Environmental Programme
(UNEP) was set up in Nairobi. UNEP has subsequently adopted mechanisms for NGO and stakeholder participation. The Environmental Liaison Centre was also established in Nairobi as
an NGO forum.
The United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) in 1992 was a
breakthrough for NGOs participation as the Conference Secretary-General Maurice Strong
opened up for civil society in the intergovernmental negotiations on sustainable development.
The UNCED gathered more than 17,000 participants, and about 1,400 NGOs were accredited.
In Rio, more than 25,000 individuals participated in the parallel Global Forum were NGOs
negotiated 46 alternative treaties (Dodds et al. 2012: 50). Taking place in an era of optimism
after the end of the Cold War, the summit produced several treaties (climate change,
biodiversity), the forest principles, the Rio Declaration and an action program - Agenda 21. An
institutional outcome of conference was that the CSD was established as a functional commission
of the ECOSOC in 1993. One of its main tasks was to strengthen the participation and
engagement of NGOs and civil society through sectors or nine major groups, which were
defined in Agenda 21. These are business and industry, children and youth, famers, indigenous
people, local authorities, NGOs, women, science and technology communities, workers and trade
unions. Noteworthy is that municipalities and cities are listed as a major group even if is not a
non-state actor. The division into major groups is based on a mix of economic, demographic and
institutional functions. They are arbitrary and inconsistent since they include young, but not
elderly people, indigenous but not other minority groups and governmental actors such as local
authorities (Willetts 2011:46-47). The boundaries and categories of stakeholders have been
debated since 1992. There have been recurrent proposals to include parliamentarians, elders,
subnational governments, disabled people and faith communities (Dodds et al 2012; 235).
However, adding the number of societal sectors or stakeholder will create obstacles for the already
cumbersome multilateral negotiations. In 1998 CSD introduced two-day multi-stakeholder
dialogues between the representatives of major groups and governments. Two multi-stakeholder
dialogues followed in 1999 and 2000 on themes such as industry and energy. Furthermore, in the
preparatory process for the Johannesburg summit multi-stakeholder dialogues were
institutionalized (Dodds et al 2012; Kaasa 2007).

In 2002 at the 10th year anniversary of UNCED, more than 20,000 participants reconvened in
Johannesburg at the World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD). About 3,200 NGOs
were accredited to the meeting. However, the Johannesburg summit was overshadowed by the
9/11 attacks and the ongoing global war on terrorism. WSSD was strongly framed as an
implementation summit. The Johannesburg Plan of Implementation (JPOI) was adopted
aiming at implementing the Rio outcomes in Agenda 21. As a complement to intergovernmental
or Type I agreement, the WSSD produced more than 220 Type II agreements or
partnerships for sustainable development that brings together governments, IOs, civil society and
business. The public-private partnerships were deeply contested by civil society and governments
from the South. They were criticized for signifying the retreat of the state and the privatization
and marketization of global environmental governance. The partnerships were framed as a central
tool for strengthening the implementation of commitments and for mobilizing civil society and
stakeholders in the post-Johannesburg era.
The WSSD further consolidated the role of major groups as partners with governments. A space
for stakeholder dialogues and major group intervention through position papers in the
preparatory meetings (PrepComs) was provided and at the summit they were allowed to make
statements. At the summit major groups were involved in six thematic plenary events,
roundtables and in multi-stake-stakeholder dialogues, which were all part of the official
intergovernmental program (Bckstrand 2006). Major groups were also allowed to make
statements in the high level segment of the conference, a practice that has been replicated in the
UN climate change negotiations. However, while the CSD had some success in the first 8 years
to increase dialogue between civil society and governments, after the Johannesburg summit, the
quality of stakeholder dialogues declined as they became more disconnected from negotiations
(Dodds et al. 2012).
At the Rio+20 summit in June 2012 in Brazil almost 44,000 participants from governments,
NGOs and the private sector gathered at the negotiations, at more than 3500 official and nonofficial side events and different parallel mini-summits. About 12,000 participants were
accredited by the ECOSOC and 1384 major group organizations were registered. In terms of
sheer numbers, the summit was one of the largest events in of the series of mega-conferences on
sustainable development. At the Flamengo Park the Peoples Summit for Social and
Environmental Justice took place in parallel with the official intergovernmental meeting.
However, timing of the summit coincided with an escalating debt and euro-crisis, the Arab
spring, the budget crisis and the upcoming elections in the US. About 50 Heads of state
participated which was less than half compared to the UNCED. Key political leaders such as
David Cameroon, Angela Merkel and Barak Obama did not show up. The outcome, a document
entitled The Future We Want, did not look like its predecessors such as Agenda 21 and JPOI. It
was not a binding treaty, but more of a statement of hopes, visions and aspirations as well as reaffirmation of existing commitments in Rio and Johannesburg.
The decade long debate on the need to establish a World Environment Organization (WEO)
most closely resembles a cosmopolitan agenda of democratization through building supranational
institutions (Biermann 2012). However, this idea was defeated at the Rio+20 summit as
proposals for a Sustainable Development Council and an upgrade of the UNEP to a specialized
agency were rejected. Besides the modest institutional reform to strengthen the UNEP, the

Rio+20 summit decided to replace the CSD with a universal high level intergovernmental forum
for sustainable development (United Nations 2012). The phase-out of the CSD was a result of a
long criticism of the weakness of the agency, partly derived its low status in the UN hierarchy
under an overburdened ECOSOC in the under. The CSD has been described as an increasingly
insignificant talk-shop with declining participation of high-level government representatives since
the Johannesburg summit (Beisheim and Drge 2012; 56; Kaasa 2007). In recent report by the
Secretary-General on Lessons Learnt from the CSD, it is said that agency lost its lustre and
effectiveness (United Nations 2013:4). For example, the impact of stakeholder dialogues on the
negotiations was limited and the CSD partnership database never worked as an effective platform.
However, its role as coordinating agency for major groups and civil society, and for promoting
partnerships and multi-stakeholder dialogues between governments and stakeholders, is now
going to be replaced by a universal intergovernmental high-level political forum (HLPF). At the
time of the writing, the discussions about the organizational set up including the role of civil
society and major groups in HLPF is underway to be decided at the 68th session of the General
Assembly in the fall of 2013 (ref). The institutional reform following the Rio+20 outcomes fell
short from the proposals of civil society to strengthen the authority of the weak and fragmented
of global environmental governance institutions by upgrading UNEP to a specialized agency,
establishing a new UN Sustainable Development Council, a UN High Commissioner for Future
Generations or a United Nations Parliamentary Assembly (Biermann 2012:16).
Stakeholder and deliberative democracy at the Rio+20 Summit
This section examines some of the UN and government initiatives to involve civil society or
major groups in dialogue and consultation that can be contrasted with the civil society protests at
the alternative Peoples summit. The Rio+20 summit was an experiment in hybrid democratic
practice in bringing together major groups and governments. However, it also represented a site
of radical civil society opposition manifest at the alternative Peoples summit. The official summit
displayed numerous mechanisms to include major groups and civil society in an interactive
dialogue with government representatives and Heads of States. There was also an unprecedented
in number of mini-summits with major groups representatives, such as subnational and local
governments, the Science and Technology Forum, the Corporate Sustainability Summit, the
Womens leaders summit, the Peoples Summit etc. More than 500 official and 3000 events took
place during the 14 days of summit. The hybrid governance arrangements between policy-makers
and major groups initiated by the UN can be conceived as an orchestration by international
organizations to improve their regulatory performance by mobilizing networks of public and
private actors (Abbot and Snidal 2010).
Dialogues for Sustainable Development: This was an initiative from the Government and Brazil
and the UN to bring together 1300 representatives of civil society, the private sector and heads of
states and governments during four days to debate and issue recommendations on 10 themes
such as sustainable energy, forests and unemployment. The objective of the dialogues was to
bring recommendations as an input into decision-making for the final high-level segment of the
Rio+20 summit, where heads of states and ministers participated. The dialogues were part of an
initiative to launch a digital platform to provide the public a democratic space for discussion
(UNDP 2012: 1), which started a few months before the summit and brought tens of thousands
of participants in discussion over internet moderated by representatives of universities. At the
debates 100 panelists representing indigenous people, scientists, CEOs from banks and ministers


spoke over four days. Via public online vote, over 63,000 participants from 193 countries cast
almost 1,4 million votes over a total of 100 recommendation that were in the end reduced to 30
(Rio+20 2012: 1) The recommendations were brought to the Roundtables with Heads of state
and governments June 21-22. However, the recommendations did not have any impact on the
negotiations that already adopted the Rio+20 outcomes the Future We Want. The Dialogues
were widely criticized by the Brazilian environmental movement that was largely excluded in the
framings of the Dialogues (Dodds and Nayer 2012).
The Partnership Forum: The Rio+20 summit reinforced the promise of public-private
partnerships between business, NGOs, governments and IOs in global governance: Partnerships
are considered one of the most participatory and effective mechanisms to implement sustainable
development and enhance international cooperation. 2 Through a Partnership Forum, which was
held in the official venue in Rio Centro and hosted by the United Nations Department of Social
and Economic Affairs (DESA) and the CSD, the mission was to revisit partnerships as
instruments for boosting the implementation of previous commitments. On the request of the
General Assembly, the UN set out to evaluate, strengthen and revitalize the partnerships (United
Nations, 2012). The Partnership Forum can be conceived as a venue for self-evaluation by the
UN system in terms of taking stock of the 10-year experience of the 348 WSSD multi-sectoral
partnerships for sustainable development involving major groups and governments. A key
rationale for the partnerships was to strengthen the implementation of the Rio commitments by
engaging civil society and business in close collaboration with governments. However, the CSD
partnerships have been criticized by scholars for weak impact, ineffectiveness and lack of
legitimacy derived from their weak enforcement mechanisms and voluntary features (Biermann et
al 2012). A new registry of 206 partnerships was set up by the CSD in advance of the Rio+20
summit, where more than 140 Johannesburg partnerships from the original CSD database were
lacking. The new partnership registry has been integrated in a new UN sustainable development
platform while 2004 CSD partnership database has been closed.7 The relationship between the
CSD partnership database and the new registry is unclear. The contribution of the Johannesburg
partnerships to stimulate multi-sectoral collaboration between major groups is very mixed at best.
In a recent UN report reviewing the experience of the CSD, the problems of partnerships in
terms of weak impact and dysfunctional reporting mechanisms were raised (UN 2013).
Voluntary commitments: Apart from the negotiated outcome of the conference more than 700
voluntary commitments submitted to the UN General-Secretary by governments, universities,
business and civil society amounting to around USD 600 million (ENB, 2012: 22).4 Again, the
purpose was that the voluntary commitments would spur action and implementation and
increase collaboration. The voluntary commitments registered online before the Rio+20 summit
bear resemblance with the partnerships adopted at the Johannesburg summit in 2002, although
the voluntary commitments were not part of the official outcome. Representatives of major
groups and governments are invited to submit their commitment via an online platform.
However, the voluntary commitments have some similar problems with the partnerships:
commitments are voluntary and self-reported and there are no monitoring and enforcement
mechanisms. In the run-up to Rio+20 Johannesburg partnerships has been rebranded into
voluntary commitments by the CSD. However, with a few exceptions, the 348 partnerships did

The registry of voluntary commitments can be found at the United Nations Sustainable Development Knowlegde


not strengthen the interaction between the major groups, governments and UN agencies as
hoped for. Nevertheless, the idea of multi-sectoral partnerships as deliberative, participatory and
effective tools to instrument remains strong in the UN system.
Deliberative democracy at the Rio+20 summit
Arguably, the Rio+20 summit also exhibited elements of deliberative democracy. The Flamengo
Park downtown in Rio de Janeiro was the official site for the Peoples Summit for Social and
Environmental Justice that took place between June 15 and June 22 in parallel with the official
negotiations at Rio Centro. The Peoples summit can be conceived as a counter conference
against liberal environmentalism and capitalism to promote alternative models for transformation
toward social justice. At the Peoples summit, social movements on environment, peace and
feminism gathered as well as representatives for peasants, trade unions and indigenous people.
The participants were united in a critique of the lack of action on intergovernmental
commitments and failure to address issues of climate injustice, poverty, biodiversity loss etc. A
final declaration in defense of commons and against the commodification of nature was issued
at the end of the summit (Brazilian Civil Society Facilitating Committee, 2012). The green
economy concept and the current global governance institutions were heavily criticized. The
Peoples summit gathered around 300 civil society organizations and a daily participation of
15,000 persons. It was supported by Greenpeace, Oxfam and the via campesina international
peasants movement as well as the Brazilian government that contributed with funding of
approximately USD 5 millions (Watts 2012). On June 20 more than 20,000 of activists
demonstrated in central Rio a colorful protest of the Rio+20 summit which was dubbed Rio
minus 20. A separate declaration Indigenous peoples global conference on Rio+20 and
Mother Earth was issued as part of indigenous peoples summit of Kari-Oca. In the declaration
it was stated the Green Economy is a crime against humanity and the Earth (Indigenous
Environmental Network 2012). Finally, a Peoples Sustainability Manifesto on a Sustainable,
Equitable and Democratic Future was launched at the final day of the Rio+20 summit. It had
evolved through a consultative process with hundreds of civil society organizations coordinated
by major group representatives, such as the Center for the Environment and Sustainable
Development (CED) and the Stakeholder Forum for a Sustainable Future (CED 2012)
The Peoples summit can be conceived as a site for contestation and a vibrant transnational public
sphere conforming to ideals of deliberative and discursive democracy. However, there was a large
disconnect between the UN official venue at Rio Centro in the affluent suburb of Barra de Tijuca
and the Peoples Summit in the Flamengo park downtown Rio. The extensive travel time
between the two venues and the fact that many of the participants at Peoples summit did not
have accreditation for the Rio+20 summit limited exchange. There were some few exceptions to
lack of interaction between the summits. The UNEP Executive Director Achim Steinar visited
the Peoples Summit to engage in a dialogue with civil society on the Rio+20 concept of green
economy. In sum, the Rio+20 summit captures the notion of enclave deliberation where there
is little connection between radical and mainstream discourses, which does not strengthen
discursive democratization (Dryzek and Stevenson 2012).
Implications and criticisms of stakeholder democracy
Twenty years of sustainability diplomacy has transformed the role of civil society in multilateral
environmental diplomacy. First, the role of civil society has changed from being a consulter to


partner. NGOs have changed from being peripheral advisers of secondary status in the
diplomatic system to being high-status participants at the center of policymaking (Willetts 2000:
3). Before UNCED, NGOs were limited to observer status with few possibilities for interventions
and statements. Environmental NGOs were underrepresented and their participation delayed or
rejected. UNCED and Agenda 21 opened up for a closer collaboration between NGOs and
governmental actors. For the first time in an international agreement, the UN identified the role
and responsibilities of nine stakeholders major groups - in Agenda 21. The CSD was the first
UN agency to apply the major group structure at the global level. It has been a model for other
multilateral organizations, such as UNEP, the climate change and biodiversity negotiations
(Dodds et al 2012; 234-235). The Earth summit was an explosion of stakeholder involvement,
similar in some ways to the mass uprisings in Paris 1968. But this time the stakeholders were
creatively non-confrontational, and the authorities were not only listening but taking some of
their ideas into international agreements (Dodds et al 2012: 48).
Secondly, the role of civil society in strengthening the implementation of intergovernmental
commitments appears as more important than their democratic participation. When comparing
the conceptualization of civil society in the UNCED and the Rio+20 outcomes, there is a
significant shift in the language. In Agenda 21, the importance of independent NGOs in
promoting participatory democracy was stressed:
Non-governmental organizations play a vital role in the shaping and implementation of participatory democracy.
Their credibility lies in the responsible and constructive role they play in society. Formal and informal organizations,
as well as grass-roots movements, should be recognized as partners in the implementation of Agenda 21. The nature
of the independent role played by non-governmental organizations within a society calls for real participation;
therefore, independence is a major attribute of non-governmental organizations and is the precondition of real
participation (Agenda 21, 1992 para 27.1).

Twenty years later in the Rio+20 summit outcome - The Future We Want - the expertise and
capacity of NGOs in promoting implementation of sustainable development is emphasized.
We note the valuable contributions that non-governmental organizations could and do make in promoting
sustainable development, through their well-established and diverse experience, expertise and capacity, especially in the
area of analysis, sharing of information and knowledge, promotion of dialogue and support of implementation of
sustainable development (UNCSD 2013, para 53).

Partnerships and voluntary commitments are key instruments to mobilize civil society to
strengthen implementation. From the perspective of deliberative democracy, the major group
system conceptualizing civil society as a partner has undermined the independence of NGOs in
promoting an autonomous sphere of oppositional critique. The various institutional mechanisms
for interaction between major groups and governments appear as more significant than a vital
transnational public sphere of critique and opposition. Moreover, some of the key major groups
are hybrid actors of government representatives and NGOs. The International Council for
Science (ICSU), which represents a mix of government and non-governmental science
associations, is a coordinator for the major group of science and technology communities. The
Network for Regional Governments for Sustainable Development (nrg4D) is one of the
coordinators for the major group of local authorities consisting of public actors such as
municipalities and cities (Willett 2011: 75). Furthermore, at the Rio-20 summit more than 50


percent of delegations have civil society and business representatives, which critics claim lead to
The close ties with international organizations and NGOs risk undermining the autonomy of
civil society as an oppositional force. Two examples of NGOs that closely collaborate with UN
agencies are the Stakeholder Forum for a Sustainable Future and CIVICUS (World Alliance for
Citizen Participation) The Stakeholder Forum was established in 1987 as the first United
Kingdom National Committee of UNEP. It has been one of the most central NGOs in
advancing the multi-stakeholder dialogues and participation from the UNCED to the Rio+20
summit. In the ongoing post Rio+20 process, the Stakeholder Forum assists in advancing the UN
Sustainability Platform and in organizing major group participation in the new high-level
intergovernmental forum. While it gained independence in 2004, it ties with the UNEP, CSD
and the UK government is strong. Moreover, CIVICUS (World Alliance for Citizen
Participation) was appointed in 2011 by the UN DESA to serve as an organizing party for the
major group of NGOs and civil society at the Rio+20+summit and has produced several reports
on the Rio+20 summit commissioned by the UN DESA (CIVICUS 2011; 2012).
Proponents of stakeholder democracy may welcome the development of closer collaboration and
interaction between civil society, governments and international organizations. However, critics
argue that the major group system undermines the idea of an autonomous civil society a
bounded transnational public sphere that can be separated from the state system. There is a risk
for co-optation and corporativism as the independent civil society erodes its independence from
the government (Willetts 2006). Stakeholder accountability is replacing public accountability.
The turn to stakeholders is one of the reasons for the erosion of public accountability, which is
arguably the core of the democratic deficit of international governance (Steffek 2010: 46).
Originating in the public management literature, the concept of stakeholder replaces the term
citizens. Transferring the stakeholder concept to the public domain means relegating citizens
form the status of owners of the state to the statues of interested parties (Steffek 2010: 50).
Global environmental diplomacy has been a laboratory for experimenting with deliberative and
multi-stakeholder mechanisms to increase representation, voice and consultation of civil societyThe democratization of global governance is conceptualized as increased civil society participation,
NGO representation and multi-stakeholdership in international negotiations. The idea of civil
society as a mean to democratize global governance has gained ground in the IR scholarship on
transnational democracy. Democratic polycentrism highlights the participation and deliberation
of non-state actors, and civil society and NGOs as a pathway to global democracy. This paper
asks what normative principles of global democracy that inform the practice of civil society
participation in the UN environmental summits. Through a case study of sustainable
development diplomacy, this paper has demonstrated how ideals of stakeholder democracy have
gained ground in multilateral environmental summitry. Central to this is the major group
system to structure civil society as a stakeholder in partnership and dialogue with government
and international organizations in the UN mega-conferences on sustainable development from
the 1992 Rio summit to the 2012 Rio+20 summit. Stakeholder democracy is contrasted with
deliberative democracy, where the democratization of the global order is achieved through
strengthening the transnational public spheres by civil society transnational social movements.


They differ on how they conceptualize civil society: as an autonomous oppositional force and
critique or as a partner with government. The Rio+20 summit displayed numerous interactive
stakeholder mechanisms to bring together major groups, civil society and governments, such as
the Sustainability Dialogues and the Partnership Forum. The radical civil society opposition was
manifest at the alternative Peoples summit, which captured deliberative democratic ideals of a
transnational public sphere. A core argument is that stakeholder democracy, which represents a
deliberative attempt from international organizations to institutionalize collaboration and
partnerships between civil society, government and business, has emerged as the predominant
model of environmental multilateralism. There are several implications and risks with the rise of
the stakeholder democracy as a new kind of public-private multilateralism: the undermining of an
autonomous civil society, the rise of stakeholder accountability and concomitant decline of public
and citizen accountability and corporativism.

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