In SAN JOSÉ, Costa Rica - Working out of an international secretariat the Earth Council is coordinated what may well be the most extensive document drafting project ever undertaken by civil society.
Beginning in 1995, the Council, among others, spearheaded the effort to draft the Earth Charter as a statement of values and principles similar to the UN Declaration on Human Rights that the authors hoped would guide the conduct of people and nations towards each other and the earth in order to ensure peace, equity and a sustainable future.
In April 1999 the Council unveiled the updated draft, known as the
Benchmark Draft II, and began soliciting comments on it. The plan was to prepare another draft, based on comments received by early the following year. That draft was also widely distributed for more feedback. The hope then was that by 2002 a final version could be presented to the UN General Assembly for possible endorsement as an international declaration.
By creating a document that has been thoroughly reviewed and endorsed by as many groups and sectors of civil society as possible, organizers hoped that government policy makers will, in the end, find it impossible to ignore.
"The major difference between the Earth Charter process and other such international documents is that this has been a really broad participatory process," said Mirian Vilela, who was the coordinator of the Earth Charter Project for the Council. "We want to assure cultural diversity in the result, not only to have a rich document in the end, but to have people's involvement in terms of a
feeling of commitment and ownership."
As other non-governmental organizations consider how to achieve consensus on a variety of international issues, the process used by the drafters of the Earth Charter offers an exceptional example of how to solicit and incorporate ideas and information from civil society groups and prominent individuals worldwide.
Ms. Vilela said that hundreds if not thousands of organizations have considered and commented on the Charter, as have thousands of individuals.
The drafting committee was a loose aggregation of some 40 individuals in 20 countries who reviewed the comments and determined whether and how to incorporate them into the final draft. The advent of the internet allowed an intensification of the process of participatory decision making and the travels of the committee members all over the world going to conferences allowed outreach for inclusion possible.
The effort to include as many groups as possible paid off in helping to arrive at a draft that was acceptable to as many people as possible. For example - the drafters sought the input of indigenous groups. In consulting with groups representing the Inuit people of the far northern regions, they learned of their objections to a line in the draft Charter that spoke of the need to "treat all beings with compassion."
The Inuit people, in the circumpolar north, are wholly dependent on animals for food - they don't have any agriculture and they objected to the term "compassion" with reference to animals, saying that they didn't think you could hunt animals with 'compassion. They also feared that animal rights groups would use the language to force them to abandon traditional hunting practices.
After long consultation with the Inuit - and other indigenous groups - the drafting committee came up with new language. They took out the word 'compassion' and put in the phrase 'treat all living beings with respect and consideration' - and the Inuit were willing to accept that.
Part of the process of inclusion was a simple matter of taking the time to contact and listen to as many voices as possible. As a concept, the Earth Charter was first proposed in 1987 by the Brundtland Commission, and, for a time, it appeared as if governments might approve an Earth Charter at the Rio de Janeiro Earth Summit in 1992. When governments could not achieve consensus on a Charter, NGOs decided to continue the drafting process under the coordination of the Earth Council.
The final text of the Earth Charter, which was approved at a meeting of the Earth Charter Commission at the UNESCO headquarters in Paris in March 2000, contains a preamble, 16 main principles, sixty-one supporting principles, and a conclusion entitled “The Way Forward.” The Preamble affirms that “we are one human family and one Earth community with a common destiny,” and the Earth Charter encourages all people to recognize their shared responsibility, each according to his or her situation and capacity, for the well-being of the whole human family, the greater community of life, and future generations.