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Fifty Years After the UN’s Stockholm Environment Conference, Leaders Struggle to Realize its Vision of ‘a Healthy Planet’



By Katie Surma

June 10, 2022

Beyond the official proceedings, bold new proposals to make ecocide an international crime, grant nature legal rights and guarantee the human right to a sustainable environment dominated hundreds of side events.

Ugandan climate activist Vanessa Nakate uses a megaphone while marching with environmental demonstrators through central Stockholm during a protest organized by Fridays for Future against perceived inaction by governments towards climate change last week in Stockholm. Climate activist organizations, including Fridays For Future, protested on the side-lines of the Stockholm 50+ climate summit, and the youth-led Aurora movement announced details of their legal action against the Swedish state in relation to their climate policies. Credit: Jonas Gratzer/Getty Images.

STOCKHOLM—Diplomats from countries around the world gathered here last week to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the 1972 United Nations Conference on the Human Environment—the meeting that made the environment a prominent international issue. 

Last week’s two-day event was both a celebration of the principles germinated during the first Stockholm Conference and a marker of how far humanity has come, or in some cases, how far the world has yet to go to deliver on principles ranging from safeguarding ecosystems for future generations to environmentally sustainable economic and social development.

As expected, governments made no new binding commitments on climate change or environmental protection at last week’s meeting and the official outcome of the gathering is a document with ten recommendations for lawmakers with general tenets such as “placing human well-being at the center of a healthy planet and prosperity for all,” “recognizing and implementing the human right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment” and aligning “public and private financial flows with environmental, climate and sustainable development commitments.”

But the official proceedings were only part of the story of the Stockholm + 50 meeting. Like its namesake event, Stockholm + 50 attracted environmentalists, scientists, academics and other members of civil society to protest, hold their own events, network and lobby officials.

Hundreds of official side sessions took place on topics from “wellbeing economies,” the environmental rule of law, the human right to a healthy and sustainable environment and the rights of nature.

Outside the Stockholmsmässan center, unofficial events were held around the city before and during the official meeting. Greta Thunberg and her youth advocacy group Fridays for Future protested what they say has been bureaucrats’ inaction in addressing climate change.

And multiple events took place discussing the possible creation of a new international crime of “ecocide.” That term held particular significance: During the 1972 conference, then-prime minister of Sweden Olof Palme first used the word ecocide in reference to the United States military’s extensive bombing and use of Agent Orange to defoliate the jungles of Vietnam. Within the event center last week, meeting participants of all stripes could be seen wearing quarter-sized “Ecocide Law” pins—the term having evolved to describe all forms of widespread environmental destruction like the Deepwater Horizon oil spill and the deforestation of the Amazon Rainforest.

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