Bellona’s Nikitin joins other environmental heavyweights in demanding world leader attendance at Rio Earth Summit

Although leadership attendance at 20th anniversary of world’s first Earth Summit – which gave birth to three major environmental treaties on climate change, biodiversity, and land degradation and desertification – is expected to be high, many major faces, such as US President Barack Obama, have yet to RSVP.

Other major players, such as German Chancellor Angela Merkel and British Prime Minister David Cameron have already said they will not be going.

The UK will instead send  Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, and Germany its Environment Minister Norbert Rottgen, according to Agence France Presse.

The open letter from the Goldman Prize winners urges world leaders to take the same level of responsibility for the environment as they have.

Released Tuesday on United Nation International Environment Day, the letter was addressed to government leaders around the world, and is poignant for its group of authors who have faced arrest, torture, prison, political persecution, violent threats and assassination attempts in their efforts to defend their local environments.

Nikitin’s signature

This is especially true of Nikitin, a former naval captain who was jailed in Russia on treason charges in 1996 for contributing to a Bellona report revealing the environmental threats behind the Russian Northern Fleet’s decommissioned nuclear submarines.

What ensued was a five-year legal battle with Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) – the successor to the KGB –10 months in jail, Nikitin’s naming as Russia’s first prisoner of conscience since dissident physicist Andrei Sakharov, and his eventual acquittal of all charges by the Presidium of Russia’s Supreme Court.

After he was released from jail on an agreement that he would not leave St. Petersburg, Russia during trial, Nikitin won the prestigious Goldman Prize in 1997. He put the prize money toward founding the Environment and Rights Center (ERC) Bellona, one of Russia’s most powerful environmental and human rights organizations – though was not allowed to attend the awards ceremony in San Francisco.

Nikitin’s acquittal represents the only time anyone has prevailed against Russia’s security services.

World leaders must take ‘risks’

The joint letter (available at left) from Goldman Prize winners reads in part that, “For over two decades, the Goldman Environmental Prize has honored individuals for the great risks we take to protect the environment. Now we ask you to take a risk. Attend the Earth Summit in Rio and lead us into action.”

Nikitin said that without participation of world leaders at Rio+20, environmental, global security and poverty would remain unresolved.

“We signed the letter because such global questions as climate maintenance, world security and the sustainable development of world economics will not be resolved without the participation of the world’s heads of state,” Nikitin said.

“Therefore, we laureates of the Goldman Prize signed this letter in which we turn to those world leaders with the call to participate in RIO +20 – without their participation and commitment to undertake corresponding actions, it is as impossible to stop the negative climate process as it is to create global security,” he said.

Other prominent Goldman Prize laureates who signed the letter (see PDF to right) include 1992 winner from India, Medha Patkar, who has been repeatedly beaten and arrested during protests against environmentally destructive redevelopment projects, and 1996 winner Marina Silva, the former Brazilian environment minister who, despite the assassination of her close colleague Chico Mendes, led demonstrations with rubber tappers to protect tropical forests in the Amazon, according to a release from the Goldman Foundation.

Despite the austerity of the 106 authors, they were quick to point out that they spoke as a cross section of society.

“We are the recipients of the Goldman Environmental Prize. We have been threatened. We have been tortured. We have been jailed. We have died from industrial toxins in our blood. We have been killed,” read the letter. “[…] We are from 81 countries. We are grassroots activists. We are national ambassadors. We are indigenous people. We are environment ministers. We are women. We are men. We are elders. We are youth.”

The RIO+20 Earth Summit

The RIO+20 Earth Summit – also known as the UN Conference on Sustainable Development  – is to be held this month in Rio di Janeiro on June 20-22.

It is a gathering of world leaders, along with thousands of participants from governments, the private sector, NGOs and other groups, assembled to shape how poverty reduction can be achieved, social equity advanced and the imperiled world environment protected.

It is also seen as an important benchmark gathering between the annual December Conference of Parties (COP) summits established under the aegis of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.  The latest COP meeting, COP 17, was held in Durban, South Africa, with the next scheduled for Doha, Qatar in December 2012.

Who is expected?

More than 130 world leaders will attend, including Russia’s Vladimir Putin as well as the prime ministers of India, Manmohan Singh, and China, Wen Jiabao, according to climate-connections.org. AFP also reported that France’s new president Francois Hollande will be going as well.

US President Obama – who would round out the attendance of the world’s 4 biggest greenhouse gas emitters ­– has not confirmed he is coming.

According to Treehugger, a US-based environmental web site, a coalition of 22 green groups, representing some 5 million people, is urging Obama to confirm his attendance. Simliar online petitions have sprung up to urge UK’s Cameron and Merkel to attend as well.

Norway is also expected to send a large delegation of ministers to RIO+20 and another 50,000 participants are currently expected, according to The Guardian.

The Goldman Environmental Prize was established in 1989 by late San Francisco civic leaders and philanthropists Richard and Rhoda Goldman. Prize winners are selected by an international jury from confidential nominations submitted by a worldwide network of environmental organizations and individuals.

Charles Digges