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The Rio Declaration on Environment and Development contains 27 norms for state and interstate behavior, many of which have never been universally accepted before. This Declaration was the only unbracketed text to go to Rio. The result of protracted procedural debate and agonizing substantive negotiations, the declaration represents a very delicate balance of principles considered important by both developed and developing countries.

In light of the very delicate balance achieved in the Declaration, all countries, but for the United States, agreed not to reopen substantive discussions. It was clear that no other country would support the US on this point. And so, by the last Plenary session, the US issued a written statement listing its formal reservations (otherwise referred to as their "Interpretive Statements for the Record") to the Rio Declaration and in particular to: principle 3 (opposition to the right to development); principle 7 (rejection of any interpretation that would imply a recognition or acceptance by the US of any international obligations or liabilities, or any diminution in the responsibilities of developing countries); principle 12 (insistence that in certain situations, trade measures may provide an effective and appropriate means of addressing environmental concerns); and principle 23 (insistence that nothing in the Declaration prejudices or predetermines the status of any territories under occupation or the natural resources that appertain to such territories. As well, insistence that the Declaration does not affect the rights and duties of occupying powers under the laws of war).

The only contentious issue to be resolved by UNCED pertained to the principle referring to the rights of people under occupation. This was resolved after extensive consultations conducted by Tommy Koh. The language remains in the Rio Declaration and is referred to in the Preamble to Agenda 21 (see Chapter 1: Preamble).

The approved text represents to a large extent, an attempt to balance the key concerns of both Northern and Southern countries. Far from a perfect text, each side achieved success in enshrining those specific principles that are of particular importance to their respective political agendas. The developing states were able to obtain agreement around those key principles that will hopefully support their own economic development. These include such concepts as the eradication of poverty as an indispensable component for sustainable development; humans as the center of concerns for sustainable development; recognition of the special needs of developing countries; and promotion of a supportive and open international economic system.

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