The global deliberations on sustainable development took another step in their more than 20-year history at the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development held in Rio de Janeiro in June 2012. A recurrent dimension of these negotiations is the allocation of governance to one or more specific levels in the outcome document. This allocation reflects the international consensus on who at what level should do what in sustainable development, and it has implications for both the effectiveness and legitimacy of sustainable development governance. This paper investigates the negotiation process and outcome of the conference preceding Rio + 20, the 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development, analysing the extent to which normative principles played a role in the allocation of governance to specific levels. This was done through qualitative and quantitative analyses of the different drafts of the outcome document. The results show that, although there were clearly limited explicit discussions on principles, it was possible to infer elements of several normative principles for allocating governance in the arguments and outcome of the negotiations. Most prominent among these principles were national sovereignty, but both the principles of substantive and procedural subsidiarity could be detected as well as the principles of fit, culpability and capacity.