Note on the First Meeting of the UN Commission for Sustainable Development (P-6)

Note on the First Meeting of the UN Commission for Sustainable Development (P-6)

Publication details

  • Saturday | 15 May, 1993
  • Policy Briefs/Papers
  • 32
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The UN Conference on Environment and Development resulted in a few agreements and a number of institutional changes. The agreements the following:
a.    The Earth Charter, a declaration of principles to protect the earth’s natural resources;
b.    The Climate Change Convention, an inter-governmental agreement on measures to halt and reverse actions that may lead to climate change.
c.    The Biodiversity Convention, another inter-governmental agreement to conserve the diversity of genes and species on the planet. The US, under the Bush administration refused to sign the convention at Rio; and this probably delayed its coming into force. However, this decision was reversed by the Clinton Administration in April 1993.
d.    Agenda 21, a long document setting out the actions that need to be taken by the national governments, UN and other international organisations, and non-government bodies to conserve the environment. This can be though of as an international conservation strategy.
e.    A statement on Forest principles.

The Earth Charter is a non-binding statement of principles. The two conventions place the primary obligation on northern (i.e. rich) countries, and require southern (i.e. poor) countries only to collect information, prepare strategies, monitor performance and changes, and so forth; even these actions are supposed to be undertaken only when fully funded by the global community. Agenda 21 is a set of actions that bind only the monitoring agency to assist national governments bring about the transition to sustainable development; the agenda does not bind any single country to any clearly specified course of action. Finally, the statement of forest principles started out as the goal of a third convention on forestry, but the idea was dropped after strong opposition from Malaysia, Indonesia, and a number of other forested countries, and with tacit support from Japan.

The UNCED agreements include the establishment of a number of new institutions and the strengthening of some existing ones. The following new institutions are envisaged:
a.    The Commission for Sustainable Development (CSD), created under ECOSOC. The CSD is a high level inter-governmental body, consisting of 53 member states (with adequate provision for geographical balance), each elected to a three year term (in the first election, some members were selected for one and two year terms, as in the senate election in Pakistan. The purpose is that only one third of the members shall retire every year). Pakistan has been elected to the first commission, and obtained a three year term in the lottery. The object of the CSD is to monitor the implementation of Agenda 21; it is the highest level body set up for this purpose. The interest of southern countries, including Pakistan, lies therefore in strengthening this body to enable it to discharge its responsibilities with regard to monitoring the performance of different countries, especially rich countries, properly and effectively.
b.    A Department of Policy Coordination and Sustainable Development has been created in the UN secretariat, to function as the secretariat of the CSD, and presumably of the other inter-governmental bodies as well. The secretary general has recently appointed Under-Secretary General Nitin Desai of India (who was formerly the Deputy Secretary General of UNCED under Maurice Strong) as the head of the Department of Policy Coordination and Sustainable Development. There have been a number of twist and turns in this as well. The original proposal was to retain the UNCED secretariat intact for this purpose. This was opposed by African states, which wanted UNEP to be declared the secretariat. Subsequently, the issue was finessed and delayed, but the proposal was still that of an independent secretariat, either in Geneva (as for UNCED itself), or in Bonn. The decision to base the secretariat (as well as the CSD) in New York, and to fund it from general UN revenues, suggests that the two presumptive host countries (i.e.     Switzerland or Germany) were not prepared to provide the necessary financial support for the independent secretariat.
c.    The overall monitoring of the implementation of the two conventions will be done, as in the case of other UN agreements, by their respective Conference of Parties (COPs). The COP is simply the general body of all nation states that have ratified the convention. The COPs will have their first meetings within six months of the ratification of the treaties by at least 50 member states. Ratification of the climate change convention is expected by the summer of 1993, and of the biodiversity convention by the end of 1993. As a result, the two COPs are likely to meet in December 1993 and summer 1994 respectively. Pakistan has not yet ratified either of these two conventions. If it does not do so at the earliest, it will not become a part of the first COP, and therefore will lose its chance to influence the deliberations of the implementing body of the two conventions. Since these bodies are expected to prepare protocols for implementing the conventions, including the provisions pertaining to financing and technol    ogy transfer, staying out would mean accepting whatever other countries decide in the matter. It would also mean losing the momentum generated in Pakistan’s behalf by the skilful handling of the leadership of the Group of 77 during the UNCED negotiations. It is absolutely essential, therefore, that the conventions be ratified at the earliest available opportunity.

Among the existing institutions that were given a new mandate by UNCED, are UNEP, UNDP, the World Bank, and most prominently the Global Environmental Facility (GEF). GEF was appointed as an interim funding mechanism for the above activities because of an inability of UNCED participants to agree over the nature the funding mechanism (not to mention the amount of funds to be provided); it was decided to leave the final arrangements for funding to the two COPs and the CSD. Originally GEF was created with contributions from several countries (including Pakistan) to provide funds for underfunded projects in areas of global concern (climate change, biodiversity, ozone layer depletion, and transboundary and marine pollution). In this function it is managed jointly by the World Bank, UNDP, and UNEP. However, since its headquarters are in the World Bank, the common perception is that it is an arm of the latter agency, and that therefore it is beholden to the nations that dominate the World Banks governing council, namely the rich northern countries. At UNCED, southern countries demanded a funding mechanism that is more democratic, more egalitarian, and more transparent. At CSD and the COPs as well, it is expected that northern countries will insist on GEF, while the south would like at best an alternate funding mechanism, and at worst a thoroughly revamped GEF.

In general, our intention ought to be to strengthen institutions in which we are likely to exercise greater influence. At this time, it appears of southern countries than technical or financial bodies, such as the Bretton Woods institutions, or the GEF. However, for the moment we can keep an open mind on the subject, and decide when the structure and orientation of the respective organisations becomes clearer. A strong CSD could ensure that all countries (especially northern ones) fulfil their obligations, both with regard to taking action to halt and reverse global environmental degradation, and to the provision of financial support and technological assistance to poorer countries. Since these are the overall objective of the G77, our first priority would be to express our view within that group, and to strengthen and concretise its position on the issues. One way of strengthening an institution (such as the CSD) is to ensure that participation at the meetings is at the highest level. Some recommendations on this point and other are as follow:
a.    The Pakistani delegation should play a strong and effective role in the discussions;
b.    Pakistan should support NGO involvement in the CSD actively and openly. Not only would this generate goodwill for Pakistan, it would enable us to assume the leadership on an issue that the mass media will look upon very favourably. More importantly, NGO involvement in the UNCED process was highly favourable for southern countries, since NGOs are generally opposed to the high consumption of northern countries, and support any actions to redistribute funds from the north to the south.
c.    Pakistan should support the involvement of southern individuals and institutions, and in particular Pakistani ones, in all bodies and agencies being established to implement UNCED.
d.    Pakistan should prepare and disseminate as much material as possible on its domestic environmental concerns and programmes to the CSD delegates. In particular, we should advertise the uniqueness of the NCS process in Pakistan, and offer it as a model for other countries.