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5 February 1997

Press Release


19970205 General Assembly President, Razali Ismail (Malaysia), Tells High-Level Segment of UNEP Governing Council Session in Nairobi

This is the text of the statement delivered by the President of the General Assembly, Razali Ismail (Malaysia), at the high-level segment of the nineteenth session of the Governing Council of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) in Nairobi today:

It is a great pleasure to be here in Nairobi to celebrate the twenty- fifth anniversary of UNEP. The last time I was here it was 1990, and busy with preparations for the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED). And now we are considering preparations for the special session of the General Assembly to review the implementation of Agenda 21 and decisions of Rio. We have come full circle. It is no secret that protection of the environment remains an issue close to my heart, and given the experience of the last few years, I feel somewhat like a veteran in the process and the politics of sustainable development.

This is a watershed year, not only for UNEP, but for the United Nations as a whole. It has been said many times, and it remains true that the strengthening and reform process of the United Nations is not merely about downsizing and cost-cutting. The United Nations is not a corporate body. The reform process involves a search for relevance, defining and meeting stated objectives with clarity, coherence and greater efficiency. Studious management and sound leadership, by both governments and the Secretary-General and senior managers of the United Nations, are essential elements in this process. Reform of the United Nations is urgent, a positive outcome possible if the intergovernmental process and efforts of the Secretariat work together in mutually supportive ways, with transparency and in partnership.

This session of the UNEP Governing Council is not alone in the difficult task of revisiting the role of the organization and its focus, and of establishing continuing relevance. All this at a time of depleting resources and unfulfilled commitments, compelling United Nations bodies such as UNEP, to

compete among themselves from a contracting quantum. In its 25-year history, UNEP has achieved the objectives of its original mandate by establishing the intellectual base for global environmental issues, by sensitizing public and political opinion, by acting as environmental catalyst within the international community, and by laying down the foundations for global agreements and the coordination of international environmental law.

Five years after UNCED, and on the eve of the special session, the importance of UNEP as an institution and its role as global environmental watchdog remains essential. The recent publication of "Global Environmental Outlook" and the grim reading it makes, is testimony to that. However, in order for such scientific and objective information to make a political and tangible difference, UNEP must feed effectively into public policy and decision-making at all levels. The UNEP must continue to advocate and underpin the environmental dimension within the catch-all framework of "sustainable development". The role of UNEP in the Global Environment Facility (GEF) and in supporting Convention secretariats should also be strengthened. To do all these, UNEP must honestly own up to its weaknesses, and squarely address the general loss of confidence of its importance and delivery capacity. While funding is critical to survival, it is only by establishing relevance and importance that funds will be forthcoming. I hope that this session of the Governing Council will reform UNEP governance sufficiently to restore confidence and attract funding. The responsibility lies with both sides of the house, governments and management.

The special session is the culmination of a complex set of processes and events. Rio spin-offs have even spawned a global conference circuit, followed avidly by diplomats and non-governmental organizations alike, generating more information, the apparent need for further meetings and more discussion, all with variable results. In this respect, the special session must become the centripetal force to move the preliminary process of strategizing and consensus-building into a fully operational and action-oriented phase. This is critical. While we are overloaded with the facts and figures of environmental degradation and concepts of sustainability, actions to realize "a common future" are not evident.

The special session is an opportunity for the United Nations to identify itself clearly as the organization which cannot only enhance political commitment, but can translate them in tangible terms. The UNEP should use this opportunity to strengthen itself and to develop a stronger identity that fully contributes to the process, and not as a marginalized component to the process. Central to UNEP's contribution to the special session are questions regarding its institutional role, and its focus on a unique niche where its comparative advantages will ensure a significant added value to the special session and beyond. The UNEP must now identify and stamp its authority on the

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evolving politics of the environment, development and sustainability. It is not for me to define what the specifics of this should be, suffice it to say that defining a future role should place UNEP in the position of prime environmental actor, as it used to be. A first step will require greater clarity of portfolios, particularly since "sustainable development" has become the domain of virtually all the different entities of the United Nations system and beyond.

I would now like to elaborate on some of my views on the special session itself, and on what has and has not been accomplished since Rio. In doing so, I shall step out of frame in my role as President of the General Assembly, and take a position biased towards the interests of developing countries. I do so simply because any assessment of progress achieved in the implementation of international agreements must begin by identifying the winners and the losers. Since Rio, the major losers in our globalizing world have been the poor and least developed countries. On the implementation of Agenda 21 itself, it appears that least progress has been made with the impoverished, with women, with indigenous peoples, and other marginalized sectors of society, who in my opinion, should be the major beneficiaries of sustainable development.

The special session, unlike what certain position papers urge, should secure more than just finely tuned declarations and comprehensive documents about the "state of sustainability". Political reaffirmation of the documents and processes of Rio alone will not achieve much. The special session must transform the conceptual analysis and political commitment of the past five years into action and working programmes that make a tangible difference. I therefore caution against an over-concentration on new and emerging issues, when many goals already agreed to remain unmet.

The success of the special session will therefore depend on our ability to identify the means of such concrete outcomes, and to prioritize them so they benefit the poorest and the marginalized. Such a goal requires that preparations for the special session tackle the complicated political issues and decisions involved, and not a simplification or evasion of them. In this vein, I think that the Secretary-General's report on overall progress achieved since Rio needs to be reworked by government delegations, requiring greater critical analysis. The UNEP could play a role here in its expertise in identifying the critical issues of concern, and in making scientific data more understandable to politicians and policy makers. This will help to lead the process from stated commitments to substantive actions.

It is my belief that the development elements of Agenda 21 need greater emphasis and that linkages between poverty eradication and sustainable development need strengthening. While developed countries have tended to concentrate on the environmental aspects, and developing countries stress the

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need for economic growth, being disappointed at the unfulfilled Rio commitments on financial assistance, Agenda 21 and the Commission on Sustainable Development will only bring about sustainable, equitable and ecologically sound development if we can break out of the North-South schism and genuinely move into cross-sectoral policies at the international, regional and national levels. There is no running away from the fact that if combating poverty and tackling the causes of environmental destruction are to be priority goals of realizing sustainable development, the real political challenge is to reshape North-South relations.

The success of the special session is undoubtedly linked to movement and clarification on the "means of implementation". This is inescapable. While "new and additional financial resources" now seem pipedreams in the light of ever diminishing official development assistance (ODA) levels, it is imperative that developed, developing and economies in transition come together to negotiate the ways to finance the transition to environmentally-sound development. The special session must attempt to set in motion a political process to unlock resources and remove the obstacles that have impeded the "transfer of environmentally-sound technologies on concessional and preferential terms".

If the special session is to impact significantly on the needs of poor countries, both North and South must be ready to examine commitments and declining levels of development aid, and commit steps to reversing the trend, at least in relation to the least developed countries. If certain major countries should oppose, others should be willing enough to make the pledge in order to provide some degree of momentum. Discussions of commitment levels at the special session will need to take into account funding for the Montreal Protocol, GEF and the UNEP Environment Fund. Despite opposition from certain countries for political reasons, the very integrity of this special session will be compromised if the session fails to consider and take into account discussions in the Economic and Social Council and other bodies on new and innovative ideas for generating funds.

However difficult discussions on resources will be, I am hoping that some group or country will show positive leadership, or else the special session runs the risk of being yet another big meeting with high-level political presence, but without effectively addressing the means of implementation. For this purpose, Environment Ministers should perhaps give way to Development and Finance Ministers at the special session, and to those that attend and influence the meetings of Bretton Woods institutions. The Secretary-General and senior management must coordinate with governmental delegations to underline the legitimacy of the United Nations in playing the role of focal point and development catalyst, and coordinating effectively at the macro-level. The special session should urge governments to strengthen

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the environmental dimension of their macroeconomic policies, by securing the participation of international financial institutions in their attention to their macroeconomic policies and advice.

The special session should also look at the role played by the private sector and industry in operationalizing sustainable development, in both the positive and negative sense. One immediate area would be in the transfer of technology where intellectual property rights and patent regimes have held the day. So too with the lobbying power of the private sector in watering down commitments made on sustainability. Governments and senior management of the United Nations should not use the special session to throw the unfulfilled commitments of Rio into the arms of the private sector, however persuasive the potential role of private sector can be. An unquestioning embrace of the private sector, in the light of clear evidence of excesses and the marginalization of people and degradation of the environment, due to privatization and certain aspects of globalization, is disturbing. If private sector is to be inducted into decision-making processes that govern our commitments and implementation as they must, given their huge resources, they must be looked at objectively by bodies like the Commission on Sustainable Development, their actions made accountable similar to that of governments. The private sector and their resources cannot be regarded as a panacea by the United Nations system, in the context of contracting financial commitments from governments.

Looking to the future, the special session should encourage processes and forums other than the Sustainable Development Commission to implement and make Agenda 21 more operational. The UNEP could play a role in this by renewing attention on the importance of regional approaches to improve operational coordination and implementation. While national implementation of sustainable development objectives may have been fairly successful, we need to ensure that programmes at the sub-regional and regional levels are also sustainable. Here the role of the future Commission on Sustainable Development is critical in being able to examine and influence regional initiatives.

Finally, the special session comes on the heels of a "Group of Seven" most industrialized countries summit meeting. If they can avoid the temptation to capture political headlines, participation by heads of State and government will emphasize the overarching nature of sustainable development, and offer opportunities to allow agreements on cross-cutting issues which were not satisfactorily addressed at Rio. It will provide a rare opportunity for leaders to concentrate on long-term issues, rather than on immediate crises.

Globalization and interdependence are the hallmarks of the future, and should be underlying themes at the special session. But it is important that

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leaders and government representatives, scientists, senior management personnel of the United Nations and experts, concerned with the business of sustainable development, have a grave responsibility in discussing the issue. The compact in Rio between environment and development as a result of resolution 44/228 cannot be diluted. Millions of people, the majority of them desperately poor and in the South, face daily the consequences of unsustainable practices imposed on them. We must not allow ourselves to cast about for solutions that will merely keep our own power and standards of living intact, when we are determining the fate of others.

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For information media. Not an official record.