INFORMAL diplomacy

 Mostafa K. Tolba tells Geoffrey Lean how last-minute talks between delegates who trusted each other saved the treaties on hazardous wastes and the ozone layer

It was a moment of high drama. Ten years ago, ministers from around the world had just gathered in the Swiss city of Basel to put the finishing touches to the Convention controlling the import, export and disposal of hazardous waste. Despite two years of work and negotiations, some points still had to be settled, but it looked as if they could be resolved by the end of the three-day meeting.

Then, on the morning of the first day, the delegate representing the African states proposed some 30 different amendments to parts of the text of the Convention that had already been agreed. Suddenly the achievable seemed impossible, the delicately constructed package appeared in danger of being torn apart.

Meeting adjourned
Mostafa Tolba, then Executive Director of UNEP, turned to Flavio Cotti, then the Swiss Minister of the Interior and one of the architects of the Convention, who was in the chair, and asked him to adjourn the meeting before any other ministers could speak, and to request that the African representatives, leaders of other delegations with unresolved points, and Tolba, join him in a side room.

‘We sat there from 10.30 in the morning until 10 or 11 at night,’ remembers the Egyptian scientist and former politician who led UNEP from 1974 to 1992. ‘I did not let people leave the room. That was a must. Nobody would leave until we agreed.’

He recalls how they went through the text and agreed that most of the issues raised by the African states had been taken into consideration, and that the five or six others could be resolved. They reached agreement, and the Convention was unanimously adopted by the 116 states at this Conference of Plenipotentiaries, though it was some time before the African countries signed it.

It was the second narrow squeak for Dr. Tolba in just a few days. Just before the ministers arrived, during the preparatory negotiations, he suffered a mild heart attack and was rushed to hospital for an operation. But he was soon back at the talks again.

‘In spite of the exhaustion and tiredness and so on, it gave me joy that governments were responding to something of significance to every human being on Earth. And it was very good to go back to UNEP’s headquarters in Nairobi and to call a meeting of the staff and tell them that the achievement was due to the effort of each and every one of them.’

An effective procedure
Dr. Tolba got the idea of the small informal negotiating group from the late Winfred Lang, then the head of the Austrian Foreign Minister’s office, who chaired the negotiations that led to the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer. He tried it first in the penultimate negotiating meeting in Geneva, but it came into its own in Montreal, where he used the same procedure as he was later to follow in Basel.
I learned the importance of personal human relations

With three days to go and the ministers arriving, the European Community (EC) and a group comprising the United States of America and most other developed countries, were still far apart on the crucial article of the Convention, despite meeting in an informal group every day for a week into the small hours of the morning. As in Basel, the meeting was adjourned before any ministers had had the chance to speak.

Dr. Tolba recalls: ‘I told them that if you start making your statements as ministers each one of you is going to say “the position of my government is the following...”. Once you state this in the open behind the microphone you will not budge from it. And I want to have the next one or two days to try to figure out if we are going to get an agreement.’

A question of votes
After two days of informal negotiations in a small group, he said, the one remaining issue was how many votes the EC would have in the meetings of the Parties to the Protocol. A formula was worked out, but three of the smaller European countries were still resisting, and there seemed to be no hope of agreement. But then Laurens Jan Brinkhorst, the chief EC delegate, rang each of their prime ministers and persuaded them to join the consensus. The group was then reconvened and the deal finalized – but remained so delicate that it could not even be put into the proper legal language without risking it falling apart.

The weary group went off to a reception held by the Mayor of Montreal and Dr. Tolba recalls how the Swedish Environment Minister, Birgitta Dahl, got out of the car behind his ‘with a very long face’. He goes on: ‘She said: “How’s it going?” I replied: “Birgitta, I have the treaty, here it is,” and she jumped on the pavement and hugged me and kissed me, and the whole thing turned to real joy.’

Becoming friends
Dr. Tolba says: ‘The informal consultations were the key. When the government negotiators sat in smaller groups, 10 or 15 of them with really different views, talking to each other not past one another, they started to become friends, they started to see one another’s point of view and tried to accommodate each other.’

‘I learned the importance of personal human relations between the people who are negotiating, of perseverance over a long period of time. It was also important to have continuity in the government representatives, so that they were not changing all the time with newcomers coming in who knew nothing about the past.’ He adds that his key staff, including Iwona Rummel-Bulska, had also, crucially, become friends with their counterparts on national delegations.

The science had to be right, and presented well to the negotiating groups, he added, and you had to be objective. ‘People may not like you, but if they see you are objective in the interests of the environment, they respect you.’

In the end, he says, it all comes down to trust, ‘persevering with personal human relationships, and making a group of friends’

PHOTOGRAPH: Rhodes/Topham

This issue:
Contents | Editorial K. Toepfer | Celebration and challenge | Informal diplomacy | Being in earnest | International Declaration on Cleaner Production | Clean = competitive | Not on Planet Earth! | The Basel Convention | At a glance | Competition | It’s a waste | Move these poisonous mountains | Broad, global and dynamic | A monumental challenge | UNEP Chemicals | Latin lessons | Sasakawa Environment Prize | Of potholes and ozone holes | Will we learn?

Complementary articles in other issues:
Issue on Climate and Action 1998
Issue on Climate Change 1997
Issue on Ozone 1997