Redefining UNEP

Redefining UNEP


talking to Geoffrey Lean, suggests
new global, regional and national roles
for UNEP as it enters its second
quarter of a century

Mostafa K. Tolba

At 25, UNEP needs to redefine its role, says Dr. Mostafa Tolba, Executive Director for most of its history. But this results from success, not failure - for it has largely achieved its original objectives.

UNEP, he explains, has overseen the sensitizing of public and political opinion worldwide on environmental issues. It has acted as a catalyst within the international community. And it has been largely responsible for the establishment of a large canon of international environmental law.

So, he adds, 'some might say that UNEP has done its job and should now close its doors'. Instead, he believes, new doors are opening. For urgent new tasks are emerging - in extending and strengthening international treaties, and in supporting national environment ministers and ministries - that no other body can adequately undertake.

Dr. Tolba - once described by a London newspaper as having 'a formidable reputation as a head-banger' for his extraordinary success in personally persuading sharply diverging governments to agree to a whole series of pioneering environmental treaties - was forceful, but mellow and thoughtful, as he outlined his ideas for UNEP's future focus.

Long-term association

Few, if anyone, can claim to know its history better. An Egyptian microbiologist and former government minister, he became UNEP's first Deputy Executive Director in 1973. He succeeded Maurice Strong at the end of 1975 and served as Executive Director for the next 17 years. Currently he is presiding over the International Centre for Environment and Development, a not-for-profit organization based in Geneva and Cairo, and giving advice to national governments and international organizations on various aspects of environment and sustainable development.

'UNEP was established to be the environmental conscience of the United Nations, which I consider to be the conscience of the world,' he said. 'It set out essentially to coordinate the environmental activities of the United Nations and has used the little money it has had available to oil the wheels of other organizations and enable them to spend far more than they might otherwise have done on activities that UNEP and its Governing Council have felt to be of significance.

'The first phase, of sensitizing world opinion, is now almost (I won't say completely) finished. At the time of the 1972 Stockholm Conference, there were only ten national government institutions in the world that dealt with the environment. Now there are 130 to 140.'

Similarly, almost all the non-governmental organizations (NGOs) attending Stockholm came from developed countries; there were very few in the developing world. Now, he notes, there are over 1,000 environmental NGOs in Indonesia alone. 'This healthy proliferation of citizens' groups and NGOs shows that the phase of advocacy and of sensitizing people on the significance of the environment has reached a very advanced stage.'

It is the same with the international community. In the beginning, he said, many agencies were 'not interested' in the area. 'But now the whole United Nations system has been sensitized. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the World Health Organization (WHO), the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) and all the other agencies now have programmes on the environment and sustainable development.

'This was the original role of UNEP - to get the message of the environment across - and that job has now been done.'

It has also largely succeeded in its second great task, he adds. 'There is a large body of international environmental law now in place, largely due to UNEP - whether in cooperation with others or single-handedly.'

He recalls how building this framework began on a regional basis from the mid-1970s onwards with the regional seas programmes and, less conspicuously, in the 'much more difficult' area of internationally shared freshwater bodies. It then moved on to encompass such great global issues as ozone, biodiversity, hazardous wastes and desertification.

man fishing

Achieving conventions

Early difficulties in the negotiation of the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer led to the formulation of the principle of 'joint but differentiated responsibility'. Developing countries, who had at first shown little interest in ozone depletion, began 'to get up in arms' about having to pay to help put right a problem caused by the world's richer nations. But both sides accepted the idea of a shared obligation, with different scales of responsibility. Developing countries were given a ten-year grace period before having to adopt the Protocol's controls and had an equal say in the administration of its financial arrangements while having to contribute relatively little money.

Dr. Tolba - who served as a diplomat for his own country earlier in his career, and will this spring publish a book on Global Environmental Diplomacy with Iwona Rummel-Bulska, former Chief of UNEP's Environmental Law Unit, and currently Executive Secretary of the Basel Convention on Hazardous Wastes - identifies two secrets of this success.

The first was trust. 'I knew from a number of delegations what their real reasons were for opposing binding regulations. Some were economic and some were social, but they trusted me with their concerns in private. That helped me to draft compromise formulae, with the knowledge of what was in the background of their opposition.'

The second was science. 'Being one of the scientists I had the opportunity of sitting with them, talking with them one to one, and educating myself. So I knew the scientific facts behind the need for action and this helped me in trying to convince governments.'

He says his greatest disappointment was that UNEP was not given responsibility for the Convention on Climate Change, which was instead negotiated under the direct auspices of the United Nations General Assembly. 'Looking back, I can probably see that the countries of the world were not prepared for a similar experience to the ozone negotiations over climate.'

Be that as it may, most of the major global and regional issues are now covered by legally binding treaties, controlled by their contracting Parties, who pay for the Secretariats. 'The Parties are in the driver's seat. So UNEP is much less the prime actor than it used to be.'

All these successes mean that 'UNEP's role must be redefined, following the entry of so many other actors into the arena'.

Globally, he believes, there is still some unfinished business to do to complete the framework of international environmental law: he would like to see legally binding agreements on trade in potentially toxic chemicals and on land-based sources of marine pollution.

But, he says, it is even more important 'to ensure that the existing treaties do not fall apart; that there are no real dangers from lack of interest, lack of science and scientific information or lack of guidance; and that they are not being manipulated by political interests. UNEP - as a completely neutral and objective body committed to the environment - can ensure they are supported and have the facts and figures that will allow them to progress.

'This is a major role for UNEP. It can pick up the issues of general concern, pull together the facts and figures from the scientific arena and put them in a way that the politicians can absorb and understand, thus leading them to see the need for action. It must continually bring up the scientific, technical and technological facts that support further action - and define what that action should be - even if it is no longer in the driver's seat.

'It can present these facts formally, as the United Nations organization responsible for the environment, to any of the contracting Parties. If they come from UNEP, and are presented in the media, it will be very difficult to push them aside.'

UNEP can also be the 'honest broker' between different interest groups, whether different groups of nations, or industry, business, NGOs and the scientific community. It can be 'a forum for interaction between the various groups of people interested in, or influenced by, any problems of a global or regional nature'.

He gives the example of the Convention on Climate Change, where developed countries will have to 'take significant action, at home, to cut the consumption that produces such a large proportion of the globally significant greenhouse gases'. One major obstacle is that many of them fear that other countries will take their markets.

There had been a very similar problem, he recalled, during the negotiations of the Montreal Protocol, when European firms feared that their counterparts in the United States were further advanced with substitute materials, and would take their markets if the use of CFCs were cut back. This was solved by getting industry and outside technologists together to work out when the substitutes would really be available, and then to make sure that 'the cuts went hand in hand with the development of the technology'.

man working in pollution

Forum and honest broker

The same sort of thing needed to be done for the Convention on Climate Change. UNEP could, for example, bring experts together to work out maximum energy consumption standards for household appliances like air conditioners or refrigerators. They could determine when technology would be available to bring this greener equipment on the market at a reasonable price, work out what gaps there were between developed countries, between developing ones, and between the two groups of nations, and make recommendations on how these gaps could be bridged.

'Then you can start to build control measures on the basis of what is realistic and can be achieved within the availability of the new technologies.

'UNEP can do this even if it is not running the Convention, getting itself clearly identified as a neutral, objective organization, not siding with the views of the North or of the South, of the oil producers or the small island states. It can pick the best brains and hold fora for all sides and interests and come up with concrete recommendations.

'It can do this for treaties and conventions, whether under its supervision or not, and whether they concern biodiversity, climate change, hazardous wastes, or whatever. If UNEP is to continue to be the environmental conscience of the United Nations, it has to have an objective scientific and technical say in all these issues. It has to continue to build scientific capacity and networks. And it has to be an honest broker between the different groups in assessing situations and coming up with recommendations. I can't see any other organization doing this.'

Regionally, he says, UNEP can identify issues common to neighbouring countries, providing a forum for sometimes otherwise antagonistic nations to meet on neutral ground and come up with common solutions. Again this is a job that only such a body can do.

And it has a similarly unique role to play at the national level in supporting environment ministers in getting their issues to the top of the political agenda, and keeping them there when other - more short-term, often economic - issues threaten to swamp them.

'Ministers of the environment have to be able to persuade their cabinet colleagues that they are not just trouble makers. UNEP has excellent experts all over the world, and so can provide ministers with the facts and figures they need to use as ammunition, and suggest realistic programmes that will show returns within the planning horizons of governments.

'Only UNEP can do this. The environment ministers are its constituency and no other body is geared up to help them or work with them.

'UNEP therefore has a very clear responsibility at the national level, and a clear mandate to keep the treaties progressing at the global level. Its best days may well lie ahead.'

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