An indispensable Contribution

OUR PLANET 9.1 - The Way Ahead

An indispensable Contribution


calls for UNEP to lead the attack on
environmentally unsustainable trends

Kofi A. Annan

Current and emerging environmental threats facing the world are of such great magnitude and so universal in nature that no country, or group of countries, can hope to tackle them alone. It was this realization that led governments, 25 years ago, to agree on an institutional mechanism for international cooperation that would place environmental issues securely on the international political agenda. Meeting in Stockholm at the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment, they established the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), which since its founding has been at the forefront of international action on environmental issues - raising awareness, providing policy guidance and serving as a focus, within and outside the United Nations system, for a coordinated and integrated approach to this central challenge of our time.

Safeguarding the environment is a cross-cutting United Nations activity. It is a guiding principle of all our work in support of sustainable development. It is an essential component of poverty eradication and one of the foundations of peace and security. At its core is the idea that all of humankind has shared needs and interests that transcend what divides us and compel us to work together, with the long-term future of humanity in view.

Throughout its history, UNEP has actively promoted environmentally sound development, which seeks to maintain economic progress without damaging the environment and the natural resource base upon which future development depends. UNEP has served as an expert 'watchdog', monitoring the state of ecosystems and species worldwide. It has been, and remains, the environmental conscience of the United Nations. UNEP has played an instrumental role in the adoption of international environmental conventions and treaties aimed at preserving the ozone layer, conserving biological diversity, coping with climate change, protecting the oceans and seas, controlling the movement of toxic wastes and controlling the trade in endangered wildlife species. And UNEP's assessment and early-warning capabilities can make an indispensable contribution to peace-building, since environmental degradation and natural resource issues can often be precursors of conflict.

Still, much remains to be done. As UNEP and its partners continue to accumulate scientific knowledge on the adverse environmental impacts of human activities, additional issues emerge that demand the international community's urgent action. As we approach the new millennium, we face a range of complex, long-term environmental problems portending immense consequences for the economic well-being and security of nations throughout the world: global warming, depletion of the ozone layer, the decline of biodiversity, the loss of soil and forests, contamination of our fresh water supplies, vanishing fisheries and the flood of toxic substances entering our environment and our bodies, threatening our physical and reproductive health.


Recognizing that UNEP needs the appropriate tools and resources if it is to tackle these issues, governments meeting at the 19th session of UNEP's Governing Council earlier this year adopted the Nairobi Declaration, giving the Programme a revitalized and strengthened mandate. The Declaration reaffirmed UNEP as the principal United Nations body in the field of the environment and recognized UNEP as the leading global environmental authority. This enhanced mandate places UNEP in a key position to guide the future development of the international environmental agenda.

Five years ago, at the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development in Rio, governments adopted Agenda 21 and other major international environmental agreements. The Earth Summit was an extraordinary event; a challenge to States, international organizations and civil society to address, in an integrated way, an array of related global problems, and to institute, in response, basic changes in our individual and collective behaviours. Equally inspiring, it forged an alliance of State and non-State actors committed to the pursuit of sustainable development.

In June, governments, environmental organizations and others will gather at United Nations Headquarters in New York for the 'Earth Summit Plus Five', a special session of the General Assembly being held to review and appraise where we stand in realizing the goals set out at the Earth Summit. On this important occasion, we will return to many of the fundamental questions addressed at Rio. How can we stop the rapid depletion of the world's resources? How can we find an equitable balance between the economic, social and environmental needs of the present and those of future generations? And how can we enhance partnerships between developed and developing nations, and between governments and civil society, so that the basic needs of all human beings can be met? I look forward to a truly comprehensive assessment of these and other questions, and to a frank and honest assessment of our progress - achievements as well as shortcomings. The process of long-term sustainable development defined by the Earth Summit's Agenda 21 has to be implemented.

This, then, is a watershed year, not only for UNEP but for the United Nations as a whole. The entire United Nations system is currently undergoing a sometimes painful process of self-analysis and reflection - seeing how it can best meet the needs of the international community in a rapidly changing political and economic environment. A new and revitalized United Nations will need a UNEP that continues to play a strong and well-defined role in the concerted attack on environmentally unsustainable trends and as an authoritative advocate for the environment.

Kofi A. Annan, Secretary-General of the United Nations.

Complementary articles in other issues:
Issue on Looking Forward 1999
Maurice F. Strong: The Way Ahead (UNEP 25) 1997
Mostafa K. Tolba: Redefining UNEP (UNEP 25) 1997

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