Time for change
says that the challenges facing the world call
for a stronger global environmental authority
There is a widespread sense of
disarray in the global environmental institutions. Although the 1992 Rio Summit produced a host of new ideas and
initiatives, the world leaders who attended it did not focus on the adequacy of the existing institutions; the time
for genuine reform was simply not ripe. The creation of the Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD) focused on new
policies for sustainable development, and no clear delineation between its mandate and UNEP's mission was ever laid
down. In hindsight, Rio indirectly contributed to UNEP's weakness while adding a CSD which failed to raise the profile
of the international environmental agenda.
The implications of this institutional weakness have become increasingly apparent while the state of much of the
environment has kept on deteriorating. The proliferation of environmental secretariats for individual conventions,
located in different parts of the world, has highlighted the lack of a forceful central institution. Fragmentation and
lack of coordination grew, rather than the integrated approach which has rightly become the hallmark of the modern
environmental paradigm. Amidst the resulting frustration and anger, a consensus has gradually emerged in many corners
of environmental concern since Rio. The global environment needs a new and invigorated institutional framework.
Two factors, separate but interlinked, have contributed to the new institutional consciousness, both related to the
priorities of national governments. First, governments understandably feel primarily responsible to their national
constituencies, and are inclined to look after their national mandate when it conflicts with international
environmental imperatives: this is highlighted by experience in biodiversity, climate change and international waters.
Second, governments are better at dealing with short-term pressing issues than with long-term problems which do not
require immediate action and yield no easily demonstrable result when addressed.
Key international environmental problems are the most international and long-term, in nature, of the many issues
governments have to confront. Recent developments have underlined the negative consequences of a national emphasis on
the global environment in the absence of effective international institutions. Globalization has led to economic
growth, but it has also globalized some environmental problems.
Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and the media have not been able to raise environmental awareness to a high
enough level to produce the necessary political results. The media's attention span, in particular, has not kept pace
with the degradation of the environment: this is illustrated, for example, by the way the rainforest problem was first
dramatized in the early 1990s and then virtually disappeared from the mass media's horizon although it went on getting
worse. Governments have played down environmental questions while NGOs have tended to dramatize them, sometimes at the
cost of truth and credibility. As a result, the public has become confused and sceptical.
The indispensable role of institutions has long been recognized and translated into practice in other international
areas. The realization in the 1980s, for instance, that international trade was becoming threatened by national
egoism, prompted the creation of a stronger institution in the shape of the World Trade Organization. So far, it has
been impossible to hammer out a comparable environmental institution. The tone of the international debate has been a
major part of the problem: bitter criticism, though often justified, has not been matched by constructive proposals
for change. A coalition of divergent interests has blocked the call for change in the past, but now it is widely
accepted that the tasks which lie ahead will require us to do better.
In constructing a new institutional roof, we must learn from both the positive and the negative experiences of the old
UNEP. The question has often been asked as to whether the environment is better served by an organizational structure
which builds protection for the environment into the traditional governmental and intergovernmental units, or by the
creation of a strong, yet separate, environmental body. My sense is that the question is wrongly posed. We need an
environmental agency which is separate so that it can develop strength, consistency and integrity - but we also need
mechanisms which allow environmental policies to be translated into effective action by traditional organizational
units. This issue has troubled environmental politicians at the national level, and we have not resolved it on the
The catalytic effect of UNEP
is the most visible international aspect of this deficit. In theory this catalytic role has been at the centre of
UNEP's mission, but in practice this side of its work has often remained glaringly weak. This is the result, not of a
lack of effort by UNEP, but of a lack of means. So far, UNEP has not yet become strong and persuasive enough to
impress either its international or its national institutional partners.
The challenge now is to build a global environmental authority with the mandate and means to articulate the
international interest in an audible, credible and effective manner and make the voice of the environment heard and
respected. We need an institution with an infrastructure, a mandate and funding that correspond to the challenge it
faces in the world's air, soil and waters. If the events of 1997 lead to such an organization, they will have been
worth their preparation and their speeches.
At a minimum, the new agency should respond to the following global demands:
- No institution currently constantly monitors and assesses international environmental developments and makes them
accessible to the public. Shamefully, for instance, no reliable data exist for forests. The new agency must look at
environmental issues with scientific accuracy and honesty, without distortion in any direction. It must be given the
right infrastructure, in terms of personnel, funding and location, to achieve this;
- The new agency should be empowered to assess progress and deficiencies in implementing international
environmental agreements; we keep adding new arguments while some very important existing ones are poorly observed and
exist mainly on paper;
- UNEP must be given the power to coordinate the environmental secretariats of the existing conventions. It must
thus address the deficiencies arising from the fragmentary approach to international environmental issues which has
characterized the past decade. There are often important linkages among issues and conventions;
- UNEP must become the international community's focal point for forming environmental policies. Possible mergers of
UNEP with other United Nations agencies addressing environment-related issues should be examined with a view to
strengthening and broadening the basis of UNEP's mandate, in terms both of substance and of location;
- The new agency must be given broader powers to administer and implement international environmental policies. It
should be allowed, for example, to place an item on the agenda of the Security Council under appropriate
circumstances. These broader powers would generally be exercised in accordance with qualified majorities of member
states, allowing for evolutionary growth in accordance with the changing views of governments;
- In order to permit such actions by UNEP, the revision of the United Nations Charter should recognize the role of
a healthy environment and establish procedures to enhance its status.
Professor Rudolf Dolzer is Director of the Institut für Völkerrecht at Bonn University, Germany.