Litmus test

OUR PLANET 9.1 - The Way Ahead

Litmus test


describes what the special session of the General Assembly should address and outlines what he
hopes it will achieve


The special session of the United Nations General Assembly is critical not only for propelling the issue of sustainable development from the conceptual into implementable reality, but also for the future of multi-lateralism as conceived in the principles of global partnership and common but differentiated responsibilities. The achievements of the special session, whether substantive or cosmetic, will in some ways be a litmus test that indicates the future of the United Nations, particularly as the international community grapples with the challenges of United Nations reform.

Attendance at the special session by heads of state and government will undoubtedly infuse the outcome with the necessary political weight to re-energize the spirit and commitments of Rio. Since the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED), subsequent Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD) sessions and global conferences have reaffirmed the importance of sustainable development, citing well-known concepts that environmental degradation and depleting resources threaten the survival of the planet and of future generations. While political reaffirmations remain important, such generic statements do not emphasize enough the critical nature or the urgency of the issues. The special session should transform statements, facts and figures into potent catalysts that enable and implement policies and operational programmes on the ground and on a sustained basis. Political declarations of intent will not meet sustainable development objectives without concrete commitments on financial resources and environmentally sustainable technology transfer, with the requisite institutions and instruments for implementation and monitoring. In this context I hope that the special session will renew efforts from all parties and stakeholders not only to reaffirm the commitments of Rio, but to go beyond them by pledging to honour such commitments.

The special session should prevent the further erosion of the Rio Compact which was predicated on global partnership and common but differentiated responsibilities. Five years since Rio, it seems that the North/South debate remains unchanged, with a greater emphasis on national programmes of implementation and a dilution of commitments to international cooperation and global programmes, evidence for which is starkly illustrated in the decline in official development assistance, the facts in UNEP's publication, Global Environment Outlook, and the further entrenchment of poverty, particularly in the least developed countries. A renewal of the Rio Compact requires an equal balance between the environmental and development components of sustainable development. The special session provides a window of opportunity to the international community to break out of North/South trench politics. To do so requires the political will to act so that the polarization between the agenda of the North and the agenda of the South is bridged.

The special session should achieve results that benefit both developed and developing countries. Although domestic realities and priorities differ, we must ensure that the major beneficiaries are the poor - not necessarily of poor governments alone, but the marginalized peoples in all countries who remain front-line victims of unsustainable policies and practices. This requires developed countries to adjust their consideration of sustainable development as primarily the management of natural resources - for example the sectoral issues of fresh water, forests, energy, oceans. In developed countries, both governments and non-governmental organizations need to develop an analysis of equal depth and content on the cross-sectoral issues such as capacity-building and means of implementation. A special session that addresses the so-called 'management' of the environment alone, will provide a mere blueprint without ensuring the full realization of sustainability objectives. This is a political decision that needs to - and should be - made at the highest level.

Clearly defined objectives

At the same time, developing countries must seriously attempt to reconcile the political need to assert primacy of 'sustained economic growth' with the ecological, social and economic reality that 'development' requires an assessment of the quality of economic growth. A balance between material growth and sustainable development is not a luxury but a necessity. I hope the special session will encourage developing countries to be proactive rather than simply maintain reactionary positions. Developing countries should begin to define their objectives in clear terms, and not just look to the developed countries for handouts. The South must also find the courage to admit that their governments, corporate sectors and policies are also responsible for unsustainable practices at home and abroad. The claim that unsustainability is okay because 'the North did it too', will not advance the debate in the special session and beyond. This too requires a political decision.

The special session must place poverty eradication at the centre of the policy framework that implements the decisions of Rio and future programmes to operationalize sustainable development. It should give a political kick-start to the harmonization of all the aspects of development by taking into account the programmes of action and commitments of all global conferences, for example Copenhagen, Beijing, Cairo, Habitat. The prospects of such harmonization at the policy, implementation and institutional levels would substantially increase the possibilities of achieving sustainable development results.

The special session should strengthen the economic arguments and dimensions of sustainability, and make headway on the issue of unsustainable production and consumption patterns in both the North and the South, no matter how politically unfashionable. Concrete commitments made to pragmatic but specific objectives, complete with achievable targets that are monitored, must be achieved at the special session if the Rio Conference is to mean anything more than a meeting that generated impressive documents. We should build on the important concepts of enablement and empowerment by integrating into decision-making and policy-setting the many actors and major groups identified in Agenda 21. In this context, while realpolitik considers such groups as the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) as one of the key players in sustainable development, those in decision-making positions should be reminded that indigenous peoples remain the more convincing and authentic custodians of environmental resources, in terms of both their indigenous knowledge and practices and their sustainable use of resources. Any policies that seek to stimulate growth, eradicate poverty or enable sustainable development must a priori respect the rights and meet the basic needs of indigenous peoples, whether they be in the North or the South.


Decreasing aid

A key issue for the session will be resources for implementation and rationalization of 'the official development assistance and foreign direct investment debate'. We all know that official development assistance levels continue to decline and foreign direct investment does not reach the countries or areas that it should. Given this universal acknowledgement, an important achievement of the special session would be the stimulation of foreign direct investment flows through official development assistance finance into social infrastructure and programmes to provide a sound basis for sustainable development policies. The session should also revisit such important concepts as the 20/20 pledge made at the Social Summit in Copenhagen. Other concrete achievements would be: (i) a close examination of the role of international financial institutions so that their policies meet Agenda 21 and global conference targets, and do not simply stress liberalization of markets and privatization; (ii) establishing the links and gross disparity between military spending and spending on sustainable development programmes to dispel the myth that economic austerity measures are inescapable; (iii) establishing a framework to curtail the speculative nature, and most pernicious aspects of, global capital flows.

Even if such concrete outcomes are not possible yet, the special session must reaffirm the political commitment of OECD governments to official development assistance. Commitments given must be honoured. If the issue of official development assistance remains politically sensitive for domestic reasons, governments must nevertheless give developing countries such a political signal. The advent of liberalization and globalization also means that governments must begin to shift some of the burden of environmental and social responsibility onto the private sector. This shift is essential. We require fertile ideas and fertile action, for instance the international community at the special session could take a decision that the future work of the CSD should:

- Analyze the impact of deregulation, competitiveness and the drive for market access on the strength of the public sector and the ability of national, regional and global initiatives to meet sustainable development targets;

- Encourage governments to establish a framework to oversee how the policies and practices of corporate actors and their investments affect environmental and social sustainability. The special session should at the very least induce governments to assert some oversight role over the impact of private sector activities as they affect the environment; governments should no longer be left off the hook;

- Seriously address the developments in the World Trade Organization (WTO). The subject of trade-related issues should not be dealt with by UNEP and the United Nations Commission on Trade and Development alone: the United Nations in New York should also pronounce more substantively on such issues as how to reconcile the conflicting provisions of environmental conventions and the provisions of WTO agreements. An emerging 'global' economy requires a global framework; the United Nations is it, not the OECD, the Bretton Woods institutions or the WTO.

Finally, the special session should elaborate the future work programme of operationalizing sustainable development, not only in terms of the substantive issues but also in terms of institutional strengthening. Some of the key decisions that I would consider worthy achievements are:

- A five-year work programme for the CSD so that the high-level segment involves not only environment ministers, but finance ministers, development ministers and trade ministers;

- The CSD should not only assess new and emerging issues but seriously consider elements missing from Agenda 21, such as the impact of mining and other extractive industries. Surely it is time we recognize that mining can never be 'sustainable', yet remains one of the most widespread and unsustainable economic practices that threatens communities and the environment all over the world;

- Subsidiary machinery of the CSD should be strengthened to develop a substantive relationship with the Development Committee of the World Bank, with WTO, and with the corporate sector;

- While the CSD should be the premier policy-setting body on all aspects of sustainable development, it should not implement programmes, but catalyze regional and global programmes of implementation;

- A political decision must be taken to determine an enhanced role and possibly a new mandate for UNEP, for instance to strengthen UNEP's secretariat servicing of the environmental conventions;

- A commitment to review the implementation of the decisions of Rio in another five years' time - Rio+10 in the year 2002.

In conclusion, the international community can determine, through the commitments made at the special session, whether the United Nations of the future will be strong enough to implement the decisions of Rio and the other global conferences. This is what I mean by the litmus test of the special session. The financial crisis of the United Nations is a well-known fact, less known perhaps is that many of the United Nations' hard-core economic functions, for example those that deal with global macroeconomic policies, international trade, finance, transnational corporations, the monetary system and technology are steadily being eroded, the major countries preferring to deal with them through the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, WTO and OECD. These economic issues are integral to the implementation of sustainable development policies, and critical for developing countries. Instead, economic issues have been replaced by, amongst others, the environment, social policies, drugs and law and order - the so-called 'soft issues'. Meanwhile funds for development are increasingly being used for humanitarian activities, with little distinction being made between emergency relief and long-term development programmes.

At the same time, an increasing voice is being given to the voluntary donor-funded bodies such as the World Health Organization, the Food and Agriculture Organization, the World Food Programme and the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, as against the assessed funded organs - a distinction that is important yet not adequately understood or recognized by members. The coherence of implementing sustainable development goals is threatened by fragmentation of roles in various United Nations funds and programmes, especially in the present climate of shrinking funds and battle for turf. Ultimately, a strengthened United Nations that is able to tackle globalization and interdependence, requires the United Nations and United States relationship to be repaired. The follow-up of the Rio Conference and other global conferences will require establishing a political consensus for a reformed United Nations to raise its profile, involvement and resource-mobilizing capacity. The norm-setting role of the United Nations is no longer enough: we need to demonstrate that concrete results and outcomes are desirable and achievable. This is what the special session could achieve, given the political will.

H.E. Ambassador Razali Ismail is President of the United Nations General Assembly and will preside over the special session.

Complementary articles in other issues:
Issue on Looking Forward 1999, including:
Michael Meacher: A stronger conscience

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