Time for people to act on governments

'This Special Session should go down as a very honest attempt to appraise the results of how far we have gone on Rio.' This was the view of UN General Assemby President, Ambassador Razali Ismail of Malaysia who as the President of the General Assembly, chaired the Special Session of the Assembly to appraise the progress made since the Rio Earth Summit. In his opinion, the failure of the Session to agree on a political statement was not an unmitigated disaster. The impasse on the political statement reflected the lack of political will on the part of governments and it was time for NGOs to apply pressures on governments to live up to their commitments.

by Martin Khor

AS the UN General Assembly ended its special session, without any political statement on Environment and Development, UN General Assembly President Razali Ismail suggested that the overall result was 'pretty sobering' and it was now time for non-government actors to go to the grassroots and apply pressures on governments to live up to their commitments.

The session, which was convened at summit level, and attended by the Heads of States and Governments of the industrialised world and several from the South (with heads of major developing nations pointedly keeping away) ended with a mere programme document, but without a political statement that had been billed as one that would send out a clear message to the people of the world.

Non-governmental organisations, media and many delegations viewed the outcome as a symbol and manifestation of the failure of the Special Session.

But the real failure was the inability of governments to agree to make new commitments on cross-sectoral issues that are more binding (with target benchmarks, for example) than what they signed on at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro five years ago.

Without such commitments, a high-level Political Statement would have had neither teeth nor credibility, given the already dismal record of non-implementation of Agenda 21 on the two most important issues of the North providing increased financial resources and transfer of technology to the South.

A political statement, with fudged language to get consensus, might instead have increased the level of cynicism, further eroding public confidence in the post-UNCED and now the post-UNGASS process.

It is better to have no political statement at all, rather than a weak one putting on a brave but false front. Better to openly admit that governments have failed to reach a new political compact, than pretend everything is alright.

That, at any rate, seems to be the position of the UN General Assembly President, Ambassador Razali Ismail, Malaysia's Permanent Representative to the UN, who presided over UNGASS Summit session.

'I think the overall result is pretty sobering,' he told a press conference - after announcing that there would be no political statement.

'When the expectations we have as diplomats are placed in the context of the absence of political will, then you have a problem. This is what happened in the discussions on the political statement.'

Razali said although disappointing, the fact that there was no political statement sent out a certain message: how difficult it was to formulate such a statement when in reality there had not been enough progress on some of the key issues over five years.

'Let us call a spade a spade,' said Razali.

'When over the five years (since Rio) there obviously have not been enough things done, then in that context the impasse that came out of the political statement reflected that.'

Nevertheless, he added, the issues that would have been in the political statement would appear in the Session's document, 'Programme for the further implementation of Agenda 21', where there were 'some satisfactory results' which should be taken account of.

'This special session should go down as a very honest attempt to appraise the results of how far we have gone on Rio,' said Razali.

'There was very little attempt to sweep things under the carpet or gloss on something that was not there.

'All the delegates went into it without any stars in their eyes; they looked at what was there and not there. And that was why you saw divisions... and you saw that situation reflected in the impasse on the political statement.

'I am happy with that - that we didn't go for the gloss, but went for the real thing. We now have an honest appraisal in the document... Let us call a spade a spade.'

Razali said there were some very good aspects to the Session document. On forests, the issue of an international agreement is promoted, although without a specific timetable.

'On finance, there is language that appears to be a plus on the overall situation of declining Official Development Assistance (ODA), that agrees to recognise the decline and take steps to reverse it. The target of 0.7% has been recommitted to by developed countries.

'This is very important to LDCs. It is clearly important to underline that the idea of replacing ODA with foreign investment or anything coming from the private sector is not acceptable. We were quite clear about that.'

Instead of the political statement, an agreed 'Statement of Commitment' would be placed as a preamble to the Programme document and would reaffirm the Rio commitments and try to re- energise political will to meet Rio targets.

A milestone

Razali added that an important feature of this UNGASS was to bring in the non-governmental sector into the plenary of the General Assembly. 'This is a milestone, it is recognised in the Statement of Commitment... I am particularly happy to see youth, farmers, women's organisations and indigenous people being there at the special session, making their points together with governments.' When journalists persisted on asking why it wasn't possible to agree to a political statement, Razali replied that when an attempt was made to encapsulate everything in a shorter document, the gap between what was promised at Rio and what was not done on the ground could not be filled.

'So there was clearly a sense of frustration. In the General Assembly, you saw Ministers saying they had not done many things. European Ministers said, yes there has been a terrible decline in ODA, there should be a reversal. But when you want to cobble everything together as a consensus, one or two countries would not allow it to be put together.'

Asked what would happen in the coming years, Razali replied: 'This is a kind of wake-up call to the UN.

'First, we have to recognise that the bane of international cooperation is that governments cannot maintain commitments, not just on resources, but on doing things over the long haul. Somewhere, other constraints come into the picture.

'We have learned that what we said very enthusiastically five years ago that we would do, that we would implement, that we would honour, has not really been done sufficiently. This is something that has bedevilled international relations. The UN must learn from this.'

Razali said the United Nations must also be made to deal with the hard-core issues of economics.

'The UN is at the moment dealing with the soft aspects of economics: environment, development policies, debt, drugs, refugees. But it is not given a place to deal with the hard core economics issues: trade, identification and mobilisation of resources. We should look at these as we have a playing field that is not level.'

Asked whether he meant the United Nation's mandate should be broadened to include trade etc. and why it should be done when there are already institutions like the World Bank and the WTO dealing with them, Razali replied:

'That is the sad fate of the times, that we have a United Nations that is only operating within a certain perimeter, while other institutions have bigger portfolios, dealing with issues that make a difference to the developing countries.

'If only the decisions of the UN were able to impact on decisions taken in the WTO or in the World Bank on issues dealing with trade imbalances, then the UN begins to gain in importance.

'But if whatever we decide here is given only a marginal reference point, then the UN becomes that much less. To me as an activist of the South this is not satisfactory at all.'

[At an eve-of-UNGASS press conference on 19 June, the General Assembly president had commented that the WTO is a creature or an institution of the Uruguay Round and globalisation.

['But the WTO is not democratic,' Razali had said. 'It is very much an institution that deals with market forces and trade liberalisation as pushed by the major trading countries. That is not necessarily bad. But as it stands now, a lot of the problems are not being properly looked at.

['Certainly within the context of the WTO, there is not enough redress on issues dealing with marginalisation. I would have thought that the UN, being more democratic and universal, would be the body that would be able to oversee activities of the WTO, but it seems to me that, more and more, the WTO is wanting to cut its links to the UN. That, to me, is a negative development.']

A journalist asked Razali to clarify his statement that governments couldn't maintain their commitments because new actors had come into the picture. Did he mean the corporations? When he invited a few CEOs for lunch (during UNGASS), 'were you trying to persuade them to be a little bit less greedy and allow governments to keep their commitments regarding pollution and other issues?'

Razali replied: 'I have underlined the dangers of an embrace of the private sector and all aspects of globalisation, and I warned against it. I warned against it for the benefit of the marginalised people and societies, those people who are not ready to deal with globalisation.

'But I have recognised that globalisation is an inevitable thing. We have to deal with the private sector, but we have to have a framework relationship with them. That was the object of the lunch, to establish a framework relationship where we are able to manage the induction of the private sector into the UN and into governmental decisions at the UN. I am satisfied the lunch served that purpose.'


Asked whether it is going to be impossible to get a consensus on many of the issues discussed at UNGASS, unless these global corporations are brought into the negotiating process and almost have a place at the table, Razali replied: 'I would not say that at all. I think that governments must govern.

'Governments must decide and governments must regulate, particularly in dealing with globalised factors. The decisions that were not taken at this special session reflect the inability of governments to come to a consensus.

'It does not mean that because they were not able to do this that the private sector should come to the rescue. Not at all. I think that they have two different roles altogether.'

To a question as to what had happened since Rio that made it impossible for an agreement to be reached at the special session, Razali replied: 'Yes we reached our zenith of enthusiasm and commitment to sustainable development and the environment in 1992.

'Since then, many other things have distracted our attention from that. Since then a sense of parochialism has spread over much of the developed world, that has affected the willingness of those countries to make available funds, resources, ODA, technology transfers.'

Asked whether he would 'wake up the States to do something urgent', Razali said he knew what he could not do. But, he added, this is an occasion when the NGOs could go back to the grassroots and 'push and agitate for more sincere, honest implementation of all the aspects of the agreements at Rio.

'I think that the idea of conferences, both for governments and for NGOs, is almost over... There is no point talking among yourselves... It is time to go around and say, "We will not elect you if you don't do this or don't do that." That is when the NGOs apply leverage; and this is the right time for it.' (TWR No. 83, July 1997)

Martin Khor is the Director of Third World Network.