UN Assembly hears call for urgent action

by Martin Khor

NEW YORK: The UN General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) to review the implementation of Agenda 21 began here with a sobering acknowledgement by political leaders of the serious deterioration in the global environment since the Rio Earth Summit of 1992, and that the North has failed to meet its aid and technology transfer commitments to developing countries.

Some 47 Heads of State or Government, including those from the Group of 7 countries that had attended their Denver Summit, are among those attending the UNGASS.

The Session began with calls by the General Assembly President and the UN Secretary-General for urgent action to check the deteriorating situation. The Group of 77, represented by Tanzanian President Benjamin William Mkapa, made a strong case for new action on the development issues of aid, debt and low commodity prices.

A number of industrial countries announced their intention to take new global environment initiatives, particularly on forests, water, climate change and energy. And the European Union pledged to "do our utmost" to reverse the downward trend in official development assistance (ODA).

Meanwhile, Germany's Chancellor Kohl, backed by the leaders of Brazil, South Africa and Singapore, announced a "global initiative on sustainable development". Its centrepiece is a proposal to establish a "global environmental umbrella organisation", which has been widely referred to as a World Environment Organisation.

The proposal generally got a cool reception, not only from developing countries, but also most notably from many European countries.

Away from the plenary session where political leaders were making their speeches, a Committee of the Whole was still hammering out differences in a draft Political Statement and a draft Programme for further implementation of Agenda 21. Both are scheduled to be finalised on 26 June evening for adoption on 27 June.

The Session opened with an appeal by UNGASS Chairman and General Assembly President, Ambassador Razali Ismail of Malaysia, for "honest assessment, critical reflection and concrete action." Despite some achievements, he said, there has been a major recession of spirit and political will since Rio.

"The visionary ambition of Agenda 21 is tempered by some damning statistics which show we are heading further away from and not towards sustainable development," he said. "We continue to consume resources, pollute, spread and entrench poverty as though we are the last generation on Earth."

"Failures in management of natural resources continue to create scarcities, invite conflict, pose dangers to public health and incite social disintegration."

Failure to keep Rio commitments

Commenting that the serious Rio commitments have not been kept, Razali described this as a shame, made tragic because gains in science and technology had advanced understanding and policy options to those in power who could make a difference.

"We must strip ourselves of old excuses for not tackling effectively enough the driving forces of environmental degradation and underdevelopment. This Special Session will certainly have failed in the eyes of the world if it produces nothing more than stirring rhetoric that seizes the headlines and exhortations to continue to do more."

"We are all familiar with the tactics being played. Posturing, spinning declarations of intent, pointing the finger at others, pandering to interest groups, weighting short-term profits and immediate electoral gains, and emphasising the need for clearer definitions, dialogue or information-gathering... These prevent action plans from being operationalised into implementation programmes."

Razali said the temptation to focus on just so-called emerging issues must be avoided, as the crucial issues are the cross- sectoral issues linking environment and development.

Since Rio, North-South "trench politics" had continued, with the North promoting environmental protection without shouldering the greater burden of adjustment on consumption and production patterns, nor do they emphasise fulfilling their global responsibilities.

"Meanwhile many developing countries continue to emphasise their right to development, without placing sufficient stress on social equity and transparent, participatory decision- making."

"Neither approach bodes well for the future," said Razali.

He criticised the G7 Denver Summit Communique for listing issues for future work on sustainable development without making any reference to poverty eradiation and the special needs of developing countries. "The political appeal of environmental issues stole the show. Levels of development assistance are not even graced with the tag of 'business as usual'."

The General Assembly President said ODA sharply declined from $55 billion to less than $50 billion since Rio, and there are no signs the decline will be reversed. This remains a blow to international cooperation.

Addressing new challenges

Stressing the need for UNGASS to address new challenges, Razali posed questions to the various actors:

"How will governments fulfil global commitments without fearing you have forsaken the need to look after your national interests first?" National interests can be defined in terms that encompass the well-being of other states and peoples as being tied into one's own prospects and prosperity.

"Are the imperatives of profit, new markets, competitive edge and commercial secrecy so great for the private sector that you remain reluctant to have an open and responsible dialogue with other stakeholders?"

And, "how do you (civil society) account for five years of lost opportunity?" Razali said it was their responsibility to actively participate in sustainable development in their own lives and to demand no less of their political, economic and social institutions.

Razali noted that UNGASS was being held three days after the General Assembly adopted an Agenda for Development. Whilst the UN continues to work on all aspects of development, "its continued weakening both politically and financially, stretches it way too thin, assigns to it missions impossible and makes it a convenient whipping boy. If true value continues to be placed on finding global solutions to global problems, a strengthened UN is essential."

UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan said the task of UNGASS was to turn political will into actions, to set a sure course for the world community into the new millennium on this "most urgent and vital global issue."

He added that UNCED was a landmark in the new global diplomacy, bringing together governments, NGOs and concerned individuals as never before. It also marked a conceptual breakthrough, relating environment and development through "sustainable development."

The Secretary-General noted some signs of progress, such as the establishment of national coordinating mechanisms for sustainable development, the entry into force of three Conventions (climate change, biodiversity and desertification), the phasing out of CFCs in developed countries, and progress in switching to renewable energy sources.

"But the balance sheet also has a negative side," said Annan. More than a quarter of the developing world's people still live in poverty. There has been virtually no progress in following up of UNCED commitments for transfer of concessional finance and environmentally sound technology.

Carbon dioxide emissions continue to rise; world-wide fossil fuel consumption rose from 7,500 million tons of oil equivalent in 1992 to 8,000 million tons in 1996. The rate of depletion of natural forests is slowing but total forest loss is still at an unacceptable rate.

One third of the world's population lives in countries facing moderate to severe water stress and unless there are new efforts to manage the resource, there will be a world-wide water crisis by 2025.

The majority of ocean species subject to fishing are now fully exploited and we are now at the point where overall fishing stocks (not simply single species) begin to decline.

"Failure to act now could damage our planet irreversibly, unleashing a spiral of increased hunger, deprivation, disease and squalor. Ultimately we could face the destabilising effects of conflict over vital natural resources." (TWE 165, 16-31 July 1997)

Martin Khor is the Director of Third World Network.