UN Special Session ends without "Political Statement"

A week-long (23-27 June) Special Session of the UN General Assembly, convened to review the implementation of Agenda 21, five years after the Rio Earth Summit, failed to produce a "Political Statement". The Session only managed to adopt a simple and uncontroversial "Statement of Commitment". One of the main sticking points during the Session was the failure of the North to live up to its commitments on ODA and technology transfers to the South. The following articles highlight the tense negotiations that took place during the Special Session and analyses the issues involved.

by Martin Khor

NEW YORK: The UN General Assembly, convened to review the implementation of Agenda 21, ended its 19th Special Session (UNGASS) past midnight on 27 June, after jettisoning efforts to agree on a "Political Statement", but adopting a "Programme for the further implementation of Agenda 21."

The week-long (23-27 June) Summit-level meeting of the General Assembly, thus ended in a political impasse, without any gloss or effort to sweep failures under the carpet. But while unable to agree on a political statement, small working groups, working through 26 June and most of 27 June, managed to thrash out some sticking points and reach a consensus on the Programme document that the Assembly adopted.

Earlier on 27 June, General Assembly President, Ambassador Razali Ismail of Malaysia, and the Bureaus of the Assembly had decided to abandon further attempts to negotiate a second document, the "Draft Political Statement."

Failure to agree on "Political Statement"

Delegates had been working through the day against the clock to complete their work. The original schedule called for the negotiations on the two documents, in a Committee of the Whole (COW), to be concluded on 22 June, and formally adopted at the Special Session the next morning or afternoon.

But the Special Session (officially dubbed "Earth Summit plus 5", to make it more catchy) was bogged down by time- consuming discussions on many points relating both to development and to the environment.

The disagreements were along North-South lines (especially with regard to issues of aid and trade), along North-North lines (particularly over climate change, but also on aid), as well as over issues (particularly, forests) where there was no clear North-South demarcation.

But the main focus, as the Session drew to a close, was the failure to agree on a Political Statement - a document which had been intended to be a kind of "clarion call" by political leaders to the world public, pledging action to make up for shortfalls of the last five years and promising to do better in future.

It was to have been a kind of follow-up to the "Rio Declaration."

Three drafts of this statement had been prepared by the Chair (Mostafa Tolba of Egypt) and Vice-Chair (Ms Linn Locher) of the Commission on Sustainable Development. Negotiations began on 16 June on draft 2; and on 23 June on draft 3 (by which time it had grown respectively to 8 pages and 26 pages).

A 26 June night session of the COW, chaired by Tolba, was intended as a last-gasp attempt to pull all the elements together. Instead, it concluded at 5.00 a.m. on 27 June, with only half the document read, and several disagreements even on this first half.

Indeed, more and more square brackets were being placed on many paragraphs, and tempers were getting frayed as it became evident that the race against the clock was being lost.

On 27 June morning, the Bureau concluded that there was no point continuing with the exercise, and decided to abandon the political statement.

In its place was put a simple and uncontroversial six- paragraph "Statement of Commitment" that will be a preamble to the UN General Assembly Special Session's (UNGASS) sole document, the "Programme for further implementation of Agenda 21."

Failure to reach agreement on the political statement was partly blamed by delegates as due to lack of time and partly to a lack of skilled and effective steering of the process in the COW.

But perhaps most significantly, the failure reflected the real political gap between the North and South that has grown wider since the Rio Earth Summit.

The two-week CSD session in April and the one-week UNGASS (with an extra preparatory week just before it) were just unable to bridge this divide, which had become too broad over the past five years.

Another decisive factor was the determination of the General Assembly President, Ambassador Razali, not to be caught up with the "seminar organiser's syndrome" of portraying the Session (or the events since Rio) as a success when it was not.

"Our words have not been matched by deeds," he said at the last plenary. And, earlier on 27 June, he told a press conference that the Session had been an "honest attempt" to appraise the results since Rio and there was "little attempt to sweep things under the carpet or put a gloss over something that was not there."

Controversial sticking points

Among the most controversial sticking points at UNGASS were financial resources and trade and environment; and the sectoral issues of forests and climate change.

By and large, a long shadow was cast over the UNGASS process by the failure of the industrialized countries of the North to live up to their commitments of finance and technology transfer.

Participants, including many of the heads of State and government in their General Assembly addresses, decried the reality of aid decline as against the Rio pledge of the Northern countries' increasing aid to 0.7% of GDP.

They also decried the lack of progress on technology transfer which, as the Tanzanian President Benjamin Mkapa (on behalf of the Group of 77) pointed out, had instead been hampered by the WTO's TRIPs agreement.

With North-South differences remaining sharp on financial resources, Tolba on 24 June, set up an informal Ministerial group on financial issues (chaired jointly by Dutch development aid Minister, Jan Pronck, and the Tanzanian Foreign Minister) to rewrite the texts on this issue in both documents.

At the informal high-level meeting on 24 June, a number of developing countries expressed reservations about the procedure. They were concerned whether the Ministerial group would complicate the negotiations by either dumping or over- riding the points already made by the diplomats.

Pronck proposed that the political statement contain a commitment by the Northern countries to "stem the decline and reverse the trend in ODA", which would send a modest but specific positive signal. And even for countries that could not increase aid (such as Japan), it could be mentioned that aid would improve by targeting it for poverty eradication and environment.

The Japanese delegate admitted it was a difficult moment for Japan as the government was downsizing, and this included aid. In future, its official development assistance (ODA) would continue to decline. When it came to choosing between aid to Japan's aging population or to ODA, the choice was clear and Japan was not in a position to give any assurance (of an ODA increase).

Reality of aid decline

Several developing country delegates expressed concern about the proposed wordings, which they felt watered down or covered up the reality of the collapse of aid. An Asian country delegate commented sharply that the words being proposed would be a retreat from Agenda 21. The reality of aid decline was very disappointing, and now Japan was admitting its aid would go down further.

"Though you may try to raise the spirits here, we are really very disappointed," he said. "We had put our trust in the words agreed to in Rio but very little has materialized." "I suggest we put time-bound targets for aid, for the years 2002 or 2003 and so on. Otherwise, developing countries are fed up with this situation. Maybe only at the end of the next millennium will there be an attempt to reach the 0.7% aid target."

The Tanzanian Minister said, in taking stock of Rio's successes and failures, it was important to solve the problem of commitments not being met. "If we say there should be a reversal of the trend, what is the assurance this will take place? We will just go on to another meeting and again conclude there is another decline." Another Asian country representative said on one hand, aid had declined whilst on the other hand, developing countries were also facing a tightening up of aid conditions.

"The donors must allay the fears of developing countries that this is not another opportunity to avoid the ODA discussion. Aid is shrinking, on top of that we are asked to follow more conditions on the aid and also that it be used for leveraging other funds."

Several countries were also concerned that the North was intending to resile from the Rio aid commitment by emphasising the need for new and innovative financial mechanisms such as private investment, environment taxes and subsidy reductions.

They were cool to the proposal by US and Norway (in the draft Programme) to form an intergovernmental process or panel on finance that would look into implementing the report of the CSD's working group on finance (whose lifespan has expired).

Innovative financing mechanisms

These developing countries were concerned that eventually the Northern countries might only focus on the innovative financing mechanisms proposed in the report, whilst ignoring or diluting those aspects of the report on their meeting their ODA commitments.

The debate came to a head late on night of 26 June, when the Dutch and Tanzanian Ministers presented a five paragraph text on financial issues for the political statement.

It stated that "international cooperation and provision of ODA continue to have a crucial part" in mobilising resources, and that "we reconfirm and recommit" to the Rio objectives of fulfilling the 0.7% target.

The statement also regretted the overall downward trend and would have the developed countries undertake to make the utmost efforts to "halt and reverse" this downward trend by the end of the century.

It also mentioned a target of 50% reduction in poverty by 2015 as a key priority for aid. It stressed the importance of proper domestic policies and mobilising domestic policies towards sustainable development patterns, and the catalytic role of ODA in mobilising domestic private investment towards sustainable development, and in attracting foreign investment.

After Pronck presented the text, a number of countries (including India, US and Venezuela) expressed reservations. Pronck warned that if there was to be a renegotiation, the EU (which Netherlands represents) would not be able to hold to the text's position but would take a tougher line.

Tolba announced that the whole text on financial issues would have to be re-looked at again, taking his own original text (paragraph 12 of the political statement) as the basis and referring also to the Dutch-Tanzania Ministerial text.

It was clear that many more hours would be needed to have even a semblance of consensus on a political text on finance.

Even if this high hurdle were cleared, a fierce dispute was sure to arise over another two lengthy paragraphs on trade, environment and development, originally drafted by Tolba and Locher. The G77 were seriously concerned about the wording in many parts of this section.

At about 3 am, Tolba proceeded to get the Committee to do another reading of the draft political statement, starting with paragraph one. Each paragraph elicited even more disputes. As the session ended at 5 am, it was quite clear the political statement was in deep trouble.

Within hours, the decision to abandon it was made, so that the full attention of the delegates could be focused on the Programme, to reach consensus on the several issues still under dispute.

The most difficult of these were the cross-sectoral issues of finance and trade and the sectoral issues of climate change and forests.

The last of these were cleared only at night, and allowing time for the various amendments to be printed, the Special Session's final plenary could finish adopting the several amendments only past midnight. (TWE No. 165, 16-31 July 1997)

Martin Khor is the Director of Third World Network.