Of dugongs, conservation and governance

Although the Rio Summit failed to consider the issue of international environmental governance (IEG), it has since become clear that this is a critical component for the implementation of the concept of sustainable development. The First Global Ministerial Environment Forum (GMEF) in Malmo in May 2000 stressed the importance of ‘a greatly strengthened institutional structure’ for IEG, and when environment ministers met in Cartagena in March they continued the discussion with this goal in view in preparation for the Johannesburg Summit. We publish below a report on the Cartagena meeting.

Saradha R Iyer

ENVIRONMENT ministers met in Cartagena, Colombia last March to decide on a strengthened architecture for implementing environmental agreements and programmes. But it was the dugongs who stole the show from the 90 ministers who were there.

Dugongs or sea cows are mysterious and rare sea mammals and they are under serious threat of extinction in most parts of the world. On the opening day of the meeting convened by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), the UN agency released the findings from the first global study of the dugong, entitled The Dugong: Status Report and Action Plans for Countries and Territories in its Range. The threat to the animal should be of critical concern to billions of people who rely on oceans for their livelihoods because the dugong is a key indicator species.

Just as conservation strategies call for minimising adverse impacts on dugongs and communal involvement in the same, the complexity of existing and emerging environmental problems requires a perspective that transcends borders, bureaucracies, disciplines and jurisdictions.  The result has evidently left most governments especially in the developing countries incapable of effectively addressing urgent public policy relating to sustainable development. In short, there is a big gap in the attempts to move from promise to practice where environmental governance is concerned and the ministers came to address this issue.

The occasion was the Seventh Special Session of the UNEP Governing Council, which doubled as a meeting also of the Global Ministerial Environment Forum (GMEF). Where the membership of the Governing Council is restricted and rotated among regional representatives, the GMEF is open to all ministers. This move to create an environmental ministers’ forum with universal membership and to formulate ideas for improved international environmental governance (IEG) was initiated by UNEP.

At the first GMEF meeting in Malmo, Sweden in May 2000 environment ministers reviewed important and emerging environmental issues and discussed ways to chart the course for the future. Paragraph 24 of the Malmo Declaration urged a review of the requirements for a ‘greatly strengthened institutional structure for international environmental governance based on an assessment of future needs for an institutional architecture that has the capacity to effectively address wide-ranging environmental threats in a globalising world. UNEP’s role in this regard should be strengthened and its financial base broadened and made more predictable’. The outcome of the IEG track was to be fed into the preparatory negotiations for the World Summit on Sustainable Development.

Governance, especially at the international level, was not an issue at Rio 10 years ago, but is clearly a key part of implementing sustainable development. It is crucial not only for coordination and coherence in the environmental arena, but equally important that the economic and social dimensions be strengthened within the principles and framework of sustainable development as decided in Rio and the following UN summits and conferences. An enhancement of the three pillars which are integrated requires an appropriate international governance architecture for sustainable development to be in place.

Why environmental governance?

The whole idea of taking stock of the entire environmental governance machinery prior to the WSSD is to attempt to rationalise the present fragmented proliferation of structures and their sometimes overlapping functions so that a better framework can emerge which will allow individual organisations to operate more coherently and effectively without competing with each other for limited resources.

The key theme in the governance debate is to enhance, at national, regional and global levels, the integration of the sustainable development principle, of which environmental management is one of three pillars, the other two being social and economic development. This means mainstreaming environmental concerns into every existing issue and organisation in the socio-political and economic spheres and viewing this within the context of sustainable development as well as the current international governance structures for environment, trade and finance. The goal is to focus on environment while keeping the context of sustainable development as the overarching framework and objective. 

The discussions during the UNEP IEG process culminated in Cartagena, with all countries participating actively. The main principles advocated by the developing countries at Cartagena included:

·        No renegotiation of principles agreed to at Rio in 1992. Proper emphasis on ‘common but differentiated responsibilities’ with twin prongs the transfer of technology and provision of adequate financial resources as well as the  ‘precautionary principle’.

·        The need to adopt an incremental approach to the governance issue taking into account the constraints of national governments in developing countries.

·        Ensuring the balanced and meaningful participation of civil society organisations at all points in the debate and discussions.

·        Avoiding the setting up of more structures or institutions. Strengthen and revitalise existing ones. Any new framework should be able to relate to and input into, guide and steer the work of the WTO and international financial institutions (IFIs) in areas that impinge upon sustainable development.

·        Providing means, financial and technical, for developing countries to generate awareness, build capacity and coordinate the formidable challenge of implementing sustainable development across the board among various ministries involved in development issues.

Multilateral environmental agreements

The multitude of pre- and post-UNCED multilateral environmental agreements (MEAs) has led to diffusion and overlap of functions, making it burdensome for decision makers and civil society alike to follow the debate, let alone try to implement outcomes.  Since MEAs are international legal instruments through which governments have committed to take actions, making them more effective by rationalising and harmonising the issues they deal with was advocated as a way of implementing sustainable development in the countries of the South.

In addition, strengthening the monitoring and compliance machinery in all MEAs was considered. It must be recalled that the World Trade Organisation’s detailed legally binding rules and dispute settlement system are so well entrenched that it is THE stick that is regularly wielded at developing countries who fear the sanctions regime.  By contrast MEAs have no such mechanism and the nebulous trade-environment nexus seems to have been largely relegated to the WTO’s Committee on Trade and Environment. The future of sustainable development may well hang in the balance if this matter remains unresolved as disputes concerning the conflict of laws may emerge.

Moreover, a growing concern is the declining political will among major developed countries to even ratify MEAs. Narrow interests that are predominantly commercial have led some countries such as the US, Canada, Australia and Japan to resist and then dilute MEAs during negotiations and afterwards at the interpretation and implementation stage. This is happening with the Kyoto Protocol and the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety.

Options for MEAs

MEA rationalisation is important for ecological security, fiscal prudence, efficiency and transparency and especially for assisting developing countries in implementation. Two options were discussed:

Clustering MEAs:  Clustering by issues rather than function, it was suggested, will clarify and establish the necessary linkages between the varied but related agreements.  In this regard the existing Environmental Management Group’s authority was thought to be in need of strengthening so that it can act as the mechanism to coordinate and provide the venue for cooperation between the different MEA secretariats.

Co-location of MEAs:  Placing them all under one roof would hopefully facilitate cooperation but this issue was thought to require further discussion as it was underlined in discussions that it should not take resources away from other aspects by creating more structures. There is also the danger that centralisation and a top-down approach may lead to domination of the agenda by stronger countries against the interests of the South.

Enhancing UNEP’s role

Enhancing UNEP’s role was considered at length.  UNEP, it was felt, should remain the world’s catalyst and coordinator for environmental affairs. Recent efforts to raise the profile of decision-making through the GMEF were lauded as a move in the right direction. 

The challenge, it was pointed out, is to ensure a balance by injecting elements of sustainable development into its role without seeming to make UNEP step on the turf of all other international organisations and agencies associated with development. Efforts to universalise the Governing Council of UNEP should now help it operationalise sustainable development with the clout and authority that is needed.

Securing more predictable funding for UNEP activities through assessed contributions for administrative costs was debated and finally resolved.

Strengthening the CSD

The UN Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD), it was stated, can and should become an even more important forum for linking the three pillars of sustainable development and its efforts to involve all the relevant players through its multi-stakeholder sessions.

However, there are several questions about the unclear relationship between the EMG, the CSD’s Inter-Agency Taskforce and UNEP: this must be grappled with in greater depth. Giving the CSD more clout to monitor the implementation of its decisions is an important first step in enhancing its stature. 

The CSD Secretariat too must be beefed up with adequate financial and human resources if it is to play a more dynamic role in the post-WSSD era.

Financing the governance architecture

Developing countries lack the capacity - technical and financial - to undertake to implement internationally negotiated agreements including decisions on governance. Their participation and performance, it was stressed, must be judged subject to the ‘common but differentiated responsibilities’ rule enshrined in the Rio Declaration. Adequate resources were called for to be set aside to assist them in this task.

It was also noted that capacity building for governments, civil society as well as acquiring technical expertise and a scientific base all take time and resources away from other development needs.  Thus, encouraging regionalism and regional cooperation was suggested to encourage sharing the burden and fostering much-needed cooperation on cross-border and transboundary issues.

The Cartagena decisions finally adopted called for:

·        better coordination and coherence in MEAs

·        improved environmental capacity-building

·        a new formula for contributions to UNEP viz the voluntary use of an indicative scale of assessment with transparency over countries’ payments relative to their economic strengths

·        universal participation in the Global Ministerial Environment Forum

·        endorsement of the Civil Society Forum  prior to General Council meetings.


And so, jogging along to Johannesburg, we recognise that people and their prosperity, the planet, dugongs and all are inextricably linked to political will, cooperation and the practical steps that will emerge after September 2002 from the Summit.

Governance, in particular, is linked to power, status quo alteration and building countervailing forces for change that confront the power (and abuse) of the market. Thus the governance issue will have to be a major focus of the WSSD as part of the solution to the crisis of implementation of sustainable development.        

Governance goes to Bali

THE governance issue is expected to be a contentious item for negotiation in PrepCom 4 in Bali, Indonesia in May.  Apart from this, Prepcom 4 will also have to finalise the political declaration that heads of state and government are expected to sign in Johannesburg, as well as the action plan.

During the second week of PrepCom 3 the Working Group which was entrusted with the governance issue produced a second revision of their paper taking into account comments from the first week. This was then open for comments on 4 April and a consolidated text prior to Bali.  The revised paper separates the institutional issues (the architecture and design for sustainable development) from a new section on ‘Good Governance’. While NGOs welcomed this as part of the section on preamble and principles, many NGOs also recognise that good governance is a rather subjective matter and could be construed as an evolving conditionality.  This concern is reinforced by the reluctance, even refusal of some developed countries to deal with international governance (especially in finance and trade reform) or corporate accountability/regulation while insisting on addressing governance only at the national level.

There was the usual diplomatically expressed general support for the paper as a good basis for negotiation. Developed-country delegations supported the inclusion of the new segment on ‘Good Governance’.

The EU, which took the floor twice, stressed that sustainable development governance is an evolutionary process.  It highlighted the fact that major group participation requires a new section applicable to all levels.  The EU welcomed the Good Governance paragraphs and the five themes as essential for the implementation of sustainable development goals. The EU’s emphasis was clearly on good governance at the national level.

The G77 and China, while recognising it as a ‘valuable document’, expressed major reservations about tendencies in the paper to weaken the economic pillar and micro-manage institutions at the national level while not providing for additional resources, technology transfer and capacity building. Many developing countries were concerned that the text on ‘Good Governance’ would open the door to yet another set of conditionalities as developed countries were clearly emphasising the concept for national application, and not at the global level.

The Group will meet before Bali to submit a paper on institutional arrangements for implementing sustainable development that brings the focus back to the architecture for governance. This has indeed been the thrust of the discussions and negotiations on international environmental governance initiated by UNEP that concluded in Cartagena in March. The outcome and discussions from that track were supposed to feed into the WSSD negotiations but unfortunately there seemed to be a disconnect between the two years of IEG discussions and PrepCom 3.

The US, with full backing from its JUSCANZ partners (Japan, Canada, Australia and New Zealand), was happy with the text and offered only minor changes since in its view the text supported the results of the Monterrey Consensus on Financing for Development, UNEP’s IEG outcomes and the Doha WTO decisions. It welcomed the inclusion of ‘Good Governance’.