Global Trends by Martin Khor

Monday 7 May 2012

New UN institutions for sustainable development?

With the Rio Plus 20 summit approaching, a preparatory meeting in New York last week discussed how to strengthen or create various institutions to deal with the three dimensions of sustainable development.


A new global architecture for sustainable development is likely to be created by world leaders at the United Nations’ Rio Plus 20 Summit to be held in June in Brazil.

This may in fact be the most important outcome of the summit, which is officially called the UN conference on sustainable development and which is held to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the historic 1992 Earth Summit.

Many problems have grown much worse in the past 20 years, such as the financial crisis and recession, climate change, and biodiversity loss.

The current organisations dealing with sustainable development (and its three social, economic and environment pillars) is far too weak.  Strengthening it is crucial if the deteriorating trend is to be reversed.

A two-week preparatory meeting in New York to develop the summit’s outcome document ended on 4 May.  A major issue was the institutional framework for sustainable development (IFSD).  

There are four main items under this framework:

  • The possible creation of a new sustainable development agency or forum;
  • Strengthening the role of the UN’s Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC);
  • Strengthening the existing Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD); and
  • The future status of the UN Environment Programme (UNEP).

Under the first item, delegates came up with proposals to create either a new Sustainable Development Council or a new “high-level political forum” on sustainable development. 

The proposals envisage the new body be established inside the United Nations, either under its General Assembly, or its Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC).

The idea of transforming the present CSD into a new Sustainable Development Council was originally proposed by the Rio Plus 20 Secretariat and the Co-Chairs of the process.

The Council would be the authoritative, high-level body to consider matters that integrate the three dimensions (social, economic and environment) of sustainable development.    

The Council is supported by the European Union, Switzerland, Norway and South Korea, as well as quite a few developing countries.

Another proposal was put forward by the G77 and China, to create a high level political forum comprising all UN member states.  It would have authority to follow up on implementing all sustainable development commitments, and coordinate the UN agencies and the multilateral environment agreements.

Several delegates pointed out similarities between the Council and the Forum proposals.  There appears to be a broad support for creating either the Council or the Forum.

On the final day, the G77 and China withdrew its proposal as a group, but many developing countries (including Peru, China, India, Brazil, Malaysia and Indonesia) then re-submitted it as a proposal under their individual countries.

There are two other options for sustainable development.  One is to retain the existing CSD (instead of transforming it into the new Council) and improve its working methods, agenda and work programme.  This is seen as a “fall back” option, in case the Council or Forum is eventually not established.

The other is to strengthen the role of ECOSOC in integrating the three pillars of sustainable development.  A few countries stress that reform of ECOSOC is enough, and a new Council is not needed.

Many delegations however do not see strengthening ECOSOC as contradicting the other proposals, though the division of labour between its role and that of the new Council or Forum would have to be sorted out.

Meanwhile, there has also been considerable and often contentious debate about the future role and status of UNEP.

There is disagreement whether to upgrade UNEP to a UN specialised agency (which the European Union and the African countries strongly favour) or to enhance its mandate and capacity but let it retain its current status as a UN programme. 

The G77 and China had initially proposed ways to strengthen UNEP, without mentioning its upgrading to a specialised agency.  These include allowing all countries to be in its governing council, providing additional funds, and enhancing its mandate and capacity and its coordinating role on environment in the UN system. 

After the group withdrew its proposal on UNEP, many individual countries (including Peru, China, India, Malaysia, Brazil, Indonesia) re-instated it.

The reason for the G77 withdrawal was because the Africa Group decided to put forward its own proposal, stressing upgrading UNEP into a specialised agency, which other developing countries were not able to accept.

The EU has been the main champion of this cause.  However the US, Russia and Canada, and some developing countries, are adamant against creating a new agency. 

The meeting also discussed texts on other issues, including renewing the Rio commitments, the green economy, sustainable development goals, action plans for selected themes, and providing finance and technology to developing countries.

There are still deep divisions, mainly between developed and developing countries, on most issues.

Another one-week session will be held at the end of May, before the text is brought to Rio for final negotiations.