Coming out of coma

A decline in its funds and erosion in its mandate have made the United Nations Environment Programme virtually ineffective. Bharat H Desai looks at recent attempts to revitalise it

Published: Thursday 15 March 2001

ANANDA / ANANDGROWING global concerns over environmental issues has once again underlined the need for an effective and vigilant environmental forum with a valid mandate that would provide concrete guidance to all nations. While the number of environmental forum and institutions have proliferated over the years yet concrete policy decisions along with their implementation still remain the need of the hour. One of the foremost international environmental platforms, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), launched as a UN body for environmental cooperation, has failed to emerge as a supreme authority setting the global environmental agenda. It is sad to note that UNEP’s authority has been increasingly eroded by the emergence of international environment institutions and convention secretariats. Besides, a drastic decline in its funding in recent years has rendered it inefficient. But, initially, the UNEP was envisaged as an institutional structure within the United Nations (UN), to address various environmental issues and problems and provide a platform for global environmental cooperation. UNEP was a quasiautonomous entity which served as a focal point for environmental action and coordination within the UN system. However, UNEP did not have the mandate to initiate environmental programmes on its own. Since it is not a functional international organisation, UNEP works within the hierarchical order in the UN by reporting to the General Assembly through the Economic and Social Council. Thus it was kept just as a programme, a subsidiary organ of the UN General Assembly. Initially, several functional organisations like Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) and International Labour Organisation (ILO) did not pose much challenge to UNEP’s jurisdiction though some of them did seek to address environmental issues as peripheral concerns. However, as time passed many of these launched programmes in the environment field to protect their budgets and mandate. During 28 years of its existence, UNEP achieved considerable success in galvanising international environmental concerns. It has laid down threshold limits of environmental behaviour of states. It has evolved several multilateral environmental agreements (MEA), soft law through nonbinding principles, development of environmental law and policy at the national level. It also provides a servicing base for administration of secretariats for five MEAs — Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), Convention on Migratory Species of Wild Animals (CMS), Convention (Vienna) and Protocol (Montreal) on Depletion of the Ozone Layer (Ozone), Convention on the Transboundary Movements of the Hazardous Wastes and Their Disposal (Basel) and Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). The secretariats of these five conventions, are dispersed at different places like Bonn, Geneva, Montreal and Nairobi. Over the years various international institutions working on the environment field have encroached on UNEP’s domain and, in turn, diluted its authority. Post-Rio institutions like Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD) and Global Environment Facility (GEF) had a much higher political profile and in the case of GEF strong linkage with the World Bank. Besides, UNEP has suffered much because of drastically decreasing funds since it was sidelined in the 1992 Rio Earth Summit. There was a decline from US $166.8 million in 1994- 95 to US $107.5 million in 1998-99. More worrisome is the fact that the funding base has shrunk because of a decline in contributions from 88 countries (1997) to 66 countries in 1999. Japanese contribution alone accounted for almost one-fifth of the total contribution to the environment fund in 1999. Equally disturbing is the growing share of trust fund support in the past decade. The status of funding is one of the important barometers in deciding the level of political confidence enjoyed by an institution. Ironically, UNEP came to be conferred with a voluntary environment fund which is not subject to the UN scale of contributions. The post-Rio scenario can be attributed to several factors like centralised structure during the long tenure of Mostafa Tolba, followed by lack lustre leadership of Elisabeth Dowedswell. There were institutional problems like location, poor levels of communication and security problems in Nairobi. The emergence of various convention secretariats has also scattered the environmental agenda and led to institutional fragmentation. Since these regimes are independent entities of sovereign states, UNEP has very little if any influence on their mandates and governance. The problem is further compounded with the emergence of World Trade Organisation (WTO) whose mandate has a potential to clash with that of conventions like CITES. This has underlined the need for a ‘negotiating partner’ with WTO. Thus a void was created and a centralised environmental authority that can provide an overreaching guidance to the states was the need of the hour. Efforts to retrieve lost ground for UNEP started with the Nairobi Declaration (1997). The governing council of the UNEP, taking cognisance of the continuing deterioration of the global environment as well as increasing complexity and fragmentation of the institutional responses, gave a call for a strong, effective and revitalised UNEP. It sought to improve the governance structure of UNEP making it a world forum for ministers and highlevel government officials. However, this could only be possible if it enjoys the support of the states. The General Assembly endorsed the Nairobi Declaration and called for adequate, stable and predictable funding for it. As a sequel to the Nairobi Declaration, the Secretary General set up a UN Task Force on Environment and Human Settlements in early 1998. The task force suggested setting up of an Environmental Monitoring Group within the UN, replacing the existing Inter-agency Environmental Coordination Group. It also suggested an annual ministerial-level global environmental forum, which has already taken effect with the first Global Ministerial Environment Forum (GMEF) recently held at Malmo in Sweden from May 29-31, 2000. It also called for NGO participation in the work of UNEP. The second GMEF took place in Nairobi from February 5-9, 2001 which has decided to establish an open-ended intergovernmental group of ministers to undertake an assessment of existing institutional weaknesses as well as future needs and options for strengthened environmental governance. The General Assemly supported some of the recommendations made by the task force. --The launching of GMEF represents a modest political initiative to revive the sagging fortunes of UNEP. The coming together of environment ministers on such a platform represented an attempt to regain policy coherence in the field of environment. The crucial issue remains for the states to define UNEP’s role in the climate of institutional fragmentation within the UN system. The process of annual GMEF may help in bringing UNEP back from the brink in overcoming the problems of its political neglect as well as dwarfing by other high profile environmental structures within the UN system. At the beginning of the new millennium, UNEP is faced with the challenge of equipping itself to deliver results. The world needs an effective and efficient international environment institutional structure, which will be capable enough to handle the global environmental agenda. The basic question is in the emerging scheme of things, where does UNEP stand in the institutional structure as it is today. Can this UN environmental programme remain content on the basis on its past laurels? The package to revitalise UNEP’s health would need to comprise sufficient powers, adequate funding, proper institutional format as well as political support of states. There is a need for greater clarity concerning the relationship between UNEP and Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD) as well as between UNEP and other specialised agencies working in environment and environment related matters. UNEP’s funding would also need to be saved from the vagaries of uncertainty of voluntary contributions by states. In order to provide the lead and set the global environmental agenda, UNEP must have secure and predictable funding in consonance with the states’ expectations from it. Therefore, it would need to be provided with funding based upon UN scale of contributions, tied to realistic budget estimates. Ironically, the UN secretary general has lamented in his address to the General Assemly in April 200 that in all the preparatory work for the Millennium Assembly over the last 18 months, the environment was never seriously considered. This speaks for the priorities of the states. Therefore, it remains to be seen if deliberations at the GMEF meet leads to concrete steps to revitalise UN’s environment programme. It will also provide a test of the shift in the recognition that peace can be achieved only through partnerships of governments, global organisations, business community and civil society. n The author is associate professor of International Environmental Law and Institutions at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi and a Humboldt Fellow at Institute of International Law, University of Bonn, Germany

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