It was only half a year ago, but events since the Johannesburg earth summit already make it seem like a distant event. The world has just seen an American-engineered war in which the un was sidelined and the us paid scant regard to the views of even its traditional allies. The current global political theatre is centred on anything but sustainable development. Against this background, the 11th meeting of the un's Commission for Sustainable Development (csd) held in New York, usa, from April 28 to May 9, does not really seem like an important event.
It clearly was not...
How to make the Commission for Sustainable Development work
It was only half a year ago, but events since the Johannesburg earth summit already make it seem like a distant event. The world has just seen an American-engineered war in which the un was sidelined and the us paid scant regard to the views of even its traditional allies. The current global political theatre is centred on anything but sustainable development. Against this background, the 11th meeting of the un's Commission for Sustainable Development (csd) held in New York, usa, from April 28 to May 9, does not really seem like an important event. It clearly was not.
The enemy is strong In the current context, however, what is important is that the global sustainable development agenda still has fora and institutions that keep it going. In this respect a major role is played by the conventions on climate change and biodiversity. Their objectives most often put them on collision course with very strong economic interests. In spite of this, these conventions have achieved a fair degree of success (assuming Russia's announced ratification will finally push the Kyoto Protocol over the threshold required for it to come into force).
However, the politics of setting up new institutions and frameworks against the old forces of non-sustainable development clearly has its limits. These can only be overcome if sustainable development is integrated into the core of the global and national economic and political agendas. This is clearly not an easy task in the current situation.
The fierce struggle in Johannesburg over the relationship between Multilateral Environmental Agreements (meas) towards the World Trade Organisation (wto), which ended in a typical stalemate -- both sets of agreements being deemed equal, even though they were contradictory -- showed the difficulties of integrating sustainable development into the global economic agenda. In fact, it was only the courageous stance of a few small nations that managed to prevent the wto from prevailing over meas.
Moreover at the 11th csd session it became obvious that the ad-hoc working group of the un General Assembly that deals with the follow-up of the major un conferences (including Rio) had little interaction with the csd. The reason: not enough integration of the sustainability agenda in the business of the foreign ministries and their New York-based un missions.
The CSD's mandate So how do you achieve this integration? This is where the csd still has a role to play, if only for lack of alternatives. It is the only global institution with a mandate to ensure that sustainable development becomes part of the national and global agendas. It has no doubt failed to live up to this mandate. Giving it up, however, does not make things better. The decision of the csd-11 to focus more, in future, on issues that lack institutions or conventions to back their cause -- such as water or energy-- rather than duplicate work of existing institutions might increase the efficacy of this forum.
Will the csd carry out its mandate or fall prey to the meaningless political infighting of the infamous New York Mafia (the un diplomats), is a question often asked. There is as yet no ultimate answer to it. Given the the absence of an alternative to the csd, we should still try to get something out of it. The regionalisation of the preparatory process of the future csd sessions could be an important chance to open it up to the forces that shape sustainable development at the national, local and the grassroots levels. It will also be an ideal opportunity to reduce the influence of the New York Mafia. These reasons lead me to think that the csd sessions in 2004 and 2005 would be critical for the future relevance of this forum.
Jurgen Maier is the Director, Forum for Environment & Development, Germany
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