CSD must become a forum for debate

New Zealand's minister for the environment Simon Upton is the chairperson of the seventh session of the Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD 7), which is scheduled to meet at the United Nations, New York, in April this year. The CSD monitors the progress of Agenda 21, the blueprint for action on global sustainable development adopted at the Rio Earth Summit in 1992. He speaks to Rajat Banerji on the CSD's weaknesses and his plans to make it an effective body

Published: Monday 15 March 1999

Why has the csd failed to produce results?
It will be unfair on my part to pass judgement as I have attended only one session of the csd . However, one reason could be the way csd has functioned till now. The chairperson of csd , elected at the beginning of the ministerial meeting, worked for a whole year and was involved in organising the next meeting. However, he left the job on the day of the next meeting, when a new person took over. The new chairperson, who was not involved with the meeting, was trying to discuss the issues.

But now the rules have changed. I will be the first chairperson, whose tenure began at the end of the last meeting and will end at the beginning of the next one. Earlier, csd used to review up to 40 chapters in each session. Now, the sessions will concentrate on a fewer issues.

csd has had procedural problems, and it was not focused enough. Although we have a focused agenda this time, I personally think its scope is still too vast. As a result, many ministers have asked if it is worthwhile attending the session. Some have even called it a 'talk shop'. Although I am trying to convince these people, the level of scepticism is very high.

I think the pressure is really on me and the un system to make this meeting more relevant and useful, or else the csd will be in trouble. If csd becomes a meeting attended only by officials, it becomes a 'talk shop'. Therefore, my aim is try to change the meeting from pretending to be a negotiating session to one where there is more scope for dialogue.

How did the csd become a 'talk-shop'?
Earlier, officials treated the csd as a negotiating session. The un system has a strong bias to generate a text regardless of the outcome. Therefore, ministers came and read speeches. The only outcome was a text, which had to be rewritten many times until all participants reached an agreement. Even then, the text never had a meaningful edge.

How will the csd -7 be different from its previous sessions?
This time I intend to engage the ministers to debate on real issues. We are going to divide the agenda into sessions on each of the four subjects: Small Islands Developing States ( sids ), sustainable tourism, consumption and production patterns and ocean and seas. Half the time will be for speeches and the rest for non-prepared dialogue.

I am trying to convince people not to treat csd as a negotiating forum. The csd has no power to commit countries. We are not negotiating treaties here. We are only reviewing progress and making recommendations on how countries, regional groupings and the un system can do a better job. Its mandate is to only review progress. We want to be focused on action-oriented issues which we can recommend to other agencies so that they can translate them into action.

I believe bureaucracies must get aligned. One set of ministers and ministries, who are involved in csd consultations, may not be the same set of ministers who will attend a Food and Agricultural Organisation meeting. csd must not be a place where only environment or development ministers can meet. We must get other ministers to attend csd . Fisheries and tourism ministers should participate in this particular csd . In most countries, environment agencies are more often than not regulatory agencies. They are not involved at the grassroots level where developmental ministries are implementing policy decisions. I think that may happen this time.

csd can identify problems and offer solutions if possible. It will be up to the other agencies and organisations like the United Nations Environment Programme ( unep ) to do something about it. For example, there is a strong link between fishing stocks and tourism, because tourism is a major source of income in sids . The question is how to make this connection sustainable? One issue facing the sids is solid waste. Wherever there is tourism, supplies of packaged stuff increases.

Since there is no room for landfills, solid waste rapidly degrades the environment. The answer is to minimise waste. Someone has to work with the private sector and come up with practical solutions as to how tourism can flourish without damaging the environment. In my opinion, the conference would be useful if five or ten practical solutions are recommended and are directed to different agencies.

Isn't this very similar to what has happened before? Meetings were taken, yet few solutions were forthcoming.
You have to remember that at the end of the day, csd is only a review body. Many people believe csd has no value. My feeling is that it would be a pity not to have a forum like csd where the issues can be debated and brought to the fore. But you must understand that in the past, ministers read speeches and went home. Even if the conference was generating text, most ministers would not have known what was going to be passed. This time, I want ministers to take part in the debate.

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