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MEA Bulletin

Guest Article

6 March 2007


By Jerry Velasquez*

Full article

In the negotiations leading to the International Environmental Governance (IEG) process, some delegates voiced concern about the difficulty of implementing the IEG clustering idea at the national level, given that each Multilateral Environmental Agreement (MEA) may be managed by a different ministry. Some delegates also advocated a selective approach to MEA clustering, given the diverse nature of the agreements.

Recently however, as many developing countries have transitioned from environment and science to purely environment ministries, international institutions are receiving more requests for assistance in determining the benefits of clustering MEA focal points at the national level. Meanwhile, the 2005 World Summit Outcome stressed the need for a “more coherent institutional framework” in the field of environmental governance, including at the national level. In addition, the recommendations by the UN Reform and the UN Coherence Panels for integrating the environment into development and the need for coherence in implementation is further shifting the focus to operations and institutional coherence at the national level.

This means that the question now for many is not why we should pursue clustering, but how best should this be pursued.

Although there have been numerous examples of MEA clustering at the implementation level that show immediate win-win benefits1, some experts warn2 that clustering of functions alone would not be sufficient to strengthen coordination of the international environmental governance system. 

This would mean that a closer look at institutional clustering is necessary as part of the ongoing reform process within the UN.

Global Level Clustering

One clustering pilot launched through the IEG process is the global chemicals cluster, which includes the Basel, Stockholm and Rotterdam Conventions. Although implementation or functional level work for this cluster has been generally recognized and encouraged3, it is the institutional or administrative clustering approach where considerable debate still exists. At present, many countries have serious concerns about establishing a common secretariat for the three Conventions, based on the fear that specific issues, such as non-chemical wastes, could get lost in a broader, more general secretariat. Other countries generally support a joint secretariat head as a means to achieve financial savings and greater synergies, while still others are concerned that a full merger of the secretariats of the three conventions would create legal and political problems, in particular at the national level. This is because chemicals and wastes are still often dealt with separately – for reasons of differences of the maturity of the Conventions, scope of work, and variations of available funding from sources such as the GEF. This means that the challenge is to come up with a structure for the three convention secretariats that will reap the benefits of collaboration while avoiding the drawbacks of legal confusion and loss of focus4.

This issue was highlighted during the Fifth session of the Open-ended Working Group of the Basel Convention (OEWG5), where the African group expressed its strong opposition to finding synergies between the activities of the three conventions’ secretariats, with one delegate stating that “Basel is being weakened and subjected to a marriage that is going to kill the Convention.” Fortunately, this has not led to the creation of a “bad taste” for synergies among Parties, and on the contrary, the COPs of the three Conventions recently decided to convene an Ad Hoc Joint Working Group on Synergies, which will initially meet in March 2007 in Helsinki, Finland, to discuss both programmatic and administrative synergies.

National Level Clustering

There have been many initiatives at the national level with components5 attempting to either study or promote national clusters to assist MEA implementation. One interesting lesson learned from these initiatives, in particular from work done by the United Nations University, is the finding that, unlike sectoral institutional committees or groups, the creation of cross-sectoral MEA bodies does not necessarily point to better coordination.

For example6, Palau created the Office of Environmental Response and Coordination (OERC), under the President’s office, initially to assume coordination related to atmosphere-related MEAs, but later on to oversee other MEAs as well. The Cook Islands adapted this set-up and created an International Environmental Advisory Unit (IEAU) to coordinate the negotiation and implementation of all MEAs. However, procedures for consultation with regard to the negotiation and ratification of MEAs were not formalized between the IEAU and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) and Immigration, which traditionally oversees the negotiation of MEAs, leading to differing views and positions between the IEAU and the MFA on a number of MEA issues.

Organizing MEA focal points under one roof can also be labor-intensive and require resources beyond the capacity of certain ministries. For example7, in Thailand, the National Environment Board (NEB) previously had 42 subcommittees created to oversee the implementation of MEAs and other environmental policies. This often requires support that exceeds the capacity of the office’s resources. A similar problem arose in Malaysia, when the secretariat and focal point for the National Climate Committee was transferred from the Conservation and Environmental Management Division (CEMD) of the Ministry of Science, Technology and Environment (MOSTE) to the Malaysian Meteorological Service (MMS), because the Division lacked professional staff to oversee national coordination.

Another example8 is the Philippines, where the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) formulates the government position and ensures participation in various UN and intergovernmental bodies. Most inter-agency MEA committees report back to the National Council for Sustainable Development (NCSD), and are chaired by the Planning Secretary. Although coordination structures exist at the implementation level through the NCSD and within the DFA with the establishment of the “Cabinet Cluster to Promote Coordination on International Relations”, some stakeholders have noted that there is not enough interaction with the functional ministries that work on the issues discussed in intergovernmental meetings.

One Size Does Not Fit All

The global clustering pilot on chemicals and waste is one that is of interest to many stakeholders, in particular as it can have an effect on ongoing discussions on coherence and reform in the UN.

The Palau and Cook Islands case tell us that cross-sectoral institutional set-ups, if not properly backed at the systemic level, will not be effective. Palau with an environmentally minded President created an informal structure where coordination can exist among stakeholders. Without both this informal mechanism and a formal institutional structure, the Cook Islands’ experience led to difficulties in coordination. The Thailand and Malaysian cases demonstrate that a drawback of concentrating focal points of various MEAs in one agency is that the appropriate technical capacity for a specific agreement may be located in another ministry or agency. In such cases, efforts to centralize national focal points under one administrative division would not necessarily produce effective and efficient results. The Philippine case shows that there are many levels of coordination, including horizontal (among government line departments), vertical (between the central, provincial and local) and phases of MEA management.

1 For example, since 2001, UNEP has pioneered the Green Customs concept. This project strengthens the compliance and enforcement of MEAs, and focuses on capacity building for national customs officials on “environmentally sensitive commodities” such as Ozone Depleting Substances (ODS), toxic chemicals, hazardous wastes and endangered species. This initiative is supported by the World Customs Organization, Interpol, CITES, the Basel Convention, the OzonAction Programme, the Ozone Secretariat, UNEP as well as Rotterdam (PIC) and Stockholm (POPs) Conventions.

2 Expert consultations on International Environmental Governance, 28-29 May 2001, Cambridge, UK (see http://enb.iisd.org/crs/ieg/ for more information).

3 Including encouragement to continue functional clustering work by the UN Coherence Panel report, “Delivering As One,” 2006 (http://www.un.org/events/panel/resources/pdfs/HLP-SWC-FinalReport.pdf).

4 Internal UNEP Memorandum, August 2006

5 For example, projects that include the study or the creation of cross-sectoral MEA committees, including the GEF funded National Capacity Self Assessment, which focuses on the three Rio Agreements.

6 Velasquez, et al, Pacific Islands Case Study on Inter-linkages, United Nations University, 2002 (http://www.unu.edu/inter-linkages/docs/Policy/04_PIC.pdf).

7 Boyer, Velasquez, Piest. Inter-linkages: National and Regional Approaches in Asia and the Pacific, United Nations University, 2002 (http://www.unu.edu/WSSD/files/docs/update.unu.edu/downloads/RN_Report.pdf).

8 Ibid.

*Jerry Velasquez works for the UN. These are his personal views.

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