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The negotiation of a multilateral environmental agreement by its very nature is not a speedy process. It can take years from the time an issue, such as desertification, first comes to the attention of the international community to the decision to negotiate an international treaty. For example, the INCD can trace its origins back to the 1977 Plan of Action -- 15 years before the General Assembly adopted resolution 47/188, establishing the INCD. Once negotiations actually begin, it takes an average of 18 months before the treaty is adopted and opened for signature. Finally, it takes an average of 31 months before the treaty is ratified and enters into force. With this in mind, the 13 months of INCD negotiations, as mandated by the General Assembly, represents a fairly short period of time. In fact, when compared to other examples of multilateral environmental negotiation, the INCD is actually making good progress.

The first phase of the INCD negotiating process took place at the first session in Nairobi during the information sharing segment. During this initial phase delegates identified the scope and magnitude of the problem, its primary causes and the type of international action required to address it. This phase also provided delegates with a shared body of knowledge. The second phase of the process began during the second week in Nairobi and continued through the Geneva session in September 1993. During this phase, the delegates explored various alternative proposals and attempted to reach some tentative, conditional understandings on some of the issues. This was also the phase where coalitions and groups started to coalesce as delegates started to determine shared priorities. During this phase, the INCD took one crucial decision -- to request the Secretariat to prepare the negotiating text. With this decision the INCD managed to circumvent the debate that characterizes so many other negotiations -- the choice of text to be used as a basis for negotiation. As a result, delegates were able to spend more time on the actual substantive discussions at the third session.

In New York, the third phase of the negotiating process began -- drafting. During this phase, delegates focused on the actual drafting and negotiation of the draft Desertification Convention. Delegates arrived in New York well-prepared and committed to the task of elaborating the Convention. On some issues, there was clearly a shift in thinking as delegates stopped making general statements and began to explore the positions of other regional and interest groups in an effort to achieve consensus. As a result, a great deal of progress was made during the first reading of the draft text with much greater clarity regarding the areas of convergence and divergence. It was also clear that delegates are committed to the bottom-up, demand-driven approach that had been agreed to in principle early on in the process. This involves consideration of local needs and problems with mechanisms that have been developed with the participation of affected populations.

Good progress, however, does not necessarily guarantee a strong, effective, action-oriented convention. Will delegates in their efforts to reach consensus, water down certain provisions to the point of uselessness? There is some concern that the delegates can no longer "see the forest for the trees," or, perhaps using more appropriate terminology, "they cannot see the desert for the dunes." During the two-week bracketing exercise, there appeared to be greater focus on detailed drafting rather than attention on some of the larger, core issues that affect the entire Convention. Until agreement can be reached on these core issues, the Convention could fail to fulfill its mandate -- combatting desertification in those countries experiencing serious drought and/or desertification, particularly in Africa. [Return to start of article]