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With much attention directed to the CSD’s five-year review in 1997, delegates and observers at CSD-4 embarked on a search for “key indicators” of the Commission’s future sustainability. Among these are renewed political will, enhanced coordination and effective implementation of Agenda 21. Delegates expressed hope that the coming year would prove productive in preparing for the Special Session of the General Assembly. In addition, delegates considered the agenda items for the CSD-4, with mixed reviews. The following analysis highlights aspects of the debates over the five-year review and the CSD-4 agenda, and concludes with some thoughts regarding generating greater political will for the implementation of Agenda 21.

REINVENTING THE CSD: The approach of CSD-5 and the Special Session of the General Assembly in 1997, marking the fifth anniversary of UNCED and an opportunity to review the work and role of the Commission, provided a backdrop to many of the discussions at CSD-4. Indeed some felt the emphasis on the future to some extent overshadowed the supposed focus on atmosphere and oceans issues. The Under-Secretary- General for Policy Coordination and Sustainable Development sought to raise delegates expectations for the future of the CSD when he addressed the review process at the opening Plenary, and signaled his priorities: a role for the CSD in filling the gaps in the UN system where no single institution currently has responsibility, e.g. fresh water and oceans; and the injection of an economic sectoral perspective into issues often viewed only as management or environmental problems. Other senior UN officials close to the workings of ECOSOC and other functional commissions also expressed a preference for a more focused approach by the CSD, with less emphasis on cross-cutting issues and more attention to core sustainability issues.

By contrast, more than one delegate suggested that the opportunity to discuss cross-sectoral issues not covered by legally-binding instruments is crucial to the post-UNCED process. These delegates were particularly enthused by the opportunity to bring new ideas into the UN system through the CSD, preferring this approach to debating draft decisions intended to encourage the Conferences of the Parties of legally-binding instruments to implement their own mandates. Amb. Tommy Koh (Singapore), at a panel discussion on the future of the CSD, criticized the Commission for not acting as a “human bridge” between the UN system and the real world. He called upon it to play a “catalytic role,” bringing together government, business and NGOs to work cooperatively towards sustainable development.

Preparations for the Special Session generated some enthusiasm among NGOs. They recognized that governments are in a quandary over the direction the CSD should follow, and seized upon the issue as one they could influence. One participant suggested that NGOs will “go where there is something to do,” and the future role of the CSD was that “place” for some NGOs. Whether they will sustain their interest in the CSD, however, remains to be seen. The same participant noted that NGOs have bought into the vision that they must give the process five years to see “whether something will happen.” If the five-year review does not reveal that the CSD has been able to generate enthusiasm for implementing Agenda 21, NGOs may well turn their attention elsewhere.

At the institutional level, some of the most important decisions affecting the future of the CSD will be made within the context of the ongoing UN review. For example, the ECOSOC review process is expected to produce a harmonization programme by the summer, with proposals for functional commissions touching on common themes to improve communication and management of input. Problems have arisen because functional commissions have tended to develop their territorial competence around the cross-cutting themes of UN conferences — but such themes, such as poverty, can result in duplicated effort and a lack of coordination. ECOSOC has been ceding authority to the functional commissions. In the words of one senior official, “We have multidimensional conferences imposed on a sectoral system.”

INNOVATION OR RENEGOTIATION? The depth and scope of the need for a critical assessment of the CSD’s performance to date was apparent at the closing panel discussion where CSD-2 Chair Klaus T�pfer (Germany) reflected a consensus view that much attention needs to be given to improved coordination, concentration and control within the UN framework. Four years into the work of the Commission, a clear consensus on its purpose has not emerged.

This was strikingly reflected in the hodgepodge of opinions expressed by delegates and observers in response to questions about the relative contribution of the drafting groups and the High-Level Segment to the process. Some discounted the work of the drafting groups entirely, calling it irrelevant to the implementation of numerous legally-binding instruments on environment and development. Others strongly defended the drafting group process, saying that decisions so generated provide global leadership for sustainable development. Most, however, seemed to agree that the High-Level Segment is useful, for it provides impetus to national decisions on policy making.

A similar mix of views exists on the question of the usefulness of intersessional meetings. While much of the text negotiated at this year’s Ad Hoc Working Group on Sectoral Issues was cast aside during the negotiating process at CSD-4, some felt the initial debate of the Working Group was essential for focusing discussions in national capitals prior to coming to CSD-4. Others strongly opposed the working group process, calling it a waste of time and money.

Rewriting and renegotiating text is a constant and perhaps inevitable part of the process. In the words of one European Union representative, it is “at the core of UN activity.” Several CSD-4 delegates, however, were startled by attempts to re-open issues within legally- binding agreements on climate change and depletion of fish stocks. Some NGOs expressed strong disappointment that an important opportunity to reinforce recent agreements had been lost. However, on a more telling note, many NGOs and delegates doubted the importance of that opportunity and pointed out that autonomous Conferences of the Parties to these conventions would be unlikely to note the CSD’s deliberations.

GENERATING POLITICAL WILL: If an informal consensus on the role of the Commission exists, it is as a forum for generating political will to implement Agenda 21. Enhancing political will and attention given to the issues will depend on a number of factors:

a) The extent to which the UN system provides the CSD with a more effective means of bypassing the “blanding machine effect” (Maurice Strong) the CSD currently has on the issues, attributable to some extent to the role of diplomatic culture. In this area, everyday standards of credibility are often suspended and pronouncements are subsequently met with skeptical responses — not the least by other governments and the public. One NGO observer captured popular perceptions when he observed that delegations to such fora as the CSD think twice before saying nothing.

b) The success of such fora as the CSD in providing an authentic role for NGOs and their constituencies, so that domestic political will is generated before and after reticent Governments address the largely normative agenda for sustainable development. NGOs have noted that all six UN working groups debating aspects of UN reform have closed their doors to NGO participants, demonstrating a lack of understanding of the need for public awareness and support regarding UN processes and decisions.

c) Improved communication and educational strategies to raise the visibility and understanding of issues and possible responses. These have been the subject of special panel discussions and initiatives are under way.

d) Finally, at all levels, sustainable development must break out of traditional environmental compartments in terms of decision-making structures and conceptual understanding. There is an urgent need for greater levels of engagement with Finance and Trade Ministries and, as discussed at some length at CSD-4, with some of the most powerful politico-economic players, namely the Bretton Woods institutions, the OECD, and other international financial institutions and corporations. Unless the CSD comes to grips with the forces of globalization, suspicion will grow that the UN intergovernmental process has become a protective shelter where governments need not confront the erosion of traditional notions of sovereignty resulting, in the words of British Environment Minister John Gummer, in decisions not read beyond a small circle of UN aficionados.

Over the next twelve months, the issues of environment and development are likely to receive some of the closest scrutiny since UNCED. This scrutinty will be due to the preparations to mark the fifth anniversary of the Earth Summit, and the ongoing UN review to address the integration of these issues into the UN system. The Commission, as a result, may receive more of the political attention and scrutiny for which it has called — and this may well be decisive in itself.

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