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In reflecting on the complexity of the three weeks of CSD-5, it may be useful to recall the mandate delineated by the General Assembly for CSD-5 and the Special Session: “discussions at both the preparatory meetings and the Special Session should focus on the fulfillment of commitments and the further implementation of Agenda 21 and related post-Conference outcomes.” Did CSD-5 make any progress toward completing this mandate? On the opening day of CSD-5, delegates were given a useful set of criteria by which to measure the success of the session. Joke Waller-Hunter, Director of the Division for Sustainable Development, pointed out that CSD-5 was, in essence, a PrepCom for the Special Session and would to a large extent determine its outcome and success. She presented three criteria in a set of questions: does the assessment reflect the urgency of the situation; is the assessment followed by a unequivocal commitment to concrete action; and have partnerships been acknowledged, renewed and strengthened? Some answers to these questions emerge below.

COMMITMENT TO ACTION: From the beginning of the preparatory process for the Special Session, delegates heard repeated calls for the CSD to establish targets and timetables in order to elevate the process toward sustainable development to a higher level. In the Intersessional Working Group, Mostafa Tolba called for a number of measurable targets, such as a 10% increase in alternative energy source investments over ten years, stressing that setting concrete goals is the way to move beyond rhetoric to action and provide a baseline against which progress toward the goals agreed at Rio can be better assessed in future reviews of implementation. A number of delegations called for specific targets and timetables at CSD-5 as well, such as Iceland’s call for a 50% reduction of fishing subsidies by 2002 and the US’ call for phasing out lead in gasoline within ten years. However, few if any targets remain in the text. Delegates and NGOs alike have expressed frustration at this apparent lack of political will to move forward and rue that this does not bode well for the “special-ness” of the Special Session or hopes that it would reinvigorate commitments to operationalize sustainable development.

Targets aside, a number of concrete action plans were tabled at CSD-5. Three EU initiatives, on freshwater, eco-efficiency and energy, were announced during the High- Level Segment and elaborated upon during the subsequent weeks. Some expressed an interest in their further elaboration prior to UNGASS, which will be necessary if the latter two initiatives, which are currently bracketed, are to survive in the text. It is promising that the forward-looking freshwater initiative emerged bracket-free.

The existing target of 0.7% of GNP for ODA was of special interest for many. Developing countries and NGOs especially sought a reaffirmation of commitment on financial issues. They were disappointed as the related discussion was one of the most polarized debates since Rio. Developing countries called for renewed donor commitment and objected to policy reforms that appeared to be recommended for developing countries only or would create conditionalities for assistance. The EU distinguished between UNCED “commitments” and “objectives,” while the US stressed domestic resource mobilization and private sector resources. The result seemed to be a narrowing of the interpretation of Agenda 21 rather than its reaffirmation.

One delegate noted that this debate is taking place during a critical point in the post-Cold War discussion regarding multilateralism. Prior motives driving development assistance have disappeared and the developed world is reevaluating the role of ODA specifically, and more generally its desire to remain engaged globally. Many expressed concern regarding the future that the CSD’s debates portend. The same delegate noted that while multilateralism is contagious, so is unilateralism. The amendments that donor countries added, calling for “equitable burden sharing,” point to a decreased willingness of Northern States to play the “godfather,” championing the CSD’s objectives and encouraging others to follow. The Northern retreat has been perceived in other UN fora as well, engendering concern among developing countries that the burden for multilateralism is shifting towards them.

NORTH-SOUTH SCHISM: Ambassador Razali Ismail, President of the General Assembly, told UNEP’s High-Level Segment in February, “Agenda 21 and the CSD will only bring about sustainable, equitable and ecologically sound development if we can break out of the North-South schism...the real political challenge is to reshape North- South relations.” The negotiations on finance during CSD-5 suggest that States are not only failing to break out of the North-South schism but that the schism is increasingly polluting the UN’s response to sustainable development with suspicion. For developing countries the decline in ODA since 1992, and attempts during CSD-5 to switch the burden of international funding for sustainable development to private sector investment, which developed countries would argue is a case of acknowledging actuality, have helped to discredit the very concept of “sustainable development.”

An illustration of the unraveling of the UNCED agenda, under the pressure of competing priorities and interpretations, was the debate on the cardinal principle of “common but differentiated responsibilities” (Principle 7 of the Rio Declaration). The US, Canada and the EU view this principle in the context of global environmental responsibilities. The G- 77/China tried, unsuccessfully, to incorporate it into a paragraph on fostering a dynamic and enabling international economic environment for sustainable development. The exchanges demonstrated just how far apart (at least rhetorically: a senior European commentator ventured to suggest that part of the problem is that the G-77 no longer exists in reality outside the UN) the so-called parties to the Rio global compact can be when it comes to interpreting the core elements of the UNCED agreements. The fragility even threatens the integrity and use of the concept of “sustainable development” itself. During negotiations on finance, one delegate resorted to warning his fellow negotiators that they should not begin to treat sustainable development as a pariah concept. He was responding to repeated attempts to accompany, qualify or replace references to sustainable development with a reference to each of its three components — economic growth, social development and environmental protection. The Chair, in a frank explanation of a phenomenon that often goes unstated, explained that developing countries fear that sustainable development has become, in the mouths of developed country advocates, a code for environmental protection while the social and economic dimensions are under- valued. An experienced European participant conceded later that five years after Rio the words “sustainable development” were not so acceptable. This is a major step backwards.

A number of industrialized countries questioned the validity of a reference to the widening gap between developed and developing countries and would concede only to single out the least developed countries. One observer noted that developing countries at the CSD, by maintaining alliance despite their diversity, often seem to take “helpless” negotiating stances reminiscent of their position in the 1970’s. A contemporary developing country finance minister, another observer noted, would not likely take this position that denies the importance of infrastructure for investment. To genuinely move the concept of sustainable development from the margins to the center will require that the negotiating positions on all sides more accurately mirror economic realities and the ensuing changes in needs and responsibilities that are taking place in the real world.

PARTNERSHIPS: The question of acknowledgement, renewal and strengthening of partnerships extends to a number of actors and issues. Partnerships with major groups received a significant amount of attention at CSD-5. One tangible development since UNCED has been the considerable growth of partnerships in and among the major groups and the resulting improvement in their organization, communication and activities. During the dialogue sessions, panelists supplied a catalogue of activities and voiced a number of concise and specific recommendations for action. Discussants at the dialogue with local authorities noted that in 1995 they were struggling for recognition of their role in sustainable development. They are now discussing obstacles to implementation of over 1800 Local Agenda 21s in 64 countries. Major groups also reported accomplishments ranging from establishing networks, strategies for gaining credit, conducting studies and educational efforts and mobilizing members. All groups noted a heightened awareness of sustainable development issues among their members and some noted increased partnerships among major groups. The partnerships between these major groups and CSD delegates, however, continue to leave something to be desired.

While major groups have gained an increasingly high profile in the CSD as partners in sustainable development, some were left with the impression that major groups were talking among themselves and not making a real impact on the negotiating process. While major groups were allotted an unprecedented amount of space and time within the official CSD session with the innovation of the dialogue sessions, there was little genuine dialogue. Few delegates even attended the dialogues, in part, because they were scheduled in parallel to the official negotiations. The recommendations emanating from the dialogues came too late to be included in the “critical” compilation negotiating text.

Some observers, including major group representatives themselves, have pinpointed some of these problems. For instance, it has been noted that major groups often expend a great deal of time and energy drafting their own alternative declarations rather than drafting amendments to the text under negotiation and lobbying delegations to take these on board. One method for developing the vital relationship between the CSD’s agenda- setting role and civil society’s contribution to operationalizing sustainable development was proposed by a group of Canadian NGOs. This proposal, which found its way — after some diversions and alterations — into the agreed text on CSD Methods of Work, is based on the idea of extending the task manager system to the world at large. In other words, major groups would be invited to “adopt arrangements for coordination and interaction in providing inputs to the Commission.” The idea presents a major organizational challenge to NGOs and other major groups.

CONCLUSION: The sense of urgency at CSD-5 was best measured in quantities of frustration at the pace and progress of the negotiations. As Amb. Razali noted during the High-Level Segment, the compact at Rio has eroded along with much of the high- profile attention to sustainable development generated by the Earth Summit itself. The most promising results of Rio are taking place at anonymous and local meetings around the world — anonymous but keenly monitored and cited as proof that Agenda 21 is alive and well by officials at the UN Division for Sustainable Development. One observer recalled that, in 1992, one could scarcely escape the news of UNCED and/or the environment in the media. This is not the case today. In international relations, perceptions are everything, and if UNGASS is ultimately billed as a non-event it will not bode well for the future of sustainable development or the UN in general during this critical time in its reform. The most that can be expected, in terms of urgency perhaps, is that the Special Session will not permanently damage the historic accomplishment of UNCED itself.

On the final day of CSD-5, a UN official privately recalled a Bee Gees song that sums up a process that has generated over 400 pages of negotiated text since 1993: “It’s only words...” And words they will remain until one more official translation becomes embedded in the business of the CSD: the translation of words into action. The most valuable role for the Special Session will be to critically reflect on Waller-Hunter’s criteria for success and deliver a renewed political mandate to translate popular concern into urgent and concrete instructions to politicians, translate the information-rich assessments into unequivocal action plans, and translate illusions of top-down sovereign authority and competence into partnerships that span a globalizing world.

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