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A BRIEF ANALYSIS OF THE THIRD SESSION OF THE CSD

Nearly three years after the Earth Summit, and after three meetings of the Commission on Sustainable Development, it is worth stepping back and evaluating just what progress has been made since Rio and how effective the CSD has been in fulfilling its mandate to monitor implementation of the UNCED decisions.

EVALUATION OF THE IMPLEMENTATION OF AGENDA 21: The Earth Summit may have been such a historic and pivotal turning point, that it established a benchmark that may be unrealistic for the international community to match. Some suggest that expecting anything dramatic after only three years may be too much to hope for. What is becoming increasingly clear is the immense difficulties faced by governments in meeting their Rio commitments, especially in light of the political and economic conditions that have changed dramatically for so many governments since 1992.

The last three years have been marked by unfulfilled promises on many fronts. In certain areas, such as finance, there have actually been retreats from the Rio 'commitments' and the systematic unraveling of Agenda 21 language. Governments seem unable and unwilling to alter the very policies that are driving unsustainable development and that brought governments to Rio in the first place. Since these policies are not being changed, environmental degradation is actually increasing. This raises the question of how far the environment will be allowed to deteriorate before governments will actually take concrete action, assuming such action is feasible at all, given the limits imposed on State action by globalization processes.

This year, as in previous years, the CSD noted that although some progress has been made, until there is an increase in official development assistance and an improvement in the international economic climate, it will be difficult to translate the Rio commitments into action in many developing countries and countries with economies in transition. ODA levels have declined and the target of 0.7% of GNP for ODA remains a pipedream and a diversion from substantive discussion. While governments have argued that sustainable development can be funded by innovative economic instruments, debt reduction and swaps, and private investment, there has been more talk than action on this front. Likewise, while governments have been more willing to discuss changing production and consumption patterns and the relationship between trade and the environment, there is little concrete action to report. These issues constitute the key indicators of sustained political will.

Forests is another issue that has been the subject of more talk than action. While the dialogue on the sustainable management and conservation of the world's forests has made important strides over the past three years, there is little action to report. Nevertheless, the numerous intergovernmental initiatives on forests that have been held over the past two years have established a degree of trust between developed and developing countries that has laid the groundwork for the establishment of the Intergovernmental Panel on Forests. However, many complain that the establishment of this Panel may be too late. It will still be another two years before the Panel reports its finding to the CSD and this could provide governments with another excuse for inaction. Some sceptics will claim this is no accident. Likewise, the Panel is not a guaranteed solution to managing the world's forests. Some fear that politically divisive issues such as finance, technology transfer and farmers' rights could sidetrack the work of the Panel. Others are worried that trade in forest products will dominate the discussion. The top priorities of the Panel should be to examine the underlying causes of deforestation and how to address them and to complete an independent review of all forest-related institutions and instruments to determine what is missing and where there is overlap. Although governments have given strong support to the Panel, it will be up to the Panel members themselves to prioritize the mandate and produce concrete results.

Despite the setbacks, there has been some, albeit limited, progress during the last three years. The Convention to Combat Desertification was adopted in June 1994. The Convention's four pillars represent important breakthroughs: the bottom-up approach; improved coordination between donors, governments and affected countries; the integrated approach; and strengthened scientific efforts. The Conference on Straddling and Highly Migratory Fish Stocks and other work on the management of the world's living marine resources are making progress. The distressing reports of the dwindling state of the world's fish resources, the political dimensions and very real conflicts, have prompted more immediate governmental responses and important media attention than in other sectors. The International Coral Reef Initiative and the commitments made by countries in the Western Hemisphere at the Summit of the Americas to develop action plans to achieve a phase-out of the use of lead in gasoline are also positive developments.

Finally, as this session of the CSD clearly demonstrated, there is much progress on the implementation of Agenda 21 at the national and local levels. Indeed, some initiatives around local Agenda 21s are even serving as channels for the spectrum of UN Conferences such as the Fourth World Conference on Women. Many countries have established national councils for sustainable development. Agenda 21 is alive and well at the national and local levels. This was reflected by the the formal meetings on the presentations of national strategies for sustainable development and national experiences in integrated land management and sustainable agriculture, as well as in the numerous parallel workshops hosted by governments, local authorities and NGOs. It is interesting to note that while a few governments highlighted their need for financial support to implement some of their programmes, the usual rhetoric that developing countries cannot implement Agenda 21 without new and additional financial resources was absent.

EVALUATION OF THE WORK OF THE CSD: There is no question that the CSD has established itself as an essential part of the process for reviewing implementation of Agenda 21. Some have suggested that relative to other UN bodies, the CSD is a step above in terms of its 'lively, frank and substantive debate' and multi-media approach. In fact, this year the CSD made considerable progress by revising its format to encourage greater discussion and dialogue, rather than the traditional UN-style 'general debate.' In addition, unlike past years where the CSD appeared to be an intergovernmental forum for the review of UNCED implementation by UN agencies, this year the CSD dedicated two full days to the exchange of national and local experiences in the implementation of Agenda 21. Members of the Secretariat also expressed hope that in the future, there will be more representatives of major groups on government delegations to further enhance this exchange of experiences. Moreover, there was virtual agreement on the need to raise public awareness about the work of the CSD. Many felt that the CSD should be liberated from the hallowed halls of the UN and a broader discussion about the issues should be expressed in terms that are accessible to the general public.

The CSD has also proven to be a true catalyst for policy action in numerous areas. Among other things, the CSD has: motivated numerous government-sponsored meetings and workshops related to the implementation of Agenda 21; fostered coordination on sustainable development within the UN system; helped to defuse much of the resistance to national reporting that was evident in Rio; and galvanized NGO and major group activities and action aimed at sustainable development at the international, national and local levels.

But despite these gains, many who have followed the CSD from its inception still believe there is considerable room for improvement. The fact that the CSD, in its third year, is still undergoing a very difficult birth, reflects the general reticence on the part of governments to get down to the business of implementation and action. The CSD should be a walking, talking child, but it is barely crawling. How long will it take the CSD to learn how to walk? But then, even Albert Einstein did not even start talking until the age of four!!

One of the central problems with the CSD is that despite its mission to bring together governments, UN agencies, NGOs and other interested parties for a meaningful dialogue, many suggest that real dialogue is still missing. While the panel discussions were aimed at encouraging dialogue, the presentations were often lengthy or disjointed, leaving little time for a comprehensive discussion. Once again, the High- Level Segment was more of a forum for speech-making rather than dialogue. Although there were representatives from development, agriculture, forest and other ministries in attendance, the majority were still from environment ministries. Few ministers commented on each other's statements and the vast majority relied on previously prepared speeches. The most passionate and pointed statements, however, were from those ministers who spoke 'off the cuff,' such as Denmark's Svend Auken, Canada's Sheila Copps, the UK's John Gummer and the Netherlands' Jan Pronk. It is refreshening to note that Conference Room 1 was silent during these statements, whereas at most other times the background conversations often drowned out the speaker.

The CSD has also given insufficient attention to the key linkages between environment and development issues. Like UNCED before it, the CSD has not been able to 'de- sectoralize' environment and development. The chapters of Agenda 21 and the multi- year thematic programme of work serve to maintain the divisions between sectors and have not been able to facilitate substantive discussion on the linkages between different issues, such as the relationship between agriculture, deforestation, desertification, poverty, trade policies and debt. Likewise, the broad clusters in the programme of work have prevented any real substantive discussion on the issues.

Although, the CSD is taxed with a number of problems, this does not mean that NGOs or governments are prepared to abandon the process, despite a few rumblings in the corridors. The challenge ahead is for those governments who are truly committed to the process to mobilize and invest the time and energy needed to rekindle the political momentum that is in danger of being lost. The CSD must find ways to spotlight and reward those who blaze the trail.

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