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A BRIEF ANALYSIS OF THE PREPCOM

The outcome of the Global Conference on the Sustainable Development of Small Island Developing States, along with the implementation of Agenda 21 as a whole, is being held hostage to the inability of the UN system and its member States to adapt to new global realities. After 20 years of gamesmanship and rhetoric on environment and development, heads of State finally agreed to an action plan -- Agenda 21 -- in Rio last year. The UN system, however, is not set up to execute it. This two-week PrepCom demonstrated this weakness at all levels -- inter-agency, Secretariat, and intergovernmental.

At the inter-agency level, this PrepCom highlighted a number of areas where the UN agencies are still unable to adjust their focus and adapt their thinking to the increased level of cooperation and coordination that is necessary to implement Agenda 21. For example, document A/CONF. 167PC/6 was supposed to provide a summary of UN agency activities related to the sustainable development of small island developing States (SIDS). However, much of the information in the document was criticized as being too general, not sufficiently specific to SIDS and not inclusive of all UN agencies. In its introduction to the document, the Secretariat pointed out that although they tried to include reports from all agencies in the document, not all agencies contributed. Agency representatives pointed out that it would be impossible to include all the information from all agencies when many of their programmes are not SIDS specific, but many have an applicable component.

There was also a display of the all too familiar rivalry between different agencies, UN bodies and Regional Commissions over who should show leadership in what areas. Most UN agencies are now reviewing their projects and programmes to bring them in compliance with the relevant programme areas of Agenda 21. Furthermore, Agenda 21's call for increased coordination and cooperation between UN agencies is gradually being implemented within the framework of the Inter-Agency Committee on Sustainable Development (IACSD). What many agencies are finding, however, is that old bureaucracies and practices are proving to be difficult to overcome. New ideas and approaches are having a hard time penetrating the status quo. Without greater creativity and innovation on the part of the agencies, the UN system will never be effective in the implementation of Agenda 21 or the sustainable development of SIDS.

At the Secretariat level, the SIDS Conference and this PrepCom appeared to be lost in the shuffle of reorganization, budget constraints and countless other demands on the UN system. Until only a few months ago, the Secretariat for this Conference only had one full-time member. The poor quality of the documentation for this PrepCom, the lack of Secretariat guidance throughout the process, and the limited resources, especially for public information and other activities aimed at increasing the visibility of this Conference, illustrates this problem. The Department of Policy Coordination and Sustainable Development (DPCSD), which includes the Secretariat for this Conference, was only created last December and has been given far more responsibilities than its limited staff and budgetary resources can adequately handle. Eventually, the creation of the DPCSD should allow the UN a more flexible and integrated response to the implementation of Agenda 21. Yet its present state of disarray had an effect on this PrepCom.

Problems with conference services led to the loss of at least 25 percent of available negotiating time. Only one week before the PrepCom began, UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali announced a wide range of cost-cutting measures, including the elimination of evening, weekend and holiday meetings. As a result, the PrepCom was not able to meet on Monday, 6 September (a US holiday) and was unable to have interpretation and other services provided at evening sessions. The lack of available rooms and other miscommunications also cut down the amount of negotiating time. As long as it is given low priority by the UN Secretariat, this Conference will continue to lack adequate infrastructure, substance and public relations.

Perhaps the PrepCom suffered the most at the intergovernmental level, where a series of missed opportunities left delegates and observers alike with a sense of frustration. The Association of Small Island States (AOSIS) missed a number of opportunities to advance its cause. This group of 41 small island developing States was originally formed to galvanize support for small islands faced by the dangers of climate change and sea-level rise. AOSIS proved to be an effective pressure group during the climate change negotiations as well as during the UNCED preparatory process. In fact, AOSIS was responsible for the programme area on small island States, Chapter 17(G) of Agenda 21, which includes the call to convene this Conference. Furthermore, AOSIS largely drafted the resolution establishing the Conference. However, at the PrepCom, like so many other country groups in history, AOSIS found that while it could be united on a single issue, there were many more issues that divided it. As a result, AOSIS had a great deal of difficulty developing a common position with so many disparate members. AOSIS members are at varying stages of development, with different types of environmental problems, different degrees of remoteness and vulnerability to external forces, different amounts of natural and human resources, different regional perspectives and cultural attitudes. Many AOSIS members were new to the UN and multilateral negotiations, in particular the way in which groups function at UN Headquarters in New York. Quite often the priorities of the Pacific SIDS did not match those of the Caribbean SIDS that in turn, did not match those of the Indian Ocean, Atlantic Ocean and Mediterranean SIDS. As a result, the preparation of the draft elements to be included in a programme of action proved to be quite a formidable task.

When the PrepCom began, developed country delegates and groups, the Chair and the rest of the G-77 allowed AOSIS to take the lead. During the first few days of the Conference, AOSIS members worked hard behind the scenes to develop the draft elements for a Programme of Action from a synthesis of the reports of the regional technical meetings, although it had been expected that this draft would have been prepared in advance of the PrepCom. Nearly four days of negotiating time were lost, however, as it took AOSIS longer than anticipated to reach agreement on the text. Perhaps, it was a mistake to draft the paper as an Agenda 21 for SIDS rather than focus on some critical issues. Part of this delay was due to the fact that according to UN procedure, the G-77 had to endorse the AOSIS text before it could be submitted to the Committee, since AOSIS is not a group recognized by the UN. Also, with the majority of AOSIS members also members of G-77, it is at present inconceivable that G-77 would allow a sub-group to forward positions on their own. It was not until mid-way through the second week of the PrepCom that the G-77 agreed to allow the Chair of AOSIS to also speak on behalf of the G-77, thus eliminating one step in the process. There was a certain degree of tension between AOSIS and G-77 due to the poor attendance of continental countries at the PrepCom. The higher priority given to the Conference by all governments will help to secure its success, not least by forcing the Secretariat to accord it more priority.

AOSIS's leading role started to diminish as the second week began. The previous Friday, non-G-77 delegates made their preliminary comments on the AOSIS/G-77 draft text and AOSIS announced that they would redraft the text based on these comments. However, AOSIS did not work over the long weekend and it was not until Tuesday that redrafting began. As a result, consideration of the revised text could not take place until Wednesday evening (after the text was redrafted, the G-77 approved it and non-G-77 delegates had the opportunity to look at it). Still the text failed to incorporate many of the comments made in the first reading by non-G-77 delegations. The loss of practically two days of negotiating time forced the Chair to step in and exercise greater control over the process in order to maintain momentum. Many AOSIS delegates were not pleased with this turn of events and went so far as to complain that the process, which had been taken away from them, was moving too fast. Yet, with only two more days left in the PrepCom the Chair rightly felt that she had no choice, but to try to keep the negotiations moving forward.

Frustration with the process continued to mount during the two nights and one day of informal negotiations as old UNCED tensions started to resurface, particularly during the discussions on financial resources and technology transfer in Chapter 15. AOSIS introduced Chapter 15, dealing with means of implementation, at the end of the first week. AOSIS had deliberately introduced the action points (Chapters 1-14) separately from the means of implementation, but it is questionable whether introducing Chapter 15 so late in the process worked to their advantage. Chapter 15 was also undermined by the lack of balance between the three points of the triangle, national, regional and international action. In fact, there had been discussion within AOSIS on whether national action should be mentioned at all in this chapter. During the initial discussions, even the use of agreed language from Chapter 33 of Agenda 21 proved to be controversial, as two donors made it clear that they would not provide any new and additional financial resources. Although most of the donor countries entered into these negotiations with an open mind, they were frustrated by the drafting of Chapter 15 which put all emphasis on the international community.

The last day of the PrepCom brought a procedural issue, which had been simmering throughout the meeting, to a boil -- the possibility of a second session of the PrepCom. Although the resolution establishing this Conference only made provision for one PrepCom, from the very beginning some AOSIS countries based their strategy on the assumption that there would be another session. Informally, the Secretariat also indicated that this was envisaged, although the Chair had not. A number of UN agencies were also under the impression that there would be a second PrepCom. The Chair and many of the donor countries took the position that one PrepCom would be sufficient and any unfinished business could be completed in Barbados during the Conference. For two weeks rumors flew and finally, on the last day, the issue of a second PrepCom was formally discussed. Delegates remained as divided as ever and, finally, the Chair suggested that the PrepCom request the General Assembly to consider continuing the preparatory work, which would include the option of holding a second PrepCom. Had this not been an issue, it is possible that the Committee would have completed more work. Yet, with the knowledge that another PrepCom was there for the asking, AOSIS delegates were able to move at a slower pace and postpone resolution of some of the more difficult issues, particularly the means of implementation. It is not clear, however, if any of these issues, especially implementation, will be able to be resolved to everyone's satisfaction even if there is a second PrepCom. It was a high stakes gamble by AOSIS and will remain so until the General Assembly makes its decision. Clearly, AOSIS does not want to go to Barbados with Chapter 15 unresolved, thus giving donor countries the chance to hold the success of the Conference hostage. Yet, this will be the case if the General Assembly does not approve a second PrepCom.

Few delegates and observers were completely satisfied when the PrepCom adjourned Friday evening. Although much work was accomplished, especially with regard to Chapters 1-14, there was still a sense that this process was not going to result in an adequate Programme of Action for the implementation of Agenda 21 in small island developing States. Perhaps another intergovernmental conference is not the answer. But until the international community in general and the UN in particular is able to develop a new method for addressing issues on environment and development, Agenda 21 implementation will continue to be more rhetoric than action.

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