The second meeting of the Subsidiary Body on Scientific, Technical and Technological Advice (SBSTTA) to the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) was punctuated by reminders from Chair Peter Johan Schei (Norway) that the subsidiary body is neither a mini-Conference of the Parties nor a drafting group. Indeed he tied the scientific and technical credibility of the body to its ability to maintain a knowledge-based approach consistent with its policy advisory role. By the end of the week, however, it appeared as though he was not entirely satisfied that the SBSTTA had kept to its scientific and technical policy advisory mandate.
SBSTTAS IDENTITY CRISIS: The divergence between the SBSTTAs mandate and its practice has also preoccupied the SBSTTA Bureau where the dilemma has been characterized as an identity crisis. Explanations include the intergovernmental nature of the meetings, where delegates inevitably arrive with national priorities in mind and are often the same personnel who attend the Conference of the Parties (COP), thus contributing to the blurring of the gray zone between science, policy advice and politics. An observer suggested that there is a mismatch between the nature of SBSTTA and its mandate. He suggested establishment of a standing body to deal with scientific input, perhaps attached to the Secretariat and drawing on the clearing-house mechanism (CHM) to facilitate communication and exchange.
The latest thinking on the subject at the Bureau level, according to some delegates, is that the problem lies with the COP because it has not provided sufficiently clear or specific instructions on what exactly the SBSTTA should be covering in its work programme. Only the COP has the authority to rationalize the SBSTTAs work. This is expected to be the subject of further discussion at COP-3, and there is hope that the extent of the institutional gridlock facing SBSTTA has been driven home by the experience at this session.
Asked whether the Bureau of the COP may have to consider a mechanism for scientific input that is closer to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which feeds into the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change process, the SBSTTA Chair suggested that it was too early to judge. More experience with the current CBD arrangements is required. A final decision will depend on how successfully SBSTTA can develop intersessional mechanisms to produce papers and integrate scientific inputs, and to relieve the Secretariat of much of this onerous burden.
THE ROLE OF SCIENCE IN THE SBSTTA PROCESS: A common theme heard throughout the week was the relatively small percentage of scientists on delegations participating in the work of the SBSTTA. Privately, several delegates admitted that they were not familiar with many of the technical issues discussed at SBSTTA-2. For many, ironically, the SBSTTA, which is supposed to be a body of scientific and technological experts, serves as a learning forum on the very issues these experts have come to give advice.
COP-3s treatment of the SBSTTAs recommendations will provide an opportunity to evaluate the influence of scientists who have already been involved in the process. Again, by analogy to the Climate Change Convention, the function of the IPCC, an internationally accepted body of scientific experts, is to provide authoritative and peer-reviewed information to back up political decisions taken by the Climate Change Conventions COP. The SBSTTA does not have input from a scientific mechanism that enjoys similar status to that of the IPCC. As observers have pointed out, the CBD process is in need of such scientific authority.
Look for a peer-review mechanism to be developed under the CBD.
CONCLUSION: Despite the criticism, some delegates expressed their satisfaction that progress has been made on technical issues in several areas, including the clearing- house mechanism, capacity building on biosafety and taxonomy. The development of clearer guidelines on the clearing-house mechanism as the infrastructure for information storage and dissemination was considered particularly important. Additionally, certain recommendations regarding practical approaches for capacity building in taxonomy actually reached the level of specifics. For example, the long-debated and finally accepted paragraph advocates material transfer agreements (a specialized kind of contract defining the use to which biological samples can be put) for transfer of biological specimens for taxonomic research.
Nevertheless, the process continues to advance slowly. Referring to over-sensitivity to language, one delegate expressed his frustration with the slow progress by calling these negotiations a battle over semicolons. The crowded agenda at this years meeting did not help matters. Many delegates at SBSTTA-2 expressed frustration with their inability to get down to specific technical details in the working groups. Increased use of working groups and liaison groups were suggested to speed up the process. In addition to the call for more focused background papers prepared by the Secretariat, a number of delegates suggested privately that a series of case studies presented by Parties during future SBSTTA meetings might help ground the discussion in real world examples. If COP-3 exercises restraint in setting the SBSTTAs 1997 agenda, as recommended at SBSTTA-2, Parties may gain the focus needed to get down to the real business of implementing the Convention on Biological Diversity.
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