Dont Water Down the Message
UN Special: Sustainable development what is the UNECE doing about it ?
Traditionally we have worked mainly on environmental issues through international environmental legislation and environmental performance reviews, on environmental strategies under the Environment for Europe process and on cross-sectoral approaches, for instance transport and the environment. For the past three years we have been taking a broader view, including social and economic problems related to the environment, energy and its impact on the economic development and so on.
In the 1987 Report
the notion of sustainable development was related mainly to the environment.
Now more issues are being added. What do you think of this ?
This evolution, which brings the social and the economic aspects of sustainable development to the fore, is a logical one. Of course there is a risk of watering it down. One of the things that are crucial for the whole concept is ownership. Our constituency, whether among NGOs or the international community, which takes sustainable development to heart, has so far been overwhelmingly environmental. If we want to look for a broader constituency, we would broaden the concept. But if we dont find a new constituency and lose part of the old one, we would be back to square one.
Are you in favour of setting
up a Ministry for Sustainable Development ?
It depends on the governments structure. Having a Ministry of Sustainable Development alongside other ministries will not change much. The only way to move things forward and to change things on the ground is for such a Ministry to have strong political backing. It needs to have the Prime Minister behind it.
is the role of the UN regional commissions, such as UNECE, in the preparation
of world events like the upcoming Summit in Johannesburg ?
The UNECE and the other regional commissions held preparatory regional meetings for the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg. We have gained considerable recognition for our work from Headquarters. Our advantage, for instance in the UNECE region, is that we are close to the situation on the ground. We, therefore, have a more realistic approach. Personally I think it would be good to give greater authority to the regional commissions so that they can make an even bigger contribution to sustainable development in their regions. The regional commissions are ideally placed to fulfil this task.
From a substantive
point of view, what do you expect from Johannesburg ?
My biggest fear is that on a political level any new commitments will be limited. I believe that the political climate was more proactive at Rio and even during Rio + 5. However, what we can do is use the messages from Rio and Johannesburg and make them clearer to decision makers and the public at large. The message is crucial and should focus on implementation at local and regional levels. The role of the regional commissions is to support countries that face social and economic problems to find realistic models to implement the decisions. I think this could be the main outcome of the Johannesburg.
message is the UNECE sending to Johannesburg ?
One of the overall priorities is, of course, the eradication of poverty. Others relate to saving the natural resource base and improving governance, including some tools for public participation. As a region we would like to take our practical work worldwide. For example our environmental conventions on cross-border air or water pollution or the Aarhus Convention, which sets out environmental rights provide new opportunities for strengthening democracy. So even though different countries face different problems and have different priorities, these are mechanisms and solutions that others might find useful too. We will present them in Johannesburg because we firmly believe we need to share our experience and knowledge.
You mentioned the Aarhus
Convention what is it ?
The Aarhus Convention is legally binding on those countries that have ratified it. It is not a framework convention ; it has precise provisions. It gives the public the right to know. It also encourages public participation and gives the right to each individual to participate in environmental decision-making. What makes it unique is that it includes provisions on access to justice. The Convention entered into force last year and it is very encouraging to see that the number of ratifications continues to grow.
there not a risk that the access to justice provisions of the Convention will
lead to a wave of frivolous complaints ?
We were aware of this potential problem and discussed it during the negotiations. However, in reality the Convention is not put to full use. Not enough people realise the advantages and opportunities that the Convention provides. And, to come back to your question, I think that if anything giving people more opportunities to take part in decision-making can actually keep the number of complaints down.
this mean that if I do not want a highway next to my house, I can simply say no
and it will not be built ?
No, its not that simple. You would have to make your point by actively participating in the decision-making process and put forward your arguments and perhaps propose an alternative.
my opinion really be taken into account ?
It is impossible to please everyone. However, there is a specific system for taking public opinion into account. Even if the final decision does not meet your expectations, it will reflect your input. Sometimes the final decision- makers, like city councils and parliaments, will agree with you, sometimes not, but at least they have to listen to what you have to say.
Do you think that the Aarhus Convention
will become a global convention one day ?
There is a lot of interest from NGOs and other organisations from Latin America and Africa. I think that the Aarhus Convention is already a stimulus for environmental democracy all over the world and a good basis for other regions to develop similar conventions tailored to their needs. As far as the UNECE is concerned, we should focus on applying this Convention in our region, especially in countries with economies in transition, where it has proved particularly popular.
policy slipping down the political agenda ?
Its hard to give you a straightforward answer, for several reasons. Firstly, the general political situation now is not the same as 10 years ago. At that time, Central and Eastern Europe were going through the first phase of transition and the environment was used as a political tool for change. As the political situation stabilised, environmental policy became part of the mainstream and no longer seemed a political priority. Secondly, in Western Europe and North America, environmental tools have improved over the past decade. Thirdly, todays environmental problems are not always as visible as they used to be 15 or 20 years ago, for example, emissions from factories, direct water pollution, which you could see, feel and smell. The problems that lie close to our heart nowadays, such as climate change, transport and environment, might seem not be so obvious, but one should not underestimate their impact, which will become very obvious sooner or later. At the same time and this is a very positive achievement within the UNECE region we have built tools and institutions that are more powerful than anything we could have imagined 20 years ago.
Interview by Jean Michel Jakobowicz.