U.N. task force proposes new environment managment group

UNITED NATIONS, July -- A 21-member U.N. Task Force has proposed the establishment of a new inter-agency Environment Management Group (EMG) to better coordinate all the key environmental functions of the U.N. system.

The Task Force, chaired by the Executive Director of the U.N. Environment Programme (UNEP) Klaus Topfer, wants to eliminate overlapping and duplication in the multi-faceted U.N. environmental programmes and also explore the possibility of negotiating umbrella conventions.

Currently, there are several conventions, covering climate change, desertification and biodivesity, whose secretariats are also located in different locations, including Bonn, Geneva, Montreal and Nairobi.

The Task Force has also called for the strengthening of UNEP and the U.N. Centre for Human Settlements (Habitat), both of which are located in Nairobi.

Ambassador Makarim Wibisono of Indonesia, a member of the Task Force, said he is convinced that the proposal to reform UNEP and Habitat should constitute the main focus of the substantive debate at the forthcoming 53rd session of the General Assembly beginning September.

While appreciating Secretary-General Kofi Annan's initiative in creating the Task Force, Ambassador Wibisono said he sees great merit in the initiative, particularly in terms of their contribution towards the ongoing process of reform, which should serve as both a catalyst and source of ideas for intergovernmental negotiations.

In a 32-page report released here, the Task Force has rejected a move to integrate into a single institution the two key U.N. bodies dealing with ecological issues: UNEP and Habitat.

''The recommendation was not to merge these two institutions,'' Topfer told a press conference. ''They should remain legally independent entities, but their work should be more integrated in administrative terms,'' he said.

The Task Force, consisting of ministers, senior government and U.N. officials and representatives of non-governmental organisations (NGOs), has also implicitly rejected a proposal to relocate the two environmental bodies out of Nairobi.

Topfer, who wears three hats - Executive Director of UNEP, head of Habitat and Director-General of the U.N. office in Nairobi (UNON) - said the Task Force emphasized the importance of strengthening the U.N. presence in Nairobi.

It also called for the elevation of UNON to the status of a major U.N. headquarters duty station - in line with Geneva and Vienna, both of which are considered key U.N. capitals.

There are several requirements for achieving this goal, including better communications capabilities, improved physical security, and adequate access to the regular U.N. budget with respect to administrative costs.

The recent increase in crime in Nairobi has made it difficult for UNEP and Habitat to attract and retain highly qualified staff, the Task Force said.

As a result, it has recommended that the Secretary-General, through the Director-General of UNON, request the government Kenya to address further the problem of physical security.

UNEP was set up in Nairobi about 25 years ago and Habitat about 20 years ago. UNEP was also the first U.N. agency to be based in a developing country. Currently, it is the only such major agency in a developing country. All other Third World U.N. offices are regional commissions based in Addis Ababa, Beirut, Bangkok and Santiago.

The proposal to relocate UNEP from Nairobi, possibly, to Geneva triggered a storm of protest from African and other Third World nations in the early 1990s.

A proposal to merge UNEP and Habitat into a single body, however, has been kicked around the U.N. system since January 1994.

As part of a restructuring of the U.N. system in 1994, former Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali abolished the post of Executive Director of Habitat which had the ranking of Under-Secretary-General, the second highest in the United Nations.

Under a restructured Secretariat, Boutros-Ghali proposed that Habitat be absorbed by (UNEP). Topfer said the need for a new Environment Management Group had arisen because environmental issues are appearing increasingly on the agenda of several development-oriented institutions, including the U.N. Development Programme (UNDP), the World Bank, the World Health Organisation (WHO), the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), and regional multilateral development banks.

''The 'greening' of these bodies has been a necesarry and welcome step, but the integration of environmental considerations in their programmes clearly needs to go further,'' the Task Force said.

The Task Force has also expressed concern over the ''geographical dispersal of the various environmental convention secretariats," including climate change, desertification and biological diversity, currently based in Bonn, Geneva, Montreal and Nairobi. This has ''resulted in inefficiencies, substantial costs through loss of economies and fragmentation of common services.''

The Task Force has suggested the clustering and possible future re-location of these secretariats, as well as the possibility of negotiating umbrella conventions. Topfer said there were many overlapping conventions and not much coordination in the field.

Further, it has proposed wide-ranging consultations be undertaken by the UNEP Executive Director concerning institutional arrangements for dealing with the environmental challenges of the next century.

These consultations would include representatives of governments, civil society and the private sector and would culminate in a two-day "environment forum" to be held in early 1999.

This forum would then provide forward-looking proposals for the protection of the global environment, including future institutions, to the forthcoming Millennium Assembly and Forum scheduled to take place in New York in late 2000.