UNEP to come under scrutiny at U.N. special session

UNITED NATIONS, May (G-77) - The U.N.'s Special Session on the environment will, among other things, focus on the effectiveness of one of the Organisation's primary environmental bodies: the U.N. Environment Programme (UNEP).

''The Special Session would like to seriously look at how useful the U.N. Environment Programme (UNEP) would be in the future,'' Ambassador Razali Ismail of Malaysia, President of the General Assembly, said.

Razali, who will preside over the Special Session scheduled for June 23-27, said the Nairobi-based UNEP is battling problems of governance, is accused of lacking direction, and is struggling to cope with a shortage of resources.

And yet, he said, ''everybody wants UNEP to be able to play a pivotal role on the issues of environment and sustainability.''
The Special Session is being held to review the current state of the global environment five years after the June 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro.

Asked if the proposal for a World Environment Organisation (WEO) will come up before the Special Session, Razali said ''it is something that will take time to develop.''

The proposal for the creation of a supra environmental body is being talked about in U.N. circles. But the proposed WEO, like the World Trade Organisation (WTO), would probably function outside the United Nations.

Currently, environmental issues are handled by several bodies, including UNEP, the U.N. Development Programme (UNDP), the World Bank, and the Global Environmental Facility (GEF). GEF, in turn, is administered by the World Bank, UNDP and UNEP.
''I would rather prefer an enhanced role for UNEP or see UNEP becoming a U.N. specialised agency,'' Razali said. Currently, UNEP is only a U.N. ''programme'', not a U.N. specialised agency such as the World Health Organisation (WHO) or the International Labour Organisation (ILO).

''UNEP is a very important function of the United Nations and it should be kept within the United Nations,'' he added.

Early this year, three countries, Britain Spain and the United States, decided to withhold their 1997 contributions from a financially-ailing UNEP on the ground that a handful of developing nations are blocking attempts to reform the U.N. body.

The three countries contribute a significant portion-- less than 50 percent and more than 25 percent-- of UNEP's fast-dwindling annual UNEP budget, UNEP Executive Director Elizabeth Dowdeswell said.

But she expressed confidence they will not withdraw from UNEP because all three countries ''are very committed to a strong U.N. environmental programme.''

Over the last few years, UNEP budgets have been on the skids: declining from 160 million dollars in 1991-1992 to 75 million dollars in 1998-1999.

Last February, the U.N. Office of Internal Oversight Services (OIOS) produced a 34-page critical report on UNEP.
Faced with declining resources, managers have not yet made all of the necessary hard choices, OIOS said.

''Much staff time and energy has been spent in paring down programmes, resulting in less time to think or to do environmental work,'' the report pointed out.

''This has reduced the number of discernible results, leading to reduced donor confidence and lower contributions and in turn to further programme reductions,'' OIOS said.

At the time of its creation in 1972, UNEP was the sole multilateral body concerned with the environment.

''It was seen as having a distinct role within the U.N. system: to identify emerging environmental problems and help to forge an international consensus on their solution,'' the report added.

But in the following decades, owing to an increasing awareness that the environment had become one of the major issues in international public opinion, many other U.N. agencies started to involve themselves in the environmental field.

''The exclusive role of UNEP was progressively undermined,'' OIOS said.

The turning point was the 1992 Earth Summit where the UNEP Secretariat ''was given a minimal role in organising the conference.''
However, the conference was important in establishing a global consensus on solutions to some environmental issues, many of which UNEP had helped to bring to international attention.

The report also said that much of the responsibility for the Earth Summit follow-up was given to GEF. And UNEP accounted for only a little more than one percent of the GEF portfolio.