"What will distinguish this Governing Council from all others is our ability to come to grips with issues that cut to the heart of whether this organization has a future," she said. "What is at stake is the environmental conscience of the United Nations; the organization uniquely positioned to respond to the environmental needs and aspirations of countries north, south, east and west."
UNEP's Governing Council meeting comes at a critical time in the organization's 25 year history. The first such inter-governmental meeting in a year where United Nations reform is high on the international agenda, and also in what will be a milestone year for the environment.
In June 1997, world leaders will gather at a Special Session of the United Nations General Assembly for the sole purpose of reviewing and appraising the progress of implementation of Agenda 21 - the Global Plan of Action agreed by governments at the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. This meeting represents a pivotal point in the future of many organizations, including UNEP.
"UNEP can point to significant achievement in the implementation of Agenda 21", said Ms Dowdeswell. But, she noted "Many of the difficulties experienced by UNEP are inherent to the context within which it operates, stemming from factors that lie outside the scope of the organization's immediate management control." For example, member states have reduced their overall contributions to UNEP, while at the same time imposing ever-increasing responsibilities.
With the June meeting in mind, a "high-level" segment of Governing Council, from 5-7 February, will be opened by H.E. Ambassador Razali, President of the United Nations General Assembly. Ministers will be asked to define the nature and substance of UNEP's participation at the United Nations General Assembly Special Session. They will review the governing structures of UNEP, and determine what changes to these structures might be necessary as the organization moves toward the twenty-first century.
"To realize UNEP's full potential requires, at a minimum, four things," said Ms. Dowdeswell. "First, changing our role, focus and activities to become a knowledge-based organization, rich in information, ideas, connection and access to expertise.
Second, providing a framework for development, building of consensus and promoting the implementation of international environmental agreements and norms.
Third, recognizing that we must focus. We cannot do everything. We must agree on an appropriate distribution of labour with our United Nations partners.
And fourth, transforming the slogan 'we the peoples' from words into action by extending out constituencies beyond Governments to civil society."
At yesterday's opening session, the Governing Council elected its officers and adopted its agenda and programme of work.
H.E. Dr Arnoldo Gabaldon, former Minister of Environment and Natural Resources, Venezuela, was elected President.
Three Vice Presidents were elected: H.E. Mr. T.P. Sreenivasan, High Commissioner and Permanent Representative of India to UNEP;
H.E. Mr. Boris G. Maiorski, Ambassador and Permanent Representative of the Russian Federation to UNEP;
and H.E. Mr Sid-Ali Ketrandji, Ambassador and Permanent Representative of Algeria to UNEP.
Mr. Paul Haddow, Deputy Permanent Representative of Canada to UNEP, was elected Rapporteur.
Setting the tone for this year's Governing Council, Mr Gabaldon posed three questions to delegates in his opening address:
first, "why is UNEP going through this difficult situation?"
Second, "what are our aspirations as far as the treatment given to the environmental issues in the UN?"
And third, "what steps should be taken in order to transform UNEP into what we want it to be?"
"The new environmental institution that emerges", said Mr. Gabaldon, "must have the capacity and required hierarchy, and must be endowed with the financial resources necessary to exert a more efficient global authority."
Said Ms. Dowdeswell, "UNEP must be an organization to champion global environmental issues. UNEP must act as an independent, objective, and authoritative advocate for the environment. UNEP must lead the United Nations in a concerted attack on the worst aspects of global environmental degradation, rising to the challenge of Rio."
The first week of Governing Council will be devoted to work in two integrated committees that will consider administrative and budgetary matters, and also new substantive programmatic issues, including the chemical agenda, environmental law, and the Global Programme of Action for the Protection of Marine Environment from Land-based Activities.
Another key issue will be adequate and predictable financing of UNEP.
UNEP is witnessing shrinking financial resources at a time when its workload is increasing as a response to serious environmental problems worldwide and to countries' demands.
A "pledging session" will be held on the evening of 5 February whereby Governments will be invited to announce their pledges for 1997 and for the coming biennium, 1998-1999.
Ministers and high-level government representatives from over 100 countries are attending the two-week meeting which ends Friday February 7.
For more information:
Tore J. Brevik
Chief, Information and Public Affairs Information and Media Officer
P.O. Box 30552, Nairobi, Kenya
Tel: 254-2-62-3292, Fax: 254-2-62-3927
UNEP News Release 1997/4