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UN Follow-Up

The Earth Summit succeeded in presenting new perspectives on economic progress. It was lauded as the beginning of a new era and its success would be measured by the implementation — locally, nationally and internationally — of its agreements. Those attending the Summit understood that making the necessary changes would not be easy: it would be a multi-phased process; it would take place at different rates in different parts of the world; and it would require the expenditure of funds now in order to prevent much larger financial and environmental costs in the future.

In Rio, the UN was given a key role in the implementation of Agenda 21. Since then, the Organization has taken steps to integrate concepts of sustainable development into all relevant policies and programmes. Income-generating projects increasingly take into account environmental consequences. Development assistance programmes are increasingly directed towards women, given their central roles as producers and as caretakers of families. Efforts to manage forests in a sustainable manner begin with finding alternatives to meet the needs of people who are overusing them. The moral and social imperatives for alleviating poverty are given additional urgency by the recognition that poor people can cause damage to the environment. And foreign investment decisions increasingly take into account the fact that drawing down the earth’s natural resources for short-term profit is bad for business in the long run.

In adopting Agenda 21, the Earth Summit also requested the United Nations to initiate talks aimed at halting the rapid depletion of certain fish stocks and preventing conflict over fishing on the high seas. After negotiations spanning more than two years, the UN Agreement on High Seas Fishing was opened for signature on 4 December 1995. It provides for all species of straddling and highly migratory fish — those which swim between national economic zones or migrate across broad areas of the ocean — to be subject to quotas designed to ensure the continued survival of fish for our children and grandchildren to enjoy.

Also at the Summit, Governments requested the UN to hold negotiations for an international legal agreement to prevent the degradation of drylands. The resulting International Convention to Combat Desertification in Those Countries Experiencing Serious Drought and/or Desertification, particularly in Africa, was opened for signing in October 1994 and entered into force in December 1996. It calls for urgent action to be taken in Africa, where some 66 per cent of the continent is desert or drylands and 73 per cent of agricultural drylands are already degraded.

In order to promote the well-being of people living in island countries, the Summit called for the UN to convene a Global Conference on the Sustainable Development of Small Island Developing States . The Conference was held in Barbados in May 1994 and produced a programme of action designed to assist these environmentally and economically vulnerable countries.

In addition, three bodies were created within the United Nations to ensure full support for implementation of Agenda 21 worldwide:

  • The UN Commission on Sustainable Development, which first met in June 1993;

  • The Inter-agency Committee on Sustainable Development, set up by the Secretary-General in 1992 to ensure effective system-wide cooperation and coordination in the follow-up to the Summit; and

  • The High-level Advisory Board on Sustainable Development, established in 1993 to advise the Secretary-General and the Commission on issues relating to the implementation of Agenda 21.

UN Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD) — The Earth Summit called on the General Assembly to establish the Commission under the Economic and Social Council as a means of supporting and encouraging action by Governments, business, industry and other non-governmental groups to bring about the social and economic changes needed for sustainable development. Each year, the Commission reviews implementation of the Earth Summit agreements, provides policy guidance to Governments and major groups involved in sustainable development and strengthens Agenda 21 by devising additional strategies where necessary. It also promotes dialogue and builds partnerships between Governments and the major groups which are seen as key to achieving sustainable development worldwide. The work of the Commission was supported by numerous inter-sessional meetings and activities initiated by Governments, international organizations and major groups. In June 1997, the General Assembly will hold a special session to review overall progress following the Earth Summit.

Under a multi-year thematic work programme, the Commission has monitored the early implementation of Agenda 21 in stages. Each sectoral issue — health, human settlements, freshwater, toxic chemicals and hazardous waste, land, agriculture, desertification, mountains, forests, biodiversity, atmosphere, oceans and seas — was reviewed between 1994 and 1996. Developments on most “cross-sectoral” issues are considered each year. These issues, which must be addressed if action in sectoral areas is to be effective, are clustered as follows: critical elements of sustainability (trade and environment, patterns of production and consumption, combating poverty, demographic dynamics); financial resources and mechanisms; education, science, transfer of environmentally sound technologies, technical cooperation and capacity-building; decision-making; and activities of the major groups, such as business and labour. (For further details click here on UNCSD.)

In 1995, the Commission established under its auspices the Intergovernmental Panel on Forests with a broad mandate covering the entire spectrum of forest-related issues and dealing with conservation, sustainable development and management of all types of forests. The Panel will submit its final report containing concrete conclusions and proposals for action to the 1997 session of the CSD. (For further details click here on IPF )

Reports submitted annually by Governments are the main basis for monitoring progress and identifying problems faced by countries. By mid-1996, some 100 Governments had established national sustainable development councils or other coordinating bodies. More than 2,000 municipal and town governments had each formulated a local Agenda 21 of its own. Many countries were seeking legislative approval for sustainable development plans, and the level of NGO involvement remained high.


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© Copyright United Nations 23 May 1997 | Department of Public Information | Revised 23 May 1997