2 July 1998


2 July 1998

Press Briefing



At a Headquarters press briefing yesterday afternoon, Klaus Töpfer, Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and Chair of the United Nations Task Force on Environment and Human Settlements, presented to correspondents the report of the Task Force to the Secretary- General.

He said an environment and human settlement policy had been a "missing link" in the Secretary-General's report on reform of the United Nations. The Secretary-General wanted to present his ideas on the topic to the General Assembly this year, and the Task Force had consequently had a short time to prepare the report. They had started in April, and delivered the report on time on 15 June.

The main findings of the report were integrated in 24 recommendations, within seven chapters, he said. The first topic concerned inter-agency linkages. The main concern of the Task Force was the conviction that there was a lot of overlapping and uncoordinated action in the United Nations framework concerning environment and human settlement policies. The Task Force recommended the establishment of an inter-agency Environment Management Group, which would use the "issue management" approach that had been outlined by the Secretary-General in his report on "Renewing the United Nations". The Environmental Management Group would have a Secretariat chaired by the Executive Director of UNEP, in order to facilitate further coordination.

The second point was linked with the different conventions and protocols on the environment, said Mr. Töpfer. One of the outstanding achievements of environment policy in the past was the number of important conventions that existed, including conventions on climate change, desertification and biodiversity. There were many overlapping conventions, and not much coordination in the field. The Task Force recommended a step-by-step move towards umbrella conventions that would integrate the different clusters of conventions. They also recommended that in the future more attention should be paid to the geographic dispersal of convention secretariats. They were now located around the world, and did not make the best use of financial and human resources.

The third main topic was linked with Nairobi as a location. The UNEP and the United Nations Centre for Human Settlement (Habitat) had been located in Nairobi for 25 and 20 years, respectively. The recommendation was not to merge those two institutions; there should still be two legally independent entities, but that their work should be more integrated in administrative terms. There should be only one person responsible for UNEP, Habitat, and the United Nations office in Nairobi. The Task Force emphasized that it was essential for the United Nations system to have a stable and strengthened

headquarters in Nairobi. It was the only United Nations headquarters in the third world, and, therefore, the question of the office there was more than just an issue of environment and human settlement policy.

He said that the Task Force had made a clear recommendation concerning the improvement of information and communication technologies, and the achievement of a better security situation in Nairobi and Kenya. They were in discussion with the Government of Kenya in that regard. Otherwise, it was difficult to hire experts to work in Nairobi. Such considerations were also preconditions to running a location effectively.

The fourth point was linked with intergovernmental activities, he said. There had been complaints that ministers for environment and human settlement had to travel too much around the world. Conventions and conferences held high-level segments throughout the year which they expected ministers to attend. It was not possible for ministers to be available for all of them, and the Task Force had, therefore, recommended that there be only one environment ministers' meeting per year. Regional issues would be included in the agendas of the meetings, which should be held before the meeting of the Commission on Sustainable Development. That would help to ensure that integration of work, and not overlapping, could be achieved.

The fifth topic was linked with information monitoring and assessment, he said. There was an overall feeling that it was essential to improve the early warning system with regard to environmental emergencies. One example where such a system could have helped was the forest fires in Indonesia. Another example was the problem of water catchment areas. The UNEP and Habitat should be environment and human settlement guardians around the world to enable information to be collected systematically.

Turning to the sixth issue in the report, Mr. Töpfer said that next to human rights and gender equity issues, the environment was always a major concern of non-governmental organizations (NGOs). There should be greater involvement of NGOs, as well as other major groups, such as industry, business and trades unions, in the intergovernmental processes. There were clear recommendations in the report to stabilize and develop such relationships.

Finally, the Task Force had been asked by the Secretary-General to think about the possible use of the Trusteeship Council in the future. The Task Force recommended that the Governing Council of UNEP and the Commission on Human Settlements hold a two-day meeting on combined global environment and societal questions in order to make recommendations on this question for the Millennium Assembly, the Millennium Forum and the Millennium Summit. More detailed discussions would be held in those forums on the future of the Trusteeship Council. The Task Force had not made final recommendations on the Trusteeship Council, but had stressed the advantage of flexibility in that regard.

UNEP Briefing - 3 - 2 July 1998

It was clear that the United Nations needed a strong voice in the fields of environment and human settlement, he said. It was also clear that there was an overlap of the two issues; in the future, issues such as urbanization would be at the centre of sustainable development discussions. It was an advantage to have the institutions that dealt with such questions situated in the same location.

The conclusions of the Task Force's work had not been revolutionary, but evolutionary, he said. That was the best precondition to putting forward recommendations that would not just remain on paper, but which would be implemented.

He added that negotiations towards a convention to ban persistent organic pollutants had begun on Monday. There were 12 such toxic chemical pollutants in question, for example PCBs, DDT and dioxins. He hoped that a legally binding convention on those substances could be achieved within the five negotiating periods that had been scheduled. That issue was linked with the development of criteria on how to handle chemicals in the future. Such criteria were essential, given that there were more than 70,000 different chemicals in the world.

A correspondent said that the report had recommended better communications facilities in Nairobi. What was meant by that? Mr. Töpfer replied that for more than three years a satellite system had been provided by some European countries, that had enabled the office in Nairobi to be better linked with the rest of the world. Such a system needed to be expanded, for example. One improvement was that for the past two weeks it had been possible to be integrated into the Senior Management Group meeting at Headquarters in New York directly from the compound in Nairobi, without having to go downtown. Steps such as that were just a beginning. The location as a whole needed to be developed and that process needed to be tackled in an unbureaucratic way. "We have to hurry up", he said, if conferences were to be brought back to Nairobi. At the moment, it was a nearly unused location.

What was meant by the call for adequate access to the United Nations regular budget? asked a correspondent. Mr. Töpfer replied that for two and a half years there had been a United Nations office in Nairobi, like the ones in Geneva and Vienna. The budget of the office in Nairobi was 45 per cent financed by the regular United Nations budget, compared to 94 per cent for the office in Geneva. The Task Force report had been accepted unanimously, so it would seem that it had the support even of United Nations Headquarters. A headquarters in Africa was essential.

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For information media. Not an official record.