|Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York|
Press Conference by Under-Secretary-General following Opening Session
of Sixty-fourth Annual DPI/NGO Conference
(Received from a UN Information Officer.)
BONN, 3 September — At a press conference following the opening session of the sixty-fourth annual Department of Public Information/Non-Governmental Organization (DPI/NGO) Conference, Kiyo Akasaka, United Nations Under-Secretary-General for Communications and Public Information, as well as keynote speakers and other major spokespersons, made remarks and answered questions about the three-day Conference.
Participants included Achim Steiner, Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP); Flavia Pansieri, Executive Coordinator of the United Nations Volunteers Programme; Vandana Shiva of Navdanya International; Grace Aguiling-Dalisay of VSO Bahaginan in the Philippines; and Felix Dodds, Chair of the DPI/NGO Conference.
Under-Secretary-General Akasaka said that more than 2,200 non-governmental organization representatives from about 100 countries and one territory had registered to take part in the Conference, a record registration with the potential to make the Bonn event one of the biggest yet. There were also a large number of young people and students involved.
He said that in addition to four round-table discussions with prominent experts and civil society leaders, the Conference would have close to 40 workshops organized by NGOs and more than 25 exhibits and a number of public events. The Department of Public Information felt that the high level of interest and participation was due to the sense of urgency felt by NGOs and civil society to move towards more sustainable, just and equitable societies where the planet was protected and every man, woman and child had a chance for a better life.
Specifically, the Conference would examine best practices and discuss how to change consumption and production patterns, he continued. It would also discuss links between the green economy and poverty eradication, and the role of civic engagement and voluntary action in realizing sustainable development. One of the Department’s main goals in taking the Conference outside its traditional home in New York was to expand its network of NGOs and volunteers to new partners in the region where the Conference was being held, he said. That would also offer the opportunity to work together in informing and explaining to communities around the world the links between climate change, water, energy and food — key sustainable development and green economy issues.
Mr. Akasaka stressed that a better understanding of the linkages between those issues, and the power of informed and engaged citizens, would be essential if NGOS expected to succeed at next June’s “Rio+20” United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development. “We cannot leave decisions about our future to Governments alone,” he emphasized. “This Conference is an important opportunity for NGOs and civil society to meet and contribute their expertise and proposals for Rio+20 and beyond.” He encouraged journalists to meet with and talk to the rich diversity of NGO representatives and volunteers available at the Conference, and to cover the many different discussions and events, including special presentations during lunch breaks.
UNEP Executive Director Steiner said it was wonderful to see Germany being proactive in the preparatory process for Rio. Noting that the 1992 Rio “Earth Summit” had became what it was because society had driven the agenda and Governments had responded, he said there was still a long way to go to achieving the same kind of energy and commitment in 2012.
The United Nations was not the place to be naïve about differences between countries and different agendas, he said, adding, however, that Rio could still be viewed as an opportunity for countries to discuss how to address some of the issues. The United Nations was often seen as an international bureaucracy, but throughout the Organization there was the extraordinary spirit of the United Nations Volunteers, who went to places where other people were not willing to go and stayed when others had left in order to help people. Those actions sometime made the difference between life and death, he stressed.
Ms. Shiva of Navdanya International, an organization focused on cultural and biological diversity, said the Conference was “a moment to review, reassess and create strategic direction for the future”. There was a need for new rules for living on the planet, some of which should come from NGOs themselves. Regulations were often portrayed negatively, but sometimes it was necessary to create regulatory frameworks to protect important gains and even go further, she said, recalling that the last five years had shown the havoc wrought by deregulation in the financial, mining, and farming sectors, to name a few. The deepening inequality that the world was now witnessing could not be sustained without a collapse of the social order, she warned. As NGOs went to Rio they needed to ensure that the perspectives of women, indigenous peoples and young people were included.
Ms. AGUILING-DALISAY of VSO Bahaginan said she hoped to bring the view of volunteers and her years of experience in volunteerism to bear at the Conference. It was important to put people first, children in particular, in the approach to development, she emphasized, adding that her message to the Conference was that there was always a pathway to volunteering no matter what one’s interests or passions.
Executive Coordinator Pansieri said the engagement of people was what had created the buzz around Rio in 1992. What had been learned from that experience was that big changes did not come about because there was a summit somewhere or because Governments got together and decided things, but because civil society was active and could exercise pressure through words and deeds. It was therefore important for the NGO community to engage in actions that could make a difference, such as taking public transportation instead of driving and generally changing the way they lived, making a contribution by leading through example, she said.
Conference Chair Dodds proposed a “conversation” about values as part of Rio+20, saying it was important to recognize the importance of Brazil calling for a revisiting of the topic of sustainable development and applauding that country for doing so. The only way to deliver sustainable development was through a strong United Nations, he said, adding that a strong development framework was also important. He suggested that German NGOS encourage Chancellor [Angela] Merkel to announce immediately that she would attend the Rio Conference as a sign of Germany’s commitment to that important meeting at the highest level.
Asked how productive they thought past panels and conferences had been in terms of advancing sustainable development, Mr. Steiner said that some conferences came and went, and Rio 1992 had been one of the most meaningful summits that the United Nations had ever convened in terms of starting conversations and advancing the involvement of civil society. The level of discussion had increased significantly both among corporations and in civil society, so conferences did have a meaningful impact, he said. It would be up to Brazil, as the host country of Rio+20, to persuade and convince that the Summit should be taken seriously. The climate change conferences over the years had also given NGOs a remarkable proposal upon which to persuade the world to act, thereby showing that conferences had a huge impact and offered the opportunity for longer term awareness-building and empowerment.
Mr. Dodds said the Copenhagen Conference had had a huge impact, adding that conventions such as those on migratory species and biodiversity, which had not enjoyed media attention, were successes nonetheless.
Asked how the public, particularly the German public, should perceive the Bonn Conference, Ms. Shiva said efforts had been made to engage the public more. Because of the economic crisis, there would be further calls for people to sacrifice their rights and compromise the environment in favour of the economy, she said, adding that her message to the German public would be to stay strong.
Mr. Steiner added that the principle of solidarity was important and Germany should view their hosting of the Conference as part of its contribution to making multilateralism work by giving civil society a platform. There was also a rational self-interest in helping to gather momentum for the green economy in the lead up to Rio+20 because countries and economies would benefit.
Mr. Dodds said the Conference was also a great opportunity for non-governmental organizations to work together and prepare for Rio.
Asked what the organizers and panellists wished to accomplish with the Declaration to be issued at the end of the Conference, he said its aim was to provide a way for civil society organizations to have their viewpoints included in the General Assembly plenary meeting on volunteerism and the Rio+20 Conference.
In response to a question about the role of genetically modified crops in sustainable development, Ms. Shiva said they crops were made to protect patents and had led to a loss of biodiversity. They had also led to super pests and resistant weeds, which worked “brilliantly” for companies that collected fees from farmers, but it did not work for social, ecological or economic sustainability. They were not creating an agriculture that was sustainable at every level, she maintained.
Mr. Akasaka added that the United Nations knew there were differing views and opinions on genetically modified crops. There were producers and consumers of such products all over the world, and policies therefore differed by country. The Organization did not have a particular view on that, he said.
Ms. Shiva underscored that the United Nations did have a biosafety framework that States were required to follow and the United Nations had a responsibility to enforce it.
Asked whether the process that the organizers envisioned was a bottom-up or top-down one,Ms. Pansieri said it was clear that everything began with a sense of ethical responsibility that moved individuals to use their skills and time for the common good, so the process had started as a bottom-up movement, but that alone was not sufficient. In a policy vacuum it became difficult to obtain long-term sustainable results, so NGOs needed to ensure both bottom-up and top-down action to achieve their goals.
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