4 March 1997


4 March 1997

Press Release


19970304 Following is the text of the statement delivered by General Assembly President Razali Ismail to the symposium on "United Nations Conferences: From Promises to Performance", at the Center for the Global South, American University, Washington, D.C., on 3 March:

I am grateful for the opportunity to address this gathering. The subject of this conference is particularly salient, as the United Nations as a whole comes to terms with its expressed principles and functions, and its ability to meet them. Even as we are gathered here, an intergovernmental effort at the United Nations has begun to deliberate the follow-up of the 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development held in Rio de Janeiro. The Special Session of the General Assembly to review the outcome and implementation of the decisions of Rio begins on 23 June, at the highest political level. It is one of several meetings that will take place to assess critically the progress we have made in implementing the various programmes of action that were reached through tortuous political consensus. The success of this special session will depend on our ability to identify concrete outcomes, to own up honestly to areas where we have not lived up to our commitments and to make judicious decisions on the next steps.

I have three major points to make and, if you allow me, some observations. First, notwithstanding widespread scepticism, which I also share, all the United Nations conferences since the early 1990s have had widespread impact and have been valuable in advancing our understanding of important concepts and the values we attach to them. Second, there are serious problems with the implementation of the decisions of these conferences. Third, the United Nations, unless it is reformed and recommitted to by all governments, remains too weak to carry out its task of overseeing the implementation process.

In a world that has undergone tremendous change, and yet rapidly globalizing as one, the value of the global conferences derives from the setting of certain "benchmarks" for human society, whether it be the need to improve the environment, or to codify universal concepts of social equity, and to advance gender equality. The end of the cold war, with declining global military expenditures, has given us a unique opportunity to turn to the real

issues that confront us, which are economic, social and environmental. The participation and contribution of such a wide spectrum of stakeholders at these conferences enhanced the results, though actual levels of participation and contribution varied, as many governmental delegations had to make adjustments rather grudgingly to views of others not perceived as partners of progress.

The involvement of multi-stakeholders at these conferences added value to the debate on issues and brought into acceptance, albeit in differing degrees, concepts such as sustainable development, gender balance and other equity indicators that held promise of future commitments to shape a world in better equilibrium, to deal with finite resources and the needs of all. There is still potential to advance global norms and values to bring to real meaning the role of civil society and empowerment, especially of the marginalized and vulnerable.

The fact that Member States agreed on programmes of action is also symbolic of a collective will to act. In the emerging global economy it is important to underline that there is still room and need for global frameworks. The United Nations conferences allowed us to begin the process of defining those frameworks. This collective will to act should be seen as commitments made both nationally and globally, from which governments should not be let off the hook.

There are serious problems associated with the implementation of the outcomes of United Nations conferences. In the first instance, the international scene after the cold war presents a mixed tapestry of changes and events. The political-security picture with serious strife within States, bordering on civil war and ethnic violence that led to genocide in the case of Bosnia and Rwanda, and the potential for implosion in the Great Lakes region, easily captures world attention and concern at the cost of long-term commitments, especially developments made at global conferences. Also, turmoil and conflicts are fertile marketplaces for the sale of arms, and no country, not even the permanent members of the Security Council, can withstand the temptation to maximize sales in these areas of conflict.

Despite efforts to blur over the means of implementation, any assessment of these conferences must take a hard look at implementation nationally and globally. The catch-phrase that countries should "think globally and act locally" is applicable only as a half truth. It should not be an excuse to manoeuvre out of global commitments. Every government professes to have adopted national plans for sustainable development. These governments also speak unabashedly about "win-win" situations, as if there are no losers. The truth is more complicated. Claims of governments are not necessarily accurate. In virtually all national strategies at the moment there are losers in the pell-mell drive to industrialize and grow. The South is no better; and

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the North offers enticing inducements to the South, such as joint implementation, in order not to meet directly in situ targets.

As an added subtext, one should factor in the ability of diplomats to deal with critical time factors. We are so long-winded and indecisive, sometimes "status quo-ist" in our ways. We will negotiate interminably, sometimes for years, like hamsters on a wheel, even as the world changes so rapidly around us. The International Panel on Forests, after two years, has come to the conclusion that more work needs to be done, as international agreement is still elusive. The negotiations between the Conference of Parties to the Biodiversity Convention and the Global Environment Facility (GEF) have gone on for four years without solid results. Meanwhile, biodiversity and the remaining forests in the world disappear at an alarming rate.

At the Rio Summit, the concept of "common and differentiated responsibilities" was accepted, making a distinction between global commitments of all governments especially the industrialized countries, as distinct from national commitments. In Copenhagen, governments recognized global responsibilities for alleviating poverty and also towards meeting targets of 20/20 to promote the social equity dimension of development. How genuine have these commitments been in the face of concentrating on national implementation strategies and back-peddling?

All major conferences have spawned spin-offs, as is the case with Rio, leading to a hectic global conference circuit on the follow-up, avidly followed by diplomats, non-governmental organizations, academia and United Nations staff alike, some like conference junkies, generating masses of information, rhetoric and jobs for consultants, calling for more meetings with questionable results. We are all overloaded with facts, findings and figures, but can we not move from continuous strategizing and consensus-building into a fully operational and action oriented-phrase, please?

It is inescapable that when we place in focus priorities and performances in relation to the major conferences of the 1990s, we must deal with the issue of resources in the context of implementation. This determines to a large extent the viability of the outcomes of the conferences. On this issue there has been little movement, even if some quarters would like to say otherwise or blur over what has not been done. The conference figures affixed to Agenda 21 of the Rio Conference are now pipedreams, and so with it chances of "new and additional financial resources". Official development assistance has contracted to significantly below 50 per cent of the target of 0.7 per cent and is dwindling further. There are serious doubts about International Development Association (IDA) and GEF replenishments, with the amounts made available possibly falling far short of promise, need and expectation.

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The World Bank still lends roughly $30 billion annually to public and private entities active in developing countries using various financial instruments, thereby having an ability to exert a strong influence on the social, environmental and financial policies undertaken in borrowing countries. The question is whether the World Bank is doing this in pursuit of the sustainable goals and fulfilling commitments on the poverty mandate of the conferences, or whether it is still reworking the traditional development paradigm with even greater stress on market reforms and privatization.

The problem is compounded by the prevailing ideology, widely referred to as the "Washington Consensus". It reflects a belief in the virtues of market forces out of proportion to what the markets can deliver. The other side of the same coin is a distinct loss of faith in the ability of the public sector to deliver on important economic, social and environmental goals. Through pressures from the international financial institutions, heavily reinforced by an ideologically monolithic media, the State is under severe constraint in its ability to raise resources and, hence, to attend to environmental and social equity needs.

This goes to the heart of the political process. It is true that democracy and freedom, as defined by the North, have spread. Simultaneously, however, the rich and the powerful have become even richer and more powerful. In many countries they have essentially captured the political process. They have been highly successful in compelling the public sector to retrench, while enlarging their own portfolio of wealth, including through the stock market. How compatible is this retrenchment of the public sector with the ambitious social and environmental goals set by the United Nations conferences? This is a central issue that must be confronted. I do not see the political will to do so.

Of course, it would be good if the private sector everywhere was able to take some of the social and environment load off the back of the public sector, but it has not shown this willingness, even in the most industrialized countries. But, even for the sake of argument, were the private sector willing to take on the load, it is very doubtful if the required magnitude of resources would be available in a world where, we are told, corporations are under intense competitive pressures, and where downsizing to increase commercial profits is the mantra of the day. As the private sector is helped by bodies like the World Bank to expand its global reach, we need to look for compelling evidence of the private sector's commitment to environmental sustainability and poverty reduction.

Developing countries have a particular reason to be worried. In comparable stages of their economic growth, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries built strong public sectors through taxation of those with resources. Even today, at advanced stages of

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industrialization, the public sector remains powerful in key industrial countries. Developing countries are today denied the same "privilege". This trend must be reversed. Otherwise it is difficult to see how the results of all the conferences will not end up inert on the shelves.

My third point relates to the United Nations. It is under tremendous stress. The United States owes the United Nations over $1.3 billion, the Congress applying conditionalities to what is legally due. The financial issue simply reflects the underlying conflict of several forces. In the United States, where lies the origin of the financial crisis, sharp differences between the legislative and executive branches of government mask a fierce battle between isolationist and hegemonistic forces on the one hand, and multilateralist forces on the other. I do not see the resolution of this conflict unless serious efforts are made by important people in both the United Nations and the United States to repair the relationship.

Globalization and interdependence require, and at the same time contribute to, universal values. The United Nations provides a unique forum for dialogue, global agenda-setting, the development of common understanding, the formulation of shared principles, the elaboration of international law and the monitoring of global agreements.

However, the delivery capacity of the United Nations has been severely weakened by the United Nations being institutionally fragmented and decentralized into numerous funds and programmes, specialized agencies and regional economic commissions. The intended complementarity between policy preparation and analysis by some United Nations bodies, and programme implementation and operations by others, have lost their coherence, in the battle for turf and shrinking funds. That donors contribute and influence these bodies further minimizes the role and relevance of the United Nations in terms of its core functions, those which operate on assessed contributions. Developing countries fear loss of development resources to humanitarian activities. The ability of donor countries to influence and direct United Nations funds and programmes and similar multilateral agencies, poses a serious threat. Such an a la carte approach not only results in derailing the thrust of these bodies, but directly benefits domestically these donors in terms of procurement and contracts. Clearly we are faced with a serious strategy using money power that will prevent a holistic approach in determining overall implementation of conference outcomes.

Unless the various follow-ups to the conferences establish a political consensus for a reformed United Nations to raise its profile, involvement and resource mobilizing capacity, there will be serious doubts about the United Nations ability to carry out its tasks as the universal body that deals with global issues and global solutions. This is not to take away the importance of the Bretton Woods institutions. The point is that the United Nations

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cannot be allowed to be relegated as the norm setting institution at the behest of major countries, these norms being made more applicable to the developing countries.

For the countries that invest in multilateralism through the United Nations, follow-up of the outcomes of the conferences means enhancing the United Nations. They can neither afford to be put off, nor be resigned to a fait accompli. The North understands the importance of multilateralism. This is why multilateral bodies outside the United Nations are being strengthened, not weakened. This is true of the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the OECD, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), to cite a few. The North has in fact chosen to spread multilateralism only through institutions that they fully control.

An appeal in this context can be addressed to Europe and Japan. If the United States is not about to change its attitude, buffeted internally by conflicting forces, can they provide the necessary counter-weight and invest in a strengthened United Nations? With their more balanced body politic and with their deeper understanding of history, Europe and Japan, and even south- east Asia today have the combined force to provide a counter-weight to the negative forces in the United States. This counter-weight is the key to resolving the problems of the United Nations. The United States is not about to change. Therefore, one way or another, it will have to be made to repose confidence in a renewed global multilateralism through the United Nations.

In the final analysis, if these conferences are really about "a common future" and interconnectedness and not about unbridled globalization of the market-place that would further marginalize the poor, the real political challenge is to reshape North-South relations. And we must be ready to recognize the winners and the losers. Despite best intentions, there are serious asymmetries. Since Rio 1992, the major losers in our globalizing world have been the least developed and marginalized countries. Least progress has been made with the impoverished, with rural women, with indigenous peoples and other marginalized sectors of society who, in my opinion, should be the major beneficiaries of all our conferences.

We should ask honestly how far we have come to allow, build and nourish empowerment, a much touted word at Rio, Copenhagen and Beijing. Governments are still wary about sharing decision-making with civil society, other than the business sector. We often speak about a "bottom-up approach" to sustainability, but we are not ready to allow civil society to observe, let alone share, decision-making. National governments of course, claim commitments to sustainability, but in most cases this is debatable.

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In examining the outcome of the conferences, we need to examine squarely the role of the private sector. An unquestioning embrace of the private sector, in the light of evidence of excesses and the marginalization of people and degradation of the environment, due to privatization and a focus on short- term profits, is disturbing and unwise. If the private sector is to be inducted into decision-making processes that govern our commitments and implementation -- as they must, given their huge resources -- they must be looked at objectively by transparent and inclusive bodies, such as the Commission on Sustainable Development, and their actions made accountable similar to that of governments. If the private sector is unwilling to be monitored for impacts on human livelihoods, health and environmental sustainability, they should as a first step encourage greater corporate and shareholder responsibility to ensure best practice wherever they operate.

Globalization and interdependence are the hallmarks of the future. But it is important that leaders and government representatives, scientists, senior management personnel of the United Nations and development experts, concerned with the business of sustainable development and sustainable society, understand their grave responsibility in discussing the issue. Millions of people, the majority of them desperately poor and in the South, face daily the consequences of unsustainable practices imposed on them. We must not allow ourselves to cast about for solutions that will merely keep our own power and standards of living intact, when we are determining the fate of others.

Let me summarize by saying that the United Nations conferences have been extraordinarily successful in helping to define a common global agenda for the twenty-first century, certainly in the social and environmental spheres. Such is not the case in the economic sphere. Be that as it may, the ambitious agendas will come to nought if the resources from the national and international public sectors are not forthcoming, and if the rich and the powerful everywhere refused to be taxed, or if they use their control over State power to further reduce the fiscal burden on themselves. Finally, the basic fissures in the United Nations need to be healed, and the way to do so is to provide a counter-weight to the isolationist negative forces that are nascent in many places.

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For information media. Not an official record.