23 June 1997


23 June 1997

Press Release


19970623 Opens Special Session to Review Global Efforts for Sustainable Development, Regrets Lack of 'Follow through' on Promises Made

This is the text of the address by the President of the General Assembly, Razali Ismail (Malaysia), at the opening today of the nineteenth special session of the Assembly for the overall review and appraisal of the implementation of Agenda 21:

I make this speech mindful that we are gathered here to make an objective and honest assessment of the commitments made at the Earth Summit five years ago. Our task of reviewing the implementation of Agenda 21 must go beyond simply calculating ratios of progress versus deterioration. This is a time for critical reflection and concrete action.

Recognizing that we are tied in a network of mutuality and common destiny, and in a spirit of partnership, I extend a warm welcome to representatives of different sectors of civil society. For the first time, you, as stakeholders, shall participate in the United Nations General Assembly alongside governments.

In Rio, we recognized that the Earth's biosphere -- that thin layer of land, air and water that forms the surface tissue of our beautiful blue planet, upon which all life on Earth depends -- is being progressively destroyed. We, as a species, as a planet, are teetering on the edge, living unsustainably and perpetuating inequity, and may soon pass the point of no return. Only a blueprint for global action would ensure our survival. Thus was born the Rio Compact and Agenda 21 -- a new spirit of partnership, a social, ethical and political contract forged on inter-dependence, inter- generational equity and common but differentiated responsibilities.

There have been notable achievements since Rio, if somewhat scattered and uneven. Prime among them has been the unfolding of Agenda 21 into a living document beyond the realm of conferences. National strategies, local initiatives, public consciousness and environmental agreements have proliferated, accompanied by tentative reforms of institutions and aid programmes. On the global level, population growth has stabilized, infant mortality fallen, life expectancy increased and nutrition improved.

The elaboration of the Rio Declaration into legal principles and international law, as enshrined in the conventions, is also a notable achievement. But the end result remains paltry, due to the slowness in dealing with issues, the inconsistent fulfilment of agreements, and the weak ability to enforce compliance and to ensure equitable benefits for all. In this context, should one rush to conclude a convention on forests, if the protracted time needed for the negotiations would provide an excuse for further delays in securing the rights of forest dwellers and implementing best practices?

Five years on from Rio, we face a major recession; not economic, but a recession of spirit, a recession of the very political will that is essential for catalysing real change. The visionary ambition of Agenda 21 is tempered by some damning statistics which show that we are heading further away from, and not towards, sustainable development. We continue to consume resources, pollute, spread and entrench poverty as though we are the last generation on Earth. Failures in management of natural resources continue to create scarcities, to invite conflict, to pose dangers to public health and to incite social disintegration. Those at Rio who made serious commitments have not followed through on their promises. This is a shame, made tragic because impressive gains in science and technology have advanced our understanding, presented policy options and choices of action to those in power who could make a difference.

We must strip ourselves of old excuses for not tackling effectively enough the driving forces of environmental degradation and underdevelopment. This special session will certainly have failed in the eyes of the world if it produces nothing more than stirring rhetoric that seizes the headlines and exhortations "to continue to do more". We are all familiar with the tactics being played. Posturing, spinning declarations of intent, pointing the finger at others, pandering to interest groups, weighing short-term profits and immediate electoral gains, and emphasizing the need for clearer definitions, dialogue or information-gathering. These prevent plans of action from truly being operationalized into programmes of implementation.

I challenge governments North and South to tackle the real obstacles to implementing Agenda 21. We must avoid the temptation to concentrate on just so-called emerging issues. The crucial issues are the cross-sectoral issues, those that link environment and development. Since Rio, we have seen a further continuation of North-South trench politics. Governments and non- governmental organizations from the developed world vigorously promote environmental protection, without shouldering the greater burden of adjustment on consumption and production patterns. Nor do they emphasize with equal balance the importance of fulfilling global responsibilities with national ones. Meanwhile, many developing countries continue to emphasize their right to development, without placing sufficient stress on social equity and

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transparent, participatory decision-making. Neither approach bodes well for the future.

The Denver Summit Communiqué lists priority issues for future work on sustainable development without making any reference to poverty eradication, the special needs of developing countries. The political appeal of environmental issues stole the show. Levels of development assistance are not even graced with the tag of "business as usual". Official development assistance (ODA) has sharply declined from $55 billion to less than $50 billion since Rio. There are no signs the decline will be reversed, and this remains a blow to international cooperation. This figure is less than a third of the $150 billion spent on average each year by the industrialized countries to procure, research and develop weapons of war. We must be warned that market mantras alone will not secure sustainable development. Neither will the lure of global integration, deliver on promises sometime tomorrow that which we are unwilling to recommit to today, and were unable to honour yesterday.

Given the global interdependence recognized at Rio, this meeting not only requires us to reaffirm our previous commitments, but to address a new set of challenges that I pose here as questions: To governments -- "How will you engage in and fulfil global commitments without fearing that you have forsaken the need to look after your national interests first?" Surely, it is not that national interests should be compromised in favour of broad international considerations, but simply that national interests can and should be defined in terms that encompass the well-being of other States and peoples as being tied into one's own prospects and prosperity.

To the private sector -- "Are the imperatives of profit, new markets, competitive edge and commercial secrecy so great that you remain reluctant to have an open and responsible dialogue with other stakeholders?" To members of civil society -- "How do you account for five years of lost opportunity?" You are an essential component in this process as producers, consumers, taxpayers, and as supporters and critics of the governments gathered here today. It is your responsibility to actively participate in sustainable development in your own lives, and to demand no less of your political, economic and social institutions. Finally, it is fitting that we hold this special session three days after the United Nations General Assembly adopted an Agenda for Development. The United Nations continues to work on all aspects of development, seeing it as the vital ingredient to achieve global security and to improve the social quality and facts of life of millions. However, its continued weakening, both politically and financially, stretches it way too thin, assigns to it missions impossible, and makes it a convenient whipping boy. If true value continues to be placed on finding global solutions to global problems, a strengthened United Nations is essential.

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For information media. Not an official record.