Preparatory Committee for United Nations Conference on Sustainable Developments Concludes by Adopting Decision Outlining Contents, Format of Outcome Document

8 March 2011

Preparatory Committee for United Nations Conference on Sustainable Developments Concludes by Adopting Decision Outlining Contents, Format of Outcome Document

8 March 2011
General Assembly
Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York

Preparatory Committee for UN Conference

on Sustainable Development

3rd & 4th Meetings (AM & PM)

Preparatory Committee for United Nations Conference on Sustainable Developments

Concludes by Adopting Decision Outlining Contents, Format of Outcome Document

Institutional Framework, Next Steps Discussed in Interactive Debates

To deliver on the singular promise of sustainable development and the gains made over the past 20 years in defining its three-pillared approach — linking economic development, social development, and environmental protection — the 2012 United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development must shift the discussion from function to form, especially within the United Nations system, the Preparatory Committee for that meeting heard today as it concluded its second session.

Sustainable development and the institutional framework underpinning it should no longer be understood as three pillars working in isolation, but as a system resembling a “triple helix”, Achim Steiner, Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), said as the Preparatory Committee rounded out its second day of interactive discussions on the two themes of “Rio 2012”.  Those themes, focused on reforming the institutional framework for sustainable development, and creating a green economy in the context of sustainable development and poverty eradication, respectively, would provide the backbone of the objectives of the Conference, to be held from 4 to 6 June 2012 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

Diagnosing the current system as highly fragmented and the international environmental bureaucracy as scattered during this morning’s vibrant debate on an emerging reform package for international environmental governance, delegations said too many international environmental bodies were handicapped by narrow mandates, inadequate resources and limited institutional authority.  Indeed, while more than 500 multilateral environmental agreements had been forged, their collective failure to halt environmental degradation exposed the weaknesses of the international institutional system.

For that reason, “form should follow function”, many delegations argued, embracing calls for strengthening the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) by expanding its mandate and boosting its resources, thereby elevating its reach to the level of other specialized agencies of the Organization, such as the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).

Pointing out also that a lack of accountability and convening power limited its impact, speakers also called for reform of the Commission on Sustainable Development.  Among the more concrete proposals was a suggestion to vest that body with a cooperative, State-driven peer-review process.  Reform should also aim to strengthen the role of the Economic and Social Council and enhance coordination between multilateral development banks and United Nations agencies, others said.

But even as the Preparatory Committee sought to forge an ambitious blueprint for reform, some delegates warned that more specificity and analysis were needed to achieve real change.  In particular, Pakistan’s representative said the discussion on national implementation should be more focused, and aim to identify which agency would lead the push on that front.

Cautioning that “we should not create structures in a vacuum”, Canada’s delegate expressed doubt that a more robust UNEP would “do the job” across all three pillars of sustainable development.  The core issue was ensuring effective coordination and guidance across the pillars by drawing on existing expertise.  Perhaps the “One UN” concept could be extended, or a “troika” of regional commissions, in addition to UNEP and the UNDP, could provide leadership, he suggested.

Following an interactive discussion of the next steps in the preparatory process, which included a debate on the contents and format of the Rio 2012 outcome document, the Preparatory Committee adopted a draft decision outlining the Member State-led process for developing that text.  By that decision, it called on its co-Chairs to circulate an early draft no later than early January 2012.

The decision recommended that the Bureau convene a three-day meeting in January 2012 for initial discussions on the draft outcome document and, within existing resources, set aside a week for negotiations — as “informal informals” — in February, March and April 2012.

That recommendation elicited some objections from a number of delegations, led by Argentina, on behalf of the “Group of 77” developing countries and China.  Despite their concern over the phrase “within existing resources”, those delegations agreed not to block the consensus on the understanding that the question of resources would be revisited in the Fifth Committee (Administrative and Budgetary) of the General Assembly.

The Preparatory Committee also adopted the draft report on its just-concluded session for submission to the Assembly.

In closing remarks, Sha Zukang, Under-Secretary-General for Economic and Social Affairs, commended delegates on making “measured progress” towards the objective of the Conference.  The journey ahead would be arduous and the challenge would be to identify elements of the road map for creating a green economy and forging consensus on the principles guiding its implementation, he added.

In the coming months, he said, the preparatory process would pick up its pace, with several countries hosting important preparatory meetings on the objectives and themes of the Conference, and national preparations beginning in the form of multi-stakeholder consultations.  He emphasized that developing countries were, and would continue to be, fully involved in the preparatory process.  Nevertheless, resources were needed, he said, calling on all countries to provide the required support.  “Your continuing engagement and contributions will be critical to a successful outcome of the Conference,” he added.

The Preparatory Committee will convene its third and final session from 28 to 30 May 2012.


Continuing its two-day session, the Preparatory Committee for the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (“Rio 2012”) met this morning to refine expectations for the Conference, to be held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in June 2012.  Participants would also analyse the themes of the Conference while considering progress and remaining gaps in the implementation of the outcomes of the major summits in the area of sustainable development.  The Preparatory Committee was also expected to take action on a draft proposal before concluding the session.  (For more information, see Press Release ENV/DEV/1198 of 4 March.)

The Preparatory Committee was also expected to hold two interactive discussions today, the first on the institutional framework for sustainable development, and the other on expected outcomes and next steps in the preparatory process, including discussion on the contents/format of the outcome document.  Before participants was the report of the Secretary-General on Objective and themes of the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (document A/CONF.216/PC/7) and a note by the Secretariat containing a Synthesis report on best practices and lessons learned on the objective and themes of the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (document A/CONF.216/PC/8).

Opening Remarks

JOHN ASHE ( Antigua and Barbuda), Co-Chair of the Preparatory Committee, said he shared the general impression that its theme, “Institutional framework for sustainable development”, was receiving less attention during the preparatory process than the one on the green economy.  As noted in the Secretariat’s synthesis report, there was an absence of international political will, a lack of convergence of the three pillars of sustainable development, inadequate coordination among organizations and agencies, and high competition for inadequate and unpredictable financial resources.  He added that monitoring, assessment, reporting and enforcement were “very weak” and there was a disconnect between the bodies making normative decisions and those responsible for implementation.

Similar trends seemed to persist at the national level, he continued, pointing to limited engagement by women and youth, limited institutional capacities, weak inter-ministerial cooperation and a lack of coordination between local and national institutions.  It was important to build upon existing institutions at the international level, using an institutional framework that was sufficiently flexible to address new, emerging issues, as well as balanced and inclusive enough to secure convergence of all three sustainable development pillars.  The focus should be on implementation, while at the national level, the right types of interlocutors must be identified and their capacity strengthened, he stressed.

Noting the existence of a number of proposals on the theme in the public domain, he said they covered a range of actions, from establishing a sustainable development council to strengthening the Economic and Social Council and reforming the Commission on Sustainable Development.  At the same time, discussions on international environmental governance were already at an advanced stage.  “Whatever route we take, time is of critical essence,” he emphasized, noting that some proposals might take time to mature, but progress on others could be made soon.  He suggested that delegations should focus on concrete ideas and proposals for establishing appropriate institutional frameworks.

Interactive Discussion I

The co-Chair then launched the interactive discussion on the “Institutional framework for sustainable development”, saying it would address the most significant challenges facing international institutions charged with promoting sustainable development.

Participants offered their views on ways to mainstream sustainable development into the work programmes of the main United Nations bodies and forums, such as the Economic and Social Council and the Second Committee (Economic and Financial) of the General Assembly.  Many speakers also focused on effective means of strengthening the participation of relevant stakeholders in national sustainable development efforts.  Still others offered ways in which a new institutional structure could standardize and simplify reporting mechanisms and compliance protocols, with a view to reducing the burden on developing countries in servicing multilateral environmental agreements.  Throughout the discussion, divisions arose over exactly how and whether to strengthen international environmental governance.

On that point, the representative of Hungary, speaking on behalf of the European Union, said strengthening international environmental governance was essential for improving the institutional framework for sustainable development.  He strongly supported the idea of upgrading the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) into a specialized agency with a revised mandate, supported by adequate and predictable financial contributions and operating on an equal footing with other specialized agencies.  That would better equip UNEP to meet growing challenges, he said, adding that he viewed such a step as part of a broader strategy for strengthening governance.  “The current status quo is not an option,” he said, stressing that all nations were confronted with the consequences of a fragmented and overlapping sustainable development architecture which limited their ability to address today’s multiple challenges.

Similarly, the representative of China pointed out that, while more than 500 multilateral environmental agreements had been forged, they had all failed to halt environmental degradation, exposing the weaknesses of the international institutional system.  Priority should be given to enhancing the role of UNEP by reinforcing its functions, increasing support for the agency and raising its efficiency.  The roles of the Commission on Sustainable Development and the Economic and Social Council should also be strengthened, and multilateral development banks should coordinate better with United Nations agencies.

Echoing that analysis, the representative of Germany agreed that today’s multilateral architecture was not driving the kind of substantial change needed to halt environmental degradation.  While UNEP was doing “a great job” of raising awareness, it was too weak and inadequately funded to close the gaps.

However, “we should not create structures in a vacuum”, the representative of Canada said, offering a different perspective.  He said that, while a more robust UNEP would certainly absorb resources, he was not convinced it would “do the job” across all three pillars of sustainable development.  There were numerous United Nations agencies addressing economic, social and environmental issues, he said, pointing out that 41 were dedicated to water alone.  The core issue was ensuring effective coordination and guidance across the pillars by drawing on existing expertise.  He suggested extending the “One UN” concept, or allowing either the Organization’s regional economic commissions — or a “troika” of regional commissions in addition to UNEP and United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) regional offices — to take on that role.  Canada was particularly intrigued by Brazil’s proposal for an “umbrella” approach, he said, wondering whether it could be compatible with the “One UN” approach to coordination and delivery.

Proposing an idea for improving the social pillar of sustainable development, a representative of the International Labour Organization (ILO) suggested offering “sustainable enterprise development programmes” in rural areas, with equal opportunities for women and men.  Social dialogue should also be promoted through “greening workplace” programmes, applying to both employers’ and workers’ organizations, she said.

A representative of the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) proposed coupling the sustainable development focus with a population focus at both the international and country levels, saying that, for the most part, population dynamics were not yet sufficiently incorporated into sustainable development plans and programmes, particularly to address the impact of high population growth rates in developing countries.  That affected a number of critical areas, including food security.

Throughout the discussion, many speakers echoed Canada’s call for greater coordination and guidance amid the proliferation of environmental agreements and scattered environmental bureaucracies.  To be effective, reform efforts must build on existing institutions rather than creating new ones, several stressed.  “We cannot create political will by creating new multilateral institutions,” the representatives of the United States said.  “Nor do new institutions guarantee greater efficiencies.”

In addition to urging the bolstering of UNEP’s mandate, delegations called for reforming the Commission on Sustainable Development, saying a lack of accountability and convening power limited its impact.  A few delegations suggested that a cooperative, State-driven peer-review process that treated countries equally might have a place in a reformed Commission.

According to the representative of Pakistan, too many existing global environmental mechanisms were soft in terms of commitment and compliance.  Normative and operational aspects must be clearly differentiated and, to avoid a conflict of interest, no one United Nations agency should be tasked with both, he said.  Moreover, the discussion on national implementation should be more focused and aim to identify which agency would lead the push on that front.

Addressing the national dimension of environmental governance, several speakers maintained that international mechanisms must be put in place to shore up those efforts, particularly in developing countries.  A global institutional framework must be oriented around supporting national circumstances rather than issuing mandates that did not apply, they said.  A number of delegations argued that whatever architecture was ultimately agreed upon, it must operate across all three pillars of sustainable development, not just one or two of them.  A focus on the environment would fail to deliver on the overarching promise of sustainable development and the gains made at the original Earth Summit, where the three pillars had been agreed.

At the same time, many argued that the global framework must be proactive, anticipating and addressing issues as they emerged rather than waiting until they became established problems.  To negotiate the requisite balance between those two requirements, the global environmental framework must, therefore, be endowed with a high degree of flexibility.

As others had done, the representative of Australia highlighted the outcome of the Nairobi-Helsinki review process of international environmental governance, suggesting that its analysis shed light on the financial, legal and structural implications for broader reform.

A representative of the World Trade Organization said Rio 2012 provided a chance to reaffirm the well-established link between trade and sustainable development.  The current trade negotiations in Geneva would culminate in an outcome document that would quantify existing procedures between UNEP, the World Trade Organization and the wide range of multilateral environmental agreements.

Saying she agreed with the fears voiced throughout the preparatory process over “green protectionism”, she noted that, in fact, the international trading system was facing a rapidly proliferating array of measures under the green economy banner, and in response was preparing a classification of those measures, which, she pointed out, were not new, but had first emerged in the 1970s.  Moreover, the multilateral trading system could play a fundamental role in curbing protectionism, she emphasized, adding that, when necessary, the World Trade Organization’s dispute-resolution mechanism provided a forum for countries to challenge trade policies amounting to green protectionism.

ACHIM STEINER, Executive Director, United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), said meetings in Belgrade, Rome, Helsinki and elsewhere had shown that the issues surrounding reform were clearly articulated, and the task now was to shift the discussion “from functions to form”.  The institutional framework supporting the United Nations system in its delivery of support to States was fundamental to its future credibility, he said, adding that discussion of the subject went to the heart of the Organization’s relevance and capacity to deliver on the many mandates that States had decided upon.

He went on to stress that the international environmental governance discussion was integral to — not separate from — strengthening the institutional framework for sustainable development.  If States believed that environment ministers had an important role to play in international cooperation on sustainable development, it must be recognized that, under existing mandates, the current system would not serve them.  The Joint Inspection Unit had reviewed the issue two years ago and its report should remain a reference document, he said, adding that greater coherence and synergies were needed to ensure that mandates were implemented.  That required greater authority and means, he stressed.  Equally, it was time to talk about a forum to address the various functions discussed over the last nearly 40 years, he said, which required “seizing the moment” to evolve the system.  The three pillars of sustainable development worked not in isolation but rather “like a triple helix”, which only functioned when its elements were aligned with one another.

The representative of Spain, speaking on behalf of the President of the UNEP Governing Council and the Global Ministerial Environment Forum, shared with participants the outcomes of two meetings of the Consultative Group of Ministers or High-level Representatives on International Environmental Governance.  The Consultative Group had identified various responses to challenges in international environmental governance, which were outlined in the Nairobi-Helsinki Outcome as areas requiring attention, he said.  They included strengthening the “science-policy interface”, with full participation by developing countries, and developing a system-wide strategy for environment in the United Nations system; encouraging synergies among compatible multilateral environmental agreements; and creating a stronger link between global environmental policymaking and financing, among other things.

The Consultative Group generally accepted that “form should follow function” and that UNEP should be strengthened, he said.  On behalf of the Governing Council, he invited the Preparatory Committee to initiate, at the present session, a full analysis of the financial, structural and legal implications and comparative advantages of the options identified in the Nairobi-Helsinki Outcome, making use of the expertise to be found in relevant United Nations bodies, including UNEP.

However, strengthening UNEP alone might not be enough, he cautioned, reminding delegates that the Nairobi-Helsinki Outcome contained several options for broader reform.  The key challenge was to move the conversation beyond diagnosing the problem and articulating a forward-looking consensus on reform objectives, including the identification of alternative “mature” scenarios to be elaborated — and ultimately negotiated — in the run-up to Rio 2012.

“We’re in a crisis of short-term thinking,” added a representative of the non-governmental organization community major group.

Delegates also said the creation of various institutions dedicated to sustainable development had led to a duplication of efforts, a loss of synergies and inadequate implementation, among other inefficiencies.  Some recalled that in trying to avoid that, world leaders at the 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development had decided that the General Assembly, Economic and Social Council and Commission on Sustainable Development would oversee the three pillars of sustainable development.  Now, States must address, review and analyse the efficiency of the mandates assigned, and agree on the “functions and forms” to help the institutional framework address cross-cutting issues.

Taking that to heart, the representative of Brazil offered a vision for an “umbrella” structure within the United Nations system, focused on promoting sustainable development and implementing existing multilateral commitments.  In that vision, the need for coherence and efficiency would require redefining the roles and mandates of existing bodies, especially the Economic and Social Council, which, though charged with integrating the three pillars of sustainable development, had not comprehensively debated the issue to add value to deliberations.

She went on to note that the Commission’s multi-year programme of work allowed for only limited discussion of previously agreed topics.  While there was a possibility of reviewing the themes of each biannual cycle, it had not happened in practice, she said, noting that, in the context of rapid institutional development over the last 20 years, that programming aspect had hindered the Commission’s political role.  In closing, she announced that on 22 August, Brazil would host informal consultations on issues relating to Rio 2012.

Other speakers argued that the lines between the Commission and UNDP must be more clearly delineated to guarantee better policy coherence.  Still others said the international institutional architecture should be anchored in the principles of equity, and common but differentiated responsibilities, especially when related to support and technology transfer to developing countries.

Pointing out that “no table can stand on two legs”, the representative of France stressed the continuing existence of the economic and social pillars of sustainable development.  Despite a multitude of agreements, resources had been wasted and ideas had not been put into action — a “lamentable” and costly situation that denied developing countries access to negotiations and help in implementing adopted texts.  It also placed institutions in competition with each other, he said.  The creation of a specialized environmental agency was the most credible option available to provide an effective response to urgent challenges.

Also taking part in the discussion were representatives of Argentina (on behalf of the “Group of 77” developing countries and China), Canada, Bolivia, Nicaragua, Indonesia, Australia, Thailand, Switzerland, Mexico, Barbados (on behalf of the Caribbean Community), Republic of Korea, Pakistan, United States, Egypt, Japan, Kenya, Saudi Arabia, Italy, Sudan, Czech Republic, Algeria, Norway, Chile, Morocco, New Zealand, Guatemala, Russian Federation, India, Cuba, South Africa and Iran.

The Preparatory Committee also heard from representatives of the indigenous peoples and children and youth major groups.

Representatives of the World Trade Organization, UNFPA, International Strategy for Disaster Reduction (UNISDR), Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission, and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) also participated.

Interactive Discussion II

PARK IN-KOOK ( Republic of Korea), Committee Co-Chair, launched the interactive discussion on “The expected outcomes and next steps in the preparatory process, including discussion on the contents/format of the outcome document”, by emphasizing the necessity of holding an explicit discussion of two interlinked questions on the future direction of preparations for Rio 2012.  First, as everyone was asking, what was expected from the Conference?  Secondly, how should the outcome document be structured and what would it contain?  In addressing those questions, the intent should be to fashion an action-oriented document, capable of guaranteeing implementation actions on the ground, he said.  Indeed, slow implementation had been sustainable development’s biggest problem and it was imperative that the current session shape a vision to overcome that challenge.

As for the outcome document’s structure, he said it could take one of three forms, the first being the comprehensive model, typically consisting of a declaration and a detailed programme of action covering all the relevant issues.  Examples included the original Rio Declaration and Agenda 21, as well as the Johannesburg Declaration and Plan of Implementation.  The practical model, embracing expediency in the face of limiting circumstances, was usually only a political declaration that provided a convenient option where time and resources were limited.  The Political Declaration on Africa’s Development Needs was one example.  The political model attempted to find the best fit between the other two in order to achieve the broadest political buy-in for a win-win solution, he said, describing it as a hybrid model that lent itself to due political and programmatic treatment, as seen in the Millennium Declaration, including the internationally agreed development goals, the Monterrey Consensus and the Doha Declaration on Financing for Development.

During the ensuing discussion, participants shared their respective visions of an outcome document, with many recalling that the format for a draft Rio outcome text had already been laid out in General Assembly resolution 64/236 (2010), by which the Assembly had decided to hold the Conference and mandated that it would “result in a focused political document”.  In that context, several delegations said the document should be concise and include concrete proposals.  A few speakers proposed the inclusion of a “green economy road map” that would include policy prescriptions and operational portions.  Its approach to institutional reform could address governance in each of the pillars, alongside a horizontal assessment of sustainable development governance.

Presenting a more detailed proposal for the format, the representative of Brazil suggested that the outcome document consider its themes and objectives from a cross-cutting perspective.  It could also outline how the food, energy, climate and financial crises had exposed flaws in the global system, she said, underlining how such an analysis could help renew political commitment for sustainable development.  The outcome document’s first section might fulfil the Conference’s second objective — assessing progress in implementation and remaining gaps.  Another section could outline a framework for action.  Finally, an assessment of the institutional framework could provide suggestions for reform, she said.

The representative of Guatemala said the structure should respond to one single question:  How?  Both Agenda 21 and the Johannesburg Plan of Implementation had answered the question what was needed, and Rio 2012 must build on how to create a green economy and an institutional reform process, she said.  Requesting the Bureau to provide a written summary of the current session to guide deliberations in capitals and among discussion groups, she also stressed the importance of including developing countries in the Bureau’s proposed schedule of “informal informals” for 2012.

Along those lines, several delegates underscored the need for inputs from developing countries, as several United Nations agencies and programmes provided updates on their planned contributions to the preparatory process.  Speaking on behalf of the five regional commissions, the representative of the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) said the commissions were working to compile summaries of what countries were doing and of the prevailing thinking on sustainable development.  They would issue a joint report in early 2012.

Despite assertions that the format was already decided, several delegations suggested that the outcome document might go further, with the representative of China saying it was not appropriate to preset that format.  The representative of Ecuador said the objectives of the Conference should not be limited to addressing a green economy as the single instrument to further sustainable development.

Others participating in the discussion were representatives of Switzerland, Bolivia, Japan and Germany.

A member of the European Union delegation also spoke, as did representatives of the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO) and the International Telecommunication Union (ITU).

Action on Draft Decision

The Preparatory Committee then took up a draft decision on the process for the preparation of the draft outcome document for the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, circulated in an English-only informal paper.

After the Secretary read the text aloud, the representative of Argentina, speaking on behalf of the “Group of 77” developing countries and China, said it was unfortunate that, despite discussions about commitment, some delegations had been “reticent” in that regard.  The Group of 77 objected to the phrase “within existing resources” in sub-paragraph e, but, with the understanding that the question of resources would be revisited in the Fifth Committee (Administrative and Budgetary), it would not block the consensus for adoption, she said.

The representative of Cuba also expressed his deep reservations over the phrase “within existing resources”, emphasizing that neither the Preparatory Committee nor any intergovernmental body was mandated to decide on budgetary or financial issues, a role that was incumbent on the Fifth Committee.  The hackneyed phrase about existing resources was only brought out when negotiations were of vital importance for developing countries, he said.

Expressing their support for those positions were the representatives of the Dominican Republic and Venezuela.

The Preparatory Committee adopted the draft decision, requesting the Bureau to initiate an open, transparent and inclusive process, led by Member States, to prepare a draft text, based upon all preparatory inputs, which would serve as the basis for the outcome document for Rio 2012.  It invited all States, relevant United Nations organizations and stakeholders to provide written inputs by 1 November 2011 for inclusion in a document that would serve as the basis for preparing the “zero draft” of the outcome document.

Requesting the Bureau to compile those inputs and present the resulting text to Member States and stakeholders at the second intersessional meeting in mid-December 2011, the Preparatory Committee, called on the co-Chairs to present the “zero draft”, on the Bureau’s behalf, for consideration no later than early January 2012.  It also recommended that the Bureau convene a three-day meeting in that month for initial discussions on the “zero draft” and set aside a full week for negotiations in February, March and April 2012, ensuring that those meetings were “informal informals”, and as such, accommodated within existing resources.

TANIA VALERIE RAGUŽ ( Croatia), Rapporteur of the Preparatory Committee, then presented the draft report on the current session (document A/CONF.216/PC/L.3) on the understanding that today’s proceedings would be included in the final draft, to be submitted to the General Assembly.

Making closing remarks were the representatives of Hungary (on behalf of the European Union), Barbados (on behalf of the Caribbean Community) and the Maldives (on behalf of the Alliance of Small Island States).

The Preparatory Committee also heard closing remarks from representatives of the following major groups:  women; local authorities; trade unions; children and youth; business and industry; non-governmental organizations; farmers; scientific and technological community; and indigenous peoples.

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For information media • not an official record
For information media. Not an official record.