Commission on Sustainable Development Helped to Shape Global Agenda for Twenty-first Century, Says Chair, as Body Holds Final Session

20 September 2013

Commission on Sustainable Development Helped to Shape Global Agenda for Twenty-first Century, Says Chair, as Body Holds Final Session

20 September 2013
Economic and Social Council
Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York

Commission on Sustainable Development

Twentieth Session

2nd Meeting* (AM)

Commission on Sustainable Development Helped to Shape Global Agenda


For Twenty-first Century, Says Chair, as Body Holds Final Session


Delegates Hail Innovations, Point Out Weaknesses during Panel Discussion

The Commission on Sustainable Development had helped to shape the global agenda for the twenty-first century, its Chairperson said today as the body held its final session, 20 years after its inception.

Chairperson Bektas Mukhamedzhanov, Vice-Minister for Environment Protection of Kazakhstan, said in his opening remarks that the Commission may be well remembered for its pioneering efforts to open wide the doors of the United Nations to non-governmental organizations and other entities outside the system wishing to make their voices heard and influence the intergovernmental negotiating process.

However, by the time of convening the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development ( Rio+20), it had become clear that there had been insufficient progress in reversing or slowing environmental destruction.  More action was urgently needed to affect the transformative shift required to support a growing world population in a sustainable manner.  World leaders at Rio+20 had decided to establish a body to replace the Commission and play the role of a “universal intergovernmental high-level political forum, building on the strengths, experiences, resources and inclusive participation modalities” of the Commission, according to the Conference outcome document, “The Future We Want”.  The Commission was, thus, “graduating” from being a functional subsidiary of the Economic and Social Council and beginning a new era as the High-level Political Forum.

Regarding the new entity, he said that some countries may reach beyond the agreements towards even more ambitious goals, while others may set goals that were less so.  The Forum could learn much from the Commission’s success in engaging major groups and fostering multi-stakeholder partnerships, he said, adding that participation by civil society should be encouraged.  The Forum would carry on the Commission’s best traditions and serve as a beacon for all those voices wishing to be heard, from youth to indigenous farmers, he said.

Noel Sinclair, Deputy Chef de Cabinet, spoke on behalf of the President of the General Assembly, saying that addressing the relationship between human beings and the planet had been a fundamental task of the United Nations from the outset.  Today’s session provided an opportunity to mark an important milestone, take stock of past approaches and move forward on the basis of lessons learned.  Recalling the Commission’s creation two decades ago, at a time when the world faced the challenge of “industrialization at all costs”, he said the world had soon learned that such policies led to compromising the earth’s long-term viability.

“We must accept change and do our best to adapt to it in support of the greater good,” he emphasized.  Rather than “mourn the loss” of the Commission, it was important to learn from its past lessons and to build on them.  Arguably, its most important achievement was its having provided a home for the sustainable development agenda, which had been kept on active review for more than two decades.  Energy, oceans, sustainable consumption and production, and forests were only a few topics “under the microscope” of the Commission, he said.

He went on to note that the Commission had also given a voice to small island developing States.  It had also helped to facilitate voluntary multi-scope partnerships and promoted a holistic approach to sustainable development.  However, the Commission had not been able to adapt to changing times, he noted, urging the High-level Political Forum to apply lessons learned to the new sustainable development architecture in order to prevent the replication of past weaknesses.  Calling on Member States to “rekindle the aspiration” left unfulfilled by the Commission, he said the new Forum must work to mainstream the three pillars of sustainable development — economic, social and environmental.

Its work must be in tune with new and emerging challenges, he continued.  It must be responsive to the needs of States and peoples.  The Forum must remain focused on the primary goal of enhancing multinational engagement and ensuring the actualization of Rio+20 commitments.  The next year and a half would be critical for the United Nations in addressing global environmental issues.  It was for those reasons and the magnitude of the tasks ahead that the General Assembly President had chosen “The Post-2015 Development Agenda:  Setting the Stage” as the theme for the new session, he said.

Wu Hongbo, Under-Secretary-General for Economic and Social Affairs, noted that much attention had been paid to the Commission’s shortcomings during preparations for Rio+20, but that critical analysis had proven to be very useful.  Efforts to understand the challenges involved had allowed the Commission to envision a way forward, and the lessons learned would help improve how international efforts were organized.

The Commission had been a unique platform that took a long view of the future beyond reacting to the immediate crisis, aiming instead to formulate and implement visionary long-range policies.  When assessing the Commission’s performance, it was important to appreciate the exceptional breadth and scope of its programme of work.  Over the years, it had addressed critical issues, such as agriculture, water and energy, in tandem with diverse cross-cutting issues ranging from education and health to finance and technology.  That cross-pollinating effect had generated a fertile mix of interdisciplinary outcomes, actions and policies.

With the growing awareness and urgency of sustainable development issues, perhaps the Commission’s most lasting legacy would prove to be the innovative and inclusive ways in which it had engaged the voices of major groups, he said.  Since its creation in 1992, the Commission had been at the forefront of integrating their participation into the intergovernmental process.  Going forward, the new Forum would continue the Commission’s traditions, working to ensure its own success by raising sustainable development to a higher level politically, he said.  The Forum’s work should be supported by much stronger policy interfaces and strong links to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and other bodies.

João Felipe Scarpelini, representative of Major Groups, said that, although today’s session marked the end of an era, the work was far from over.  Millions of young people were still struggling to find decent work, while millions of others struggled to realize their human rights.  Sustainable development was not a mere concept, but a way of life, he emphasized, saying that sustainable development would ensure future prosperity.

The attainment of sustainability must come from within, he said, pointing out that the planet had boundaries and limits.  The international community’s legacies should include intergenerational justice and recognize that the voices of civil society were an integral part of the process.  Over the last 20 years, major groups had played a role in the Commission’s success and enriched the intergovernmental debate.  Civil society promoted international agreements and outcomes at the national and local levels, he said.  “They take it home.”

Requesting the preservation of the Commission’s “practices of the past”, he expressed hope that the new Forum would continue the Commission’s work in a transparent and holistic manner.  Including the three dimensions of sustainable development at all levels was also critical.  Today’s multiple financial and environmental crises must inspire people to move towards innovative business models and more responsible production and consumption patterns, he said.  That would require the elimination of reckless speculation.

Earlier this morning, the Commission elected Mr. Mukhamejanov ( Kazakhstan) Chair of the final session, by acclamation, as endorsed by the Asia-Pacific States Group.  It also elected the following Vice-Chairs:  Miloš Nikolić ( Montenegro), endorsed by the Group of Eastern European States; and Paolo Soprano ( Italy), endorsed by the Group of Western European and O ther States).  The Commission also adopted its provisional agenda, contained in document E/CN.17/2013/1.

High-level Dialogue

The Commission held a “High-level Dialogue on lessons learned from the Commission on Sustainable Development and the way forward”.

Chaired by Mr. Mukhamedzhanov (Kazakhstan), it featured the following panellists:  Valli Moosa, Chairman of the Board, World Wildlife Fund, South Africa; Bedrich Moldan, Director, Charles University, Prague; Achim Steiner, Under-Secretary General and Executive Director, United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP); Nikhil Seth, Director, Division for Sustainable Development, Department of Economic and Social Affairs; Braulio Dias, Executive Secretary, Convention on Biological Diversity; and Barbara Adams, Senior Policy Advisor, Global Policy Forum.

Mr. MOOSA, speaking via video link, recalled that a mere 10 or 20 years ago, sustainable development had been something that concerned only environment ministers.  Now, all of that had changed, due largely to the Commission’s work.  Today, one could not find a minster responsible for agriculture or energy who did not refer to sustainable development.  In that way, the Commission’s impact had been phenomenal.  Instead of examining past points of weakness, delegations should focus on the Commission’s successes, he said.

He went on to recall a time when large corporations were not held accountable at all for their environmental impacts, noting that companies listed on stock exchanges were now required by national legislation to report not only on their financial performance, but also on the impact they made on society and the environment.  That was an achievement of the Commission, and those who had worked with it would continue to do the work of sustainable development and promote its ideals wherever they were.

Mr. MOLDAN said he had been one of the Commission’s founding fathers.  One of its main tasks had been to monitor the progress of Agenda 21, and to do so, it had been necessary to devise ways and means to effectively measure progress on sustainable development.  He said it had been part of his work as Commission Chair during the ninth session to create the first system of indicators and measurements, which had then been followed by many others.  That had required the cooperation of major groups, including the scientific and technological community, which had greatly impacted global policies.

Mr. STEINER, noting an atmosphere of melancholy in the room, said the Commission had reached its zenith and was being replaced by high-level political discourse.  That was a reason to celebrate as it affirmed the ambition that had led to the Commission’s creation.  It was typical at the United Nations to find many “semi-colons and hyphens”, he said, noting how rare it was to find an ending to any of the Organization’s many different processes.  Recalling the Commission’s genesis as the result of work by leaders in the environmental and conservation movements, he said that 20 years on, that had finally led to a global conversation on sustainable development.

“We have seen many success stories, but not yet any breakthroughs,” he continued.  What Rio+20 had done was to elevate the understanding of sustainable development beyond the notion of pillars which entrapped the nature of sustainable thinking.  The past was not a guide to the future, he emphasized, warning against the “incubation of such ideas”.  It was, rather, a matter of the emergence of a new way of thinking.  The High-level Political Forum presented an immense opportunity for that advance.  He said that, although that alone would not guarantee that the conversation would mature, he remained optimistic.

Mr. SETH said that the decision to create the Commission had not been an easy one, but the energy of the major groups had made the difference.  Rio+20 had been marked by unprecedented participation on their part, providing a home for civil society — another testimony to its continued engagement.  He said that, for his part, the present moment was not without emotion, as 20 years ago, in the same room, “we were dotting the last ‘I’s and crossing the last ‘T’s” on the establishment of the Commission, and looking to the negotiations as if the world depended on it.  Hopefully, the new Forum would give political heft to influence action on all levels, and remain committed.

With a “ringside” seat at the Commission’s inception, he recalled that the task of reviewing and monitoring progress on all other national-level sustainable development agreements was an extremely important element of success.  Also vital was the engagement and participation of major groups and multiple stakeholders, he said, recalling how national reports had minimal global impacts as many lacked data and resources.  They would benefit from the refinement and further establishment of indicators.  There was now a new opportunity to reflect the complex development models that many countries had adopted, he said, noting that some countries aimed to reach beyond agreements to more ambitious goals, while others set less ambitious ones.  Hence, a degree of flexibility was needed.  The other challenge was to focus on specific issues that would engage most leaders, such as the overarching issue of poverty eradication.

Dr. DIAS said it had been a privilege to participate in the Commission’s early work as a member of the Brazilian delegation.  During its 20 years of existence, it had served as a useful link between signatory parties to conventions and the General Assembly.  That political support had been invaluable in advancing the biodiversity agenda.  Through its work programme, the Commission had provided a valuable framework within which the United Nations system and Member States could be mobilized at all levels.

Going forward, it was important not only to build on the Commission’s strengths, but also to accord high priority to issues not previously addressed, such as biodiversity, he emphasized.  The new Forum must succeed in mainstreaming biodiversity into the sustainable development agenda in order to promote it, he said, adding that addressing biodiversity was necessary in terms of poverty eradication, health, promoting human well-being and adapting to climate change.  The new Forum must continue the Commission’s good work and pay attention to other important issues, such as biodiversity, to ensure progress towards accomplishing the agenda, he said.

Ms. ADAMS said that one of the major accomplishments from Rio 1992 and the Commission itself was a universally recognized, integrated, holistic concept of sustainable development that captured the interest and initiative of people at all levels.  She said that very soon after that Conference, she had been pleasantly surprised to walk into her local library in North London and see a local Agenda 21.  As the Commission had carried on over the years, however, there had been a drift towards the environmental sidelines.  Vital constituencies had, thus, been lost because the linkages were not strong enough, she said, citing the example of the United Nations framework Convention on Climate Change.

In establishing the new Forum, some felt that important partners, such as the Human Rights Council and the international financial institutions, were being overlooked, she said.  Going forward, there was much to be done in order to capture the true concept of sustainable development.  Policy coherence issues at the multilateral and bilateral levels would be a very important part of the agenda, she said, adding that a focus must be placed on job creation and fiscal policy, which were not separate tracks.  The new Forum should establish goals and targets that would function as incentives, not punishments, and that were geared towards long-term structural change.

Interactive Dialogue

In the ensuing discussion, several delegates emphasized the importance of drawing from past lessons and experiences, both positive and negative.  The representative of the European Union delegation said it was important to build on the Commission’s experience of having been less than successful in addressing the connections linking three pillars of sustainable development.

Japan’s delegate pointed out that the Commission’s lack of flexibility and “too much time” spent on negotiating outcome documents had prevented innovative discussion, while integrating the three pillars of sustainable development into its work.

However, Italy’s representative said that all those years were needed to understand the “real essence and complex and revolutionary” nature of sustainable development.  It was a difficult and long, no less urgent process.  In many ways, the Commission had been successful and had performed fundamental tasks.  It had given a home to sustainable development, often playing an impressive and catalytic role in engaging Government stakeholders.

Fiji’s delegate, speaking on behalf of the “Group of 77” developing countries and China, said the new Forum must reflect major lessons learned from the Commission, such as centrality, which kept sustainable development issues under review and ensured a cohesive follow-up process.

Iran’s representative said that without the Commission, sustainable development would not have the maturity it enjoyed today.  The new Forum must continue to mainstream sustainable development, incorporate Rio+20 principles and assist in the transfer of technology to developing countries.

A representative of the Women’s Major Group expressed concern that inequality had grown, as had environmental destruction.  She called for international binding agreements that would ensure that gender and economic justice were no longer plundered by economic interests.  That could only be achieved by the full and active participation of women and other members of civil society in the Forum, she said.

Also participating in today’s discussion were representatives of Switzerland and Malaysia.

Also participating in the discussion were representatives of the following major groups:  Non-Governmental Organizations, Business and Industry, and Children and Youth.

Concluding Remarks

Mr. MUKHAMEDZHANOV ( Kazakhstan) said in his closing remarks that the lessons learned from 20 years of the Commission’s work should be the starting point in giving final shape to the High-level Political Forum.  The new entity would be at the heart of a strengthened institutional framework for sustainable development.  It would have a clear niche, strongly linked to the Rio+20 follow-up, other related conferences and summits, and the post-2015 development agenda, while at the same time helping to mainstream sustainable development.

He encouraged the Forum to maintain a strong focus on implementation of sustainable development at all levels.  That would include maintaining a focused and flexible agenda, providing strategic guidance rooted in country-level realities and the latest scientific findings, and allowing the sharing of experiences.  It was also important to integrate the economic, social and environmental dimensions of sustainable development.  The Forum must also engage more strongly with the economic and social policies affecting communities.  Enhancing the engagement of major groups, such as the academic and scientific communities, would also be beneficial, he said.

Lastly, he commended “those of you who will never give up on your quest for a more sustainable and equitable world”, urging such people to “keep on envisioning, creating and innovating”.  He expressed hope that the Commission’s legacy, both its successes and the lessons learned from it, would resonate in time and through history, so that future generations would understand how the past had shared the world they had inherited.

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*     The 1st Meeting was covered in Press Release ENV/DEV/1213 dated 13 May 2011.

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