Maurice Strong" This is not just a technical issue. Everybody's actions are motivated by their inner life, their moral, spiritual and ethical values. Global agreements will be effective when they are rooted in the individual commitment of people, which arises from their own inner life."

Environment: radical changes needed

Reflections of Maurice Strong at Symposium on “Environmental Change and Global Responses 2012”, Monday, February 20th 2012

strong 1972
Maurice F. Strong, Secretary-General of the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment, during a staff meeting in Geneva, planning for the United Nations Conference on Human Environment, which took  from 5 to 16 June 1972. (Credit: UN Photo)

I am pleased at the opportunity of participating in this Symposium and am extremely disappointed to miss being able to be there in person with my successors at UNEP to whom I send my very warm and special greetings as well as to Achim Steiner and other participants.

I have been asked to reflect on the period 1972 to 1975 so will focus my remarks accordingly.

The Stockholm Conference in 1972 put the environment issue on the international agenda. Preparations for it were fraught with many difficulties, particularly around the concerns of the developing countries that the environment was an issue for the rich which could divert attention and resources from development and elimination of poverty, which were the priority of developing countries. Led by Brazil, they even considered boycotting the Conference and insisted that the more developed countries provide new and additional financial resources to developing countries if they participated in environmental cooperation.

Stockholm was also notable as the first United Nations Conference, in which China participated after it took its rightful place in the United Nations while the Soviet Union and other Communist countries boycotted it on the grounds that what was then East Germany was denied participation. Climate change was one of the issues cited as requiring attention and later was given high priority in UNEP. The Statement of Principles and Action Plan approved at the Conference went beyond expectations.

Stockholm led to the establishment,  in December 1972, of the United Nations Environment Programs and agreed to establish its headquarters in Nairobi. It also gave rise to the establishment of environmental ministeries or directorates in most other countries. From inception, UNEP was handicapped by inadequate financial support and small staff due to limitations imposed by some of the same developed countries which supported its creation, the Brussell’s Group, while secretly agreeing to ensure that it would not be a major organization.

Despite this, it was able to recruit especially experienced and competent staff.  Although its location was far removed from the UN organizations, it was expected to coordinate the work on the UN on environmental issues. The establishment of the Environment Coordination Board with the participation of the heads of both the World Bank and International Monetary Fund which made it necessary for other agency heads to participate. This helped to make UNEP’s coordinating role during that period quite effective. Later however, the Board was replaced by a lower level Committee.

I was particularly fortunate to be able to recruit Dr. Mostafa Tolba as Deputy who then succeeded me as Executive Director during UNEP’s period of most significant influence and accomplishment especially important amongst these were the Conventions it initiated.

Also during its first years, UNEP moved from its temporary offices in central Nairobi to its current site which was then on the outskirts. This early period set the stage for much of the progress that UNEP made after 1975, which I know the other participants in the Symposium who were largely responsible for this, will comment. Fortunately the current Executive Director Achim Steiner in the same tradition is providing UNEP with the enlightened and creative leadership it needs at this critical period of its history.

This Anniversary comes as we prepare for Rio +20 which we must view as a unique opportunity to make the “change of-course” called for by business leaders at the Earth Summit in 1992. It requires fundamental changes in the way in which we manage the activities through which we impact on the Earth’s sustainability. This will require a degree of cooperation beyond anything we have yet experienced at a time when competition and conflict over scare resources is escalating.

The change of course called for at Rio in 1992 requires radical changes in our current economic system. This will need to be led by those countries, mostly Western, which have dominated the world economy during the period in which our cumulative damage to the Earth’s life-support systems, its precious biological resources and its climate, have occurred and have monopolized the economic benefits of this.

I am sure that you will all agree that Rio+20 must support the increase in the status of UNEP to that of a specialized agency. This could lead to the establishment of World Environment Organization as some have proposed. This Symposium will, I trust, provide strong impetus for this.  

Again my very best wishes for the success of this Symposium and the entire series of the Event marking this 40th anniversary.