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The 1992 Earth Summit: An inside view


Maurice Strong talks to Philip Shabecoff about the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio. Strong, who was Secretary General of the Earth Summit, provides an inside view of the conference proceedings and shares his thoughts about impact of the conference.

Philip Shabecoff served as The NY Times’s environmental correspondent from 1977 to 1999. He has been described as “a pioneer” for breaking new ground in defining environmental news and setting a standard for coverage that earned him the sobriquet of “dean of environmental journalism.” He left the NY Times in 1999. He then founded and, for five years, served as publisher of Greenwire, the daily online digest of worldwide environmental news coverage. He was one of the founding members of the Society for Environmental Journalists.

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United Nations Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali opened the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) or Earth Summit - on 3 June 1992, and Fernando Collor de Mello, President of Brazil, was elected as President of the Conference. Maurice Strong, of Canada, was Secretary-General of UNCED. The Conference, by means of a resolution proposed by Brazil, adopted and recommended for endorsement by the General Assembly at its next regular session: the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development; a programme of action entitled "Agenda 21"; and a "Statement of Principles on the Management, Conservation and Sustainable Development of All Types of Forest". Under the same text, the Conference noted that the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and the Convention on Biological Diversity were opened for signature during UNCED. The Conference's two-day Summit Segment convened a record number of Heads of State and Government, a total of 103.
photo: United Nations/Michos Tzovaras


Q:  What did happen in Rio?  What didn't happen in Rio?  


A:  In terms of the overall results, I think, as a political event  it  exceeded  my  expectations,  my  real  expectations.  Well, of  course, it didn't meet all my hopes. I think by the following criteria.

We got engagement. We got engagement of more people and more constituencies and more organizations that have ever actually participated in the preparation of any world conference. That was both in the preparatory process and that was carried forward to Rio itself. Where we got them out. We got the leaders out, more leaders than have ever participated in a world event. More, and in supporting those leaders delegations of much greater weight in terms of in the case of several ministers, not just environmental ministers.

At the very beginning, I've said and you've heard me say that if this ends up being a conference of environmental ministers, it will be a failure. It wasn't a conference of environmental ministers fortunately. Not that they didn't have their influence. But we did get the top people out of governments. And as I say, not just the president, prime ministers, et cetera, but in terms of the broad level of the accompanying delegations.

Also it became a must for the heads of virtually every major intergovernmental organization. Even Jacque Delore, who was in the midst of a very tough problem with the vote in Denmark, finally decided, he better be there. Then in terms of nongovernmental organizations, we had a record number both accredited to the conference itself and at the global forum which was, in a sense a people's summit.

And media, we had more media accredited to the conference, by more than double as a matter of fact. By a factor of more than two than have ever been accredited to any international conference. That, of course, insured that people everywhere would get in the picture. There was a high degree of public exposure.

So in that sense of engagement. there was a broad engagement right from the very top, the leadership, right to the grass roots. So in that sense, that insured that the issues really did get focused. Deriving from that, even the coverage, the media coverage that was negative, could not ignore the relationship between poverty, underdevelopment in the Third World and environmental issues. For the first time, we actually made that link. Virtually everyone, in fact, those who were negative, who were commenting the Third World was pressing too much, was unrealistic in its demands and so on, did so because of the link between environment and development.

So in other words, we did in fact, reflect in the main messages emanating from the conference, the theme of the conference. So, in that sense, it was successful. We were able to make that link, that broad link between the environment and the economy, which was the key to the conference.

In terms of the specific concrete results that flowed from that at the conference itself, we didn't get the Earth Charter, which I had been pressing for.  We got, in fact, The Declaration of Rio. A declaration, which did actually contain most of the principles that I wanted to see, but contained them in ways that in most cases weren't quite as strong in the degree of commitment.

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Plenary of UNCED in session.
UN Photo/Michos Tzovaras

Q: What is the significance of that? What is the different use in terms?


A: Well, I would say this. It means that in some degree, with a lot of reluctance, some of the basic principles have been recognized. But governments in recognizing them, many of them have not been willing to give a firm and clear commitment to them.

For example, of course, the principle of responsibility, of the special responsibility of the more industrialized countries. That's recognized, but it's not the language that's weak. The question of a need to modify patterns of production and consumption, which are clearly at the source of many of them environmental issues we face. That was recognized. But it was recognized in a relatively weak language.

The demographic issues, the population issues, was recognized in far too weak a way as to represent demographic issues. The issues of compensation and accountability, very important issues, were recognized. But again, in relatively weak language. The issue of the aid applying internationally, which had profound implications because under the Pulitzer Page Principle, which is accepted at the rhetoric by most governments, if you apply it internationally it means we in the north, the industrialized countries, we're the polluters, we pay. But that principle was recognized in the Declaration. But again, somewhat weakly.

So all in all,  the declaration is a profoundly important step forward because it does acknowledge most of the principles. Even the principle information that those who may be affected by an action have a right to be informed about it. The principle of participation, of decision-making, et cetera, and on issues that might effect you.

So they're almost all there. But the language is short of what it must be in terms of representing a real commitment to those principles.

Q: In the overall contents is there a difference between a declaration and a charter?

A: No. There isn't. There is no established terminology that would itself make that difference. l like the ward "charter", because l felt that it was much more definitive. Declarations emanate from almost every person. This was the greatest ever statement and I felt that the emergence of a charter which would be durable, which would involve principles. I had seen this a relatively short document. In a sense, for us in the Anglo Saxon world, a Magna Carta. I still hope that will be achieved.

In fact, I don't want to give up on that, because while we've got the basis for it, in the Declaration of Rio and that of course should be considered in relation to the Declaration of Stockholm. One is not a substitute for the other one. The two are sort of self-reinforcing or mutually reinforced. There must be an Earth Charter. If governments won't do it, think it should be done at the people's level and governments should then ratify. If the governments won't do it, the governments should be pressed to the point where they will have to do it eventually.

Q: When I interrupted you were talking about what you thought the summit did for you?

A: In terms of concrete results, as a political event itself, I’ll come to the longer term in a few minutes. It did agree to a declaration, which really, given the controversial nature of the principals, probably, in practical terms represent unity. While I was disappointed that we didn't get the charter, I was pleased that at least most of the principals that we were concerned with were there somewhere, even if the wording was not as strong as we would have liked to have seen. So agreement on the declaration was an important step forward.

Secondly, Agenda 21 represents the most far ranging, comprehensive action program ever approved by the international community. Of course, people have emphasized the shortcomings of it. But, as I kept trying to remind people, this was never intended to be fixed in stone. This was to provide a basis for initiating a program. On the whole, it is a very impressive  document.  If the  governments of the world were to carry out the agreements they reached on Agenda 21, we would be well launched on the path of sustainability. That doesn't mean that we just do that and nothing more. But while we're implementing that which is agreed, we should be continuing to seek to strengthen the agreements in areas where Agenda 21 is still inefficient. But it is a major, in my view it will be looked at historically as a very major event.

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Head of State line up for the official photo, while the media look on.
UN Photo: Pendergast


Q: What do you see as the chief strengths of Agenda 21? Aside from saying this is a broad agenda saying what you have to do, does this focus government attentions on the really critical issues?


A: I think it does. It varies in the degree to which agreement was reached on each issues. There's scarcely an issue that is of real importance to the whole environment development nexus that is not there in the form of an agreed program. Now, remember how this was constructed. It was not just a bunch of proposals that people brought individually to the table. This was constructed as a systemic approach to the issues. This conference was not a conference on population. It was not a conference on toxic waste. It was not a conference on marine pollution. It was all of those things. It linked to the causes. You have effects and causes within the same framework. You're talking about patterns of production and consumption. You're talking about the need to modify our production. While l wouldn't contend it was perfect, it was the first time that these issues have ever been put within a systemic framework in which you can see the linkages between them.

The other things is that the program was constructed by an unprecedented process of getting inputs from virtually ever sector of society ranging from scientists to indigenous people. So you had tremendous professional inputs. It was constructed in a highly professional manner and in a highly participatory matter. Then, the proposals were negotiated. It looked at times as though the negotiations were going to fail in the preparatory committee. The result is that the Agenda has a tremendous amount behind it. It has a tremendous foundation, both a professional and a political foundation and a people' s foundation. So it has a degree of authority than most. Remember, it was approved at the highest possible political level on the planet by the leaders of every government in
the world. So it has a high degree of political authority.

Now having said all that, that doesn't mean that it'll automatically be implemented. At the end of the Rio Conference, you may remember my remarks to the leaders where I said, I applauded them for reaching agreement. But I also expressed a question rhetorically as to the degree of commitment that lay behind that. I said to the press that we had agreement, but in some respects we went without commitment or without sufficient commitment.

That's why I make the distinction between the results of the conference as a political event. I think the ultimate results may be in terms of the degree to which the agreements reached and are actually implemented.

Q: You may have seen some criticism of Agenda 21.

A: Lots of it.

Q: While it addresses development and addresses environmental sustainability that the two are not really integrated. That there is no programmatic systematic approach to sustainable development. A series of separate issues with price tags attached and the issue of constructing a sustainable economy is not really addressed.

A: Well, I don't really think that's correct. I mean, it addresses at the level of synthesis in the initial part of the Agenda. But the programs have to be addressed to those who are actually going to implement them. You've got to consider the real world into which these issues emerge. They emerge into departments and sector organizations that have to do their part but within the context of a whole framework which Agenda 21 provides.

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Conference delegates.
Now, it is true that it's not easy to show all the systemic linkages in every program especially when you're aggregating them at the global level. I know, and l've said this lots of times, the systemic linkages in the various elements do need  to be  improved.  

That I would certainly admit.  It isn't obvious. They're not as well developed  at  every point as  they  could be.  Remember, we  had  literally  two  years  to do an agenda like this. So it is not  a perfectly finished product. I hope what will happen now is that those systemic linkages will be further developed. But it goes further than anything than I’ve ever seen does even if it isn't perfect.  It's true that the programs are directed at particular constituencies because that's how they have to be implemented. If you just address broadly across the board then people, it would be like the smorgasbord, they could pick whatever they want to, out of it. Whereas you do have to address the particular actors. And in addressing the particular actors of course you have to put them in a form that is somewhat sectoral.

But at the same time, every one of those actors has got to act with the knowledge of the larger system in which they are acting. We tried to do that. l would agree that we didn't do it perfectly. But l do think we made a pretty good start at it. Remember this was negotiated, every word of this. This was put together professionally but negotiated politically.

I mean, I come from a country, Canada, which has been for years, since its inception, in a process of constitutional debate. They have 11 governments. Ten provinces and a federal government and they still haven't done it. So, I think it's remarkable that we were able to get 180 governments with tremendous diversity in their interests and their priorities and their capabilities and to get them to agree to that. l think that's absolutely remarkable. It's not just because I was in the process. But l believe standing back and looking at it, l marvel that we were able to get it.

So l don't think you should underestimate the importance of Agenda 21 as having had, having been constructed with the inputs from virtually every single sector of life from every part of the world and then being agreed by the representatives of all the governments of the world. l don't think that should be underestimated. That doesn't mean that all it's content is exactly what everybody would like to see including me. But it does mean that it is an absolutely unique document to which the governments of the world are now committed.

Q:  What are the shortcomings of this project?  

A:  The shortcomings are partly that it still doesn't as fully as it must eventually reflect the systemic relationships. The framework is there. The linkages are quite well defined, the major linkages. But we still have a long way to go to be able to construct a management system that enables us to management these issues systemically. We're quite a distance from. I think the need for it, even the critics who say that that hasn't been done sufficiently and they're right only in degree. They're not right if they say it doesn't happen at all. Every one of these issues is presented within the framework of the whole Agenda 21 not as a separate issue.

But they are right if they say we are not there yet. Of course, we're not there yet. We're still at the very beginning of the stages of trying to adjust our policy and decision and management making and management process to the reality that what we're dealing with is a systemic set of issues.

Q:  Before I leave Agenda 21, let me ask you about the costing of this assessment? There's no way in the world that could be done with the time you have. What do those numbers really reflect?

A: l've been through a lot of process of estimating. Just to let you know my new role in Ontario Hydro. They had a very sophisticated estimate of the cost of a new nuclear plant. That cost was 3.5 million dollars. They have not yet finished the plan. They're just finishing it. It's already over 14 million dollars.

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John Major, British Prime Minister.
Now that was a sophisticated detailed engineering estimate. I've also seen, because I was an analyst myself, I've seen other estimates that are done with a degree of knowledge and intuition combined that are just as apt to be right. We never represented these are firm engineering type estimates. The kind you make bids on. We represented them as the best estimates that knowledgeable people who understand numbers can make. There was a lot of intuitive analysis in that. No question about that. We never purported to. We never said otherwise. But, as much I think a very interesting thing is, many governments were appalled at those, especially industrial, because they didn't want those estimates. They were going to attack them but they didn't. They criticized them because they could not find any fundamentally wrong. So that we didn’t pretend that they were perfect. As order of magnitude figures, they did stand up. None of the parties that criticized them were able to make any single criticism stick. So, they're not perfect numbers, but they're the best numbers that anybody could predict.

Now when I was active in the African famine. The same thing, you know. We kept estimating. We put out figures. We said, these are not, we will not vouch for the accuracy of these figures but they are the best figures available. And they stood up. I think the important thing is though, is that despite the fact that all kinds of people criticized the figures, on the whole they stood up . They were really just designed, I mean, you have to have some idea of what they're going to cost.

Also a lot of people mistook the estimate for a plea for more foreign aide in exactly those amounts. I always made it clear that wasn't the case. These were estimates. And most of those funds I'm going to have to admit by redeployment of existing resources, not just by additions to budgets.

Q: Those numbers were, in fact, etched in stone by the press.

A:  We knew they would be. Our own qualifications of them were scarcely ever mentioned. Just on other things, the Declaration and the Agenda  21  were the main things. But within the Agenda 21, remember I had originally crystallized the conference in six agenda items: Declaration, Agenda 21, then the means issues -- the financing of Agenda 21, the technology factor and the institutionalized use and then in a separate category the financing, the technology transfer and the institutions.

On the financing issue, it was disappointing to development countries. Again, I tried to caution people that Rio was not a pledging conference. It was not a conference where people were going to come with their chequebooks. But we hoped that a few of them would give pretty strong indications and some did. The Japanese did quite well but they didn't go as far as I had hoped. They did go as far as I actually more or less people realized they would go. But not as far as I would like to have seen them. But nevertheless they didn't do badly. The European community was reasonably good.

Overall, there were few real solid commitments. There was quite a decent level of commitment in principle. But again, we'll have to come back to that issue because the financing issue is something that deserves a little more attention in terms of the perspective we have on it. Things have changed quite drastically.

On the technology transfer issue we did well. But again, that issue is a closed issue. A few of the issues are issues that are closed issues, gone as far as you need to go or can go.

Q: If you don't mind on each of these issues what do you think was accomplished and what still needs to be accomplished?

A: You mean on all the Agenda 21 issues?

Q: No, on the major points, I mean, like the technology transfer.

A: Well on technology transfer, for example there is not a sufficient commitment to making available the intellectual property rights that will enable developing countries to get in on the ground floor in developing their own technologies. It's there, but it's still quite wobbly.

In as much as today, knowledge is the primary basis for competitive advantage and for bringing out the value in your economy, it's the area where the developing countries are disadvantaged both, therefore, their access to technology and more particularly to technological capability. Now one of the things that you know right from the beginning, I emphasized the capacity issue because l've always believed that the narrow emphasis just on being able to get technologies that are produced somewhere else was the real, was only a part of the real issue. The real issue is the capacity of developing countries to select the right technologies for them. To develop their own technologies and to apply them. That capacity is at a very low level of development in most of these countries.

So our Secretariat led the charge really, on the need to expand the technology transfer issue to bring primary emphasis to the capacity issue. I think we did, in fact, succeed in doing that. It did get a high degree of agreement. That the strengthening of the scientific technological professional and related institutional capacities in the developing world was a high priority. In virtually every individual item of Agenda 21 it was there. So in that sense we made some progress.

In the narrow sense of technologies being available, for example developing countries calling for technology to be available, that didn't fly. Developing countries did acknowledge that those who invest in producing technologies need to have a return or they won't keep on doing it. But the idea was acknowledged in part by the acknowledgement of the need to make finances available. So that developing countries could acquire these technologies. So if not free at least  they could be subsidized financially in the acquisition of technology. So there  was  progress.  

A lot of it gets back to resource issue again.   

Q:  What about the two treaties? What is your assessment of them?

A:  My assessment of them is that they're certainly a good deal better than the extreme critics would suggest in the sense that if the process of getting these treaties is a complex difficult one as we have seen. If we, you know, there are some who say that we really have nothing in this treaty. Well, I don't agree with that because to have the framework there is important. It's like foundations, you can't move into a house that only has foundations laid. But on the other hand, you can't move into a house that doesn't have, you can't build a house without a foundation. Essentially what we've got are the foundations.

We need them. They're certainly not adequate. We can't leave it like that. Leaving the two treaties at the framework in stages would be like leaving the building with simply the foundations. It's a good start but it isn't sufficient. There is a danger in making the public aware that we have two conventions now. That there is a sense in which we suggest we have done the job. We can relax. The problem is under control and we know that is not the case.

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George Bush, President of the United States, signing the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change on behalf of his nation.
UN Photo
However the Climate Change Convention, which was weakened by the admission of specific time tables and targets, nevertheless has commitment. This may not have the time tables and targets but it does have a firm commitment to reduce.

Biological diversity, I think that the fact that it has teeth is best evidence was the fact that the U.S. wouldn't sign it. But even so it only represents a beginning. So I think these are... And the fact that both conventions were signed by over 150 countries is in itself pretty dramatic evidence that the conference process did yield some good results. It would have taken years to get that far without the pressure of the conference to force the process along.

So I believe they are good solid foundations, but that's all. If we assume that we can leave it there,  then we might have done the whole process a disservice and you pretty much right be right. However, if as we must we press ahead to get, to put real flesh on those foundations, then I think that's what we've got to do. Then, I think we have the basis for doing it.

Now I also think, one interesting thing about the conventions is that they reveal the changed role of the West. On the Climate Convention, the U.S. was in the final analysis able to get its way. It wasn't in the Biological Diversity Convention. In the Biological Diversity Convention, you saw a situation which while everybody continued to recognize the importance of US participation, we didn't wait. Even the U.S.'s main allies did not wait for it. That represents a very significant shift in the way in which U.S position is viewed.

It’s still viewed as important. You can't really have an effective worldwide convention on these issues without the US. But while everybody realizes that, at the same time, unlike what they used to do, that is wait for the US, they now are prepared to move ahead of U.S.A.

Q:  l have serious questions on the leadership? But let me ask? There were stories at the time that the U.S., not only was not signing it, but that it was putting pressure on some, including Canada. Like the carrot and stick pressure not to sign the treaty. Did you know that? Did you have to do something to counteract that?

A:  I understand that too. I cannot, I was not party to it in the sense that I did not have an insider’s knowledge of it. Understood that was going on. I did not play any direct part in trying to counter that. Except to the extent that I lobbied positively for it. I was not playing defensively against the U.S., but offensively trying to convince governments to do it. I was not the only one that was doing that. I did not put myself into the position of an interlocutor, you know between the US and the others. I simply took the more positive view of pressing governments to do.

Q:  Then you were aware at the time that this was going on?

A:   Oh yes. It's quite normal. Government like this takes a position and normally wants company. It doesn't like to be alone. There' s nothing abnormal about the US in taking that position to try and convince others to do the same. It's just normal diplomacy.

Q:  What about the principles, what's your assessment of them and to what disappointment?

A:  No surprise l could say. Disappointment, yes. I think what's good about it is we had a very, very intense engagement on the forestry issue. That itself is good. There was real engagement on that issue. I think principles really went to the limits of the possible at this stage.

Q:  Could you expand on that?

A:  I think important countries like Malaysia were just not prepared to go. There was a point at which they were not prepared to go as far as the forestry principle. The fact we got them did mean we got issues. If you remember, although the governments had been unwilling at this stage to commit themselves
to a negotiating process that produce a convention. Ultimately, the principles themselves do represent the first step in the negotiating process in any event. The person has to in negotiating convention is to undertake to negotiate the principles. So that the principles that have been agreed do represent a step in that direction.

I was disappointed and l think others were disappointed that there was not an agreement to continue the process. I don't think there will be, not for a year or so. But remember forestry is the link with the Climate Change Convention. It is linked with the Biodiversity Convention. So it's much more complex than some of the other issues because, in forestry will be dealt with. It's being dealt with in the Climate Change Convention. It's being dealt with in the Biodiversity Convention.

In a sense, you could say, that the overall Forestry convention is a residual instrument. There will be continued negotiations on forestry in both the biodiversity and the planet change conventions. So the fact, there is not an agreed process to negotiate a separate forestry convention does not mean that the forestry issues are going to be entirely stopped.

There's some people, that you don't. I happen to believe that it's good to have a forestry convention. But I do see that those who feel that most of the forestry issues can be dealt with in the Biodiversity and Climate Change Conventions. Remember those nations who refused to agree to a continued negotiation on a portion of the convention. Nevertheless, the Biodiversity and Climate Change Convention, so that there's movement on the forestry issues even if there's not movement on the issue of a separate course to the convention.

Q:  I tended to look at the forestry negotiation as kind of an indicator of attitudes on broader principles that effect this whole range of issue that occurred at the summit. Including the idea on the part of the developing countries sharing sovereignty. On the part of the first world, the north, in paying for protection of the planet, for preserving forests were more broadly expressed in sharing the burden with these developing countries. How do you look at those broader issues?

A:  I think that's right. I’ve just come from India. The Minister of Environment and Forest Affairs again reiterated the Indian position. Incidentally, India is in a very different position than Malaysia although both opposed negotiation at this time of a forestry convention. India is quite different. It's not an exporter of forest products. It's an importer. So it's got a very, very different basic position. Although the position on the forestry convention is the same, it derives from very different underlying situations. There the sovereignty issue is one that they continuously affirm because forests should not be an international issue except to the extent that we decide to cooperate in finances or in technology or whatever.

They're very concerned that any international instrument not constrain their sovereignty over their own resources. That is a very fundamental developing country position. Of course, they make it clear that industrialized countries are unwilling to give up a form of sovereignty in terms of their role in these issues. But they are very, very leery about the globalization or internationalization of their forests. That is a basic underlying source of their reluctance. I shouldn't say reluctance, but the absolute unwillingness at this point to negotiate a forestry convention.

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Heads of State lunch at the Earth Summit.
UN Photo: Michos Tzovaras


Q:  On the other side wasn’t there also a responsibility of developed countries to pay for the protection?


A: Oh yes, of course. See, again a lot of this gets down to value. We know, the Declaration accepts, the Declaration of Rio accepts the fact that we should value these resources. But if we value them we should be willing to pay for it. At Biological Diversity, this is part of the US position is that biological
resources have been a free good and they should be continue to be a free good. It's almost like saying that the oil in the ground, in the Middle East should be a free good. Or it make any more sense for you to be able to exploit the biological resources of a country’s resources without getting some resources, some payment back to the people, to the landowner from the country that these resources.

So at the root, there's a sovereignty issue. But there's also a value issue. Again, if we really did do what everybody agreed in principle should be done, that is a price, the exploitation of the forests of the Third World will be on a completely different economic basis. If we paid a price for their trees that automatically finance the replanting so that forestry could be put on a truly sustainable basis, you'd find a different response from the developing countries. They'll still tell us to guard their sovereignty, but they would be willing to, I’m sure, with an international agreement that was prepared to give adequate value to their resources.

Q:  Could this be a basis for future negotiations on the forestry convention?

A:  Yes.

Q: Tell me your views about the institutional side?

A: On the institutional side I think we have to recognize that there are, let's say, three classes of institutional issues. There are the institutional arrangements within the UN. I'll come back to those. But those are very explicit subject matter for the conference to recommend and for the General Assembly to agree.

Secondly, there are broad institutional implications of Agenda 21 for governments and other organizations implementing it. In other words, the need to reshape our national institutions, both governmental and special, to meet the requirements for system management. Their Agenda, we're not very explicit except just to establish certain principles. We have not gone into trying to decide those issues.

But then there's a third level, where there are whole series of very specific recommendations in Agenda 21 on particular institutions that maybe need it. There are a lot of recommendations and each one of these, or almost each one of the 115 program areas within Agenda 21. There are a lot of rather explicit recommendations on the need for this or that kind of institution either to strengthen the existing ones. That's the whole capacity issue.

At the level of the UN essentially what is needed is a conference, is some institutional mechanism that is capable of being able to continue the process that began in preparations for Rio and culminated in Rio itself. Because, obviously Rio was a new beginning. Now how to do that? This came at a time when a new Secretary General as well as a new commitment to restructuring the UN, making it leaner. At the same time, trying to streamline some the structures, particularly in the economic social area. That was recognized both by Secretary shaping these proposals and governments in their negotiating.

A: Essentially what is needed in terms of following up of Rio is a recognition that sustainable development is not just a subsection of development. That all of the development activities of all countries and therefore it follows of the U.N., should be sustainable development oriented. Therefore sustainable development must become the central theme of the economic and social and development activities of the U.N., not just a little subsection.

Q:  Including the Bretton Woods?

A:  Oh yes. Of course, and Agenda 21 should serve as the basic programmatic orientation for achieving that. That means that you can't just set up a little secretariat within the broad economic and social framework to look after sustainable development in Agenda 21. It means you have to reshape the whole apparatus that way. In that sense, the timing is not bad because there isn't any movement for reshaping the economic and social affairs department.

The real question was how to do it, in that this process had already begun and a new department had been created. When Boutros Boutros-Ghali came in he already did bring together several of the elements within the secretarial into a new economic and social affairs department. That department wanted to lay claim to the follow-up mechanism. In a sense there is logic to it in the prospective the fact that sustainable development has to be or all development has to be sustainable development.

The problem is that everyone knows that the capacity, the actual capability of this new department is very, very dubious. Not because of the leadership that came into it, but because of the history and the nature of it. It's not a criticism of the current leaders of the department to say that the department isn't capable of taking over.

Q:  Could you explain further.

A:  ECOSOC is an organ of the UN. The department that serves it in the secretariat is the economic and social affairs department. ECOSOC has long been considered and indeed correctly, one of the weakest reeds in the UN system. That's at the intergovernmental level. I'm talking about the secretariat level now. So in theory, it would be right to bring in, to make those in the secretariat responsible for economic and social affairs. Also responsible for the follow-up of Rio and the implementation and Agenda 21, indeed as their central mandate.

The problem with that is that everybody understands that, as it is, it's too weak. I have even said openly that sending it to that department would be like sending it to the dead letter ones. While in theory agreeing that it should be there, in practice have thought that putting under the existing situation would simply be insuring that the follow-up within the UN of Rio was not going to be effective.

Now I should have started with the intergovernmental level. But the two are very closely related. At the intergovernmental level, there was as recommendation at Rio, which fortunately was broad supported, that there be a high level commission on sustainable development at the intergovernmental level. That it report to ECOSOC  for coordinating  reason  and  to  the  General  Assembly for broad policy and substantive issues.  

A typical U.N. compromise, but one that has a certain logic. If the commission was going to report totally to ECOSOC everybody, including me, was concerned that it would start off as a weak reed.

However, to bypass ECOSOC entirely was also a problem, because although it's weak, it is constitutionally responsible for coordinating the economic and social affairs. So that if all development is going to be sustainable development and the follow-up of Rio is going to bypass the economic and social council, it's pretty difficult.

So the compromise is not a bad one. Where you do report to the commission not just to committee of ECOSOC so it has more status. It will be quite an independent body. But it reports to ECOSOC only for coordinating purposes and still has access to the General Assembly. So at least, in principle, this formula could work. It doesn't mean it will work; but it could work. Also the general recognition that it should be a high level body. Also that it should have a sufficient membership to be representative but not so big as to be unwieldy. Now with the membership of the UN in the 180 country category, we could see in the list of the preparatory committee, where the numbers of states had gone considerably since we started. How unwieldy it is to try and negotiate highly technical type issues in a committee of 180. So that the commission will be something less than that. Probably it will be about 54. Both the same membership of ECOSOC itself which is still large but a lot smaller than 180.

So at the level of the commission I think there's every prospect that at least there will be agreement on the commission. Remember, we started off with some very strong prejudices on the part of the industrialized countries. Particularly not wanting any new institutions. I contended that this wasn't a new institution in the same sense that which was from Stockholm was a new institution. But was a new mechanism which could be accompanies by a reduction of some of the other mechanisms.

You know, there's no reason for instance to have a natural resources committee although they decided to continue it. In fact, having a sustainable development commission does offer, at least, a prospect of subsuming into functions of some of the other committees whose functions really don't need to be independent any long. So that it doesn't represent the creation of a whole new instrument.

Now, the Secretary is important in the sense that you don't, with the U.N. being a universal membership organization, by nature being large in it's membership, it's not the tight little ship that let's say an OECD is with a relatively small number of countries.

It inherently needs good secretarial service to enable it to function properly. So if you 'd like to have an effectively functioning intergovernmental body, this commission being the specific one in this case, then it pretty well follows that it has to service by an active secretariat too.

I had this personal dilemma that I was describing to you. In principle, realizing that it would make sense to bring the whole Agenda 21 and the Rio follow-up right into the centre of the economic and social affairs action in the secretariat of the UN. In principle, that made sense. But in practice, I felt that it would be a disaster if it was in fact taken over by the present structure. I made that very clear to the Secretary General who I believe himself is aware of that. I think, although it's premature to say it at this moment, because this is still being discussed, I think there is a reasonable chance that the Secretariat arrangements will recognize the need for some strength.

Q:  Go into the follow-up. Just Rio.

A:  On Rio, it was agreed that there be a commission. It was agreed that it be serviced by a secretariat that had to have and there were some words in there that indicated continuity and strength. You know a strong secretary with continuity from the Rio process. There was mention of insuring that the interim arrangements, being the arrangements between Rio and the final decision of the General Assembly being sufficiently strong to insure that momentum. (I'll come to that. There's an interesting little story there too.) so those decisions at Rio, at the institutional level, were reasonable. It left a number of things open that needed to be negotiated at the General Assembly and in fact are at this moment being negotiated. And a number of things open in terms of decisions by the Secretary General himself as to how this was going to relate to the rest of the restructuring that he was responsible for.

Q:  So on the institutions you got pretty much what you hoped to get?

A: l think so. I think on institutions we got about at the level of the institutions that the UN can do something about which is it's own institutional structures, yes we got what l think at the beginning most people wouldn't get. But I think we did make progress. We got pretty well what we expected.

Q:  You've been talking about what was accomplished at Rio. Tell me now about some of your disappointments in terms of product.

A: I already think described in some detail my disappointment on the Declaration. In Agenda 21, there are a number of areas.

For example, from the beginning, I know we've had lots of press criticism. We didn't cover the population issue. However, I don't think that's right. I don't think they are right because they... I mean the fact that we didn't make the population issue a separate issue any more than we made anything else a separate issue.

In final analysis, as you probably know, I confronted the population issue up front in my first speech to the preparatory committee. I said you haven't given enough attention. At least, they gave me the freedom to do that. We did develop population proposals with the help of virtually all the major professional population organizations. And, our proposals had their full support. They were all pleased with them.

Now, they were weakened, and this is at the level of disappointments, it wasn't that the population issue wasn't there. In fact, it's those who said that the population issue wasn't dealt with. Then at the same time complained that the population proposals had been weakened. Well you can't have both ways. If they weren't there they wouldn't have been controversial. They were there however. They were weakened to some degree. Some of that was restored. But one of my disappointments were that the population issues were somewhat weakened in the negotiating process. Not that they were not there. That I do not accept that
they were not there. The criticism that says they were not there is just not correct.

Q:  If you don't mind, could you go into that a little bit. How were they weakened with the key actors?

A: They were weakened again, mainly in language. There was very little that was actually written out. Any references to family planning and the methodologies was, if not entirely deleted, at least so watered down as to be virtually missing. There, however, think it has to be recognized that this was not the UN avoiding the issues.

This was countries. This was not the UN unwilling to take action. We are the UN  and  we  put  forward  solid proposals.  It was the governments that weakened  it.  But the UN is also having a separate conference on population. So it's not dodging the issue. There's lots of criticism that I tend to resent that suggested the UN is dodging the issue. The UN is not dodging the issue. The Vatican was in the lead in this. There's no question of that. I always avoided saying that when I had my official role as Secretary General.

And, the US had a very ambivalent role here too. The US position on population was not very helpful. And it varied. There were women's groups that had an effect. Some of the NGO groups  even joined in the watering down mainly in the women's rights issues.

So, I would say that there's no question that one of the areas in which the conference was weaker than the result was weakened was population.

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World leaders meet to tackle environmental problems.
UN Photo: Michos Tzovaras


Q:  Before you leave that, would you give me you own views on the coordinates of the population issue to the whole of sustainable development.

A: Well, I think, if you take a look at the fundamental courses that are driving the dilemma that we faced at Rio they are: population, the degree to which population, people are impacting on the environment, which is a product of numbers of people, plus the level of their activities, their patterns of production and consumption. And the degree and the technologies they use making their impacts. And the levels of quality of life to which they aspire. And population is one of the central driving forces.

I’m not one who believes that simplistically that population is the only source of our problems. If fact, I get very strong in my reaction to those in the industrialized country who start off expressing their concern by pointing the finger at the population growth in the development countries, without first recognizing that it is not the exploding populations of the developing world at this point, but the patterns of the indulging, wasteful, destructive patterns of production and consumption in our industrialized world that have created the main risk.

Then having acknowledged that, then we can, maybe we've got the right to speak of their population. But we cannot bear one side of the equation. It's in that sense that I am always trying to counter the population issue as it arises in the industrialized countries, with a recognition that we have no basis for lecturing the developing countries about their population growth unless we can demonstrate that we are also at least as much committed to reducing our environmental impacts by changing our patterns of production and consumption.

So I see population as a central driving force. In fact, in one sense, it is the central driving force because it is, in fact, the increase in the number of people that will ultimately lead to the increase in economic activities that threatens us. Although developing country populations have much less impact per capita than we do. They aspire to have the same kind of impact that we do. It's in our interest not that we frustrate their goals for economic advance but that we do our best to insure that in meeting those goals they do not add unnecessarily to the pressures that we created.

I think the other thing is, that we need to recognize that the principle impact at population goals falls on those who experience it. In other words, long before we will experience through the global system the effects of population growth in the developing countries, the developing countries themselves will face tremendous, horrendous problems because of their populations and they're doing it now.

Ultimately, however, we share those problems both in the physical sense that they will create great increase the risks that we already face through the global cause and effect system. But, also, they'll be tremendous problems in the social sense and the health sense that will effect us. I assembled a group of scientists a few months ago and asked them a question: "What do you think are the major risks for the future?”  Interestingly enough, the consensus amongst those were the resurgence of communicable disease. Part of that is breakdown of health systems in developing countries.

Also the social problems, you  know,  unless we immunize ourselves to them, literally, the starving people who are needlessly starving in places like Somalia. A number of those issues are growing. 50 in addition to the fact that increased economic activity on the part of those sort of 80 percent in the developing world who are seeking to better themselves economically, that they're going to increase the pressures on the resource, the environmental base of the planet. But in addition to that problem, increase in populations create these additional social and health and, you know, other pressures that are going to make that a global problem.

I'm a critic of the way in which we ignore, point a finger at the developing countries as thought they were the cause of all the problems. I do see a broad concern that population is one of the problems, the central driving force that's creating the problems that we were addressing at Rio. That was the context in which we did in fact address the population issue. We didn't address just as a family planning issue, just as a single issue any more than we addressed any of the other issues as a single issue. But we did, I think, properly address population as a major driving force. At the level of what to do about it, I was disappointed that governments that they did weaken the proposal somewhat.

Q:  We were talking about the role of consumption of developed countries. Is that another disappointment for you?

A: Yes it was, because at least we got an acknowledgment of the issue after a tough time. In the Declaration, there was a little, the U.S. made certain reservations which, you know, tended to weaken their commitment to that weak language. We did have a situation where the country that is the largest country in the world, the largest economy in the world. That whose patterns of production and consumption are clearly the most damaging to the world environment was the most resistant to any recognitions. They were even more resistant to any suggestion that they knew anything about it. Do you remember President Bush said, "the American way of life is not up for grabs, or not up for negotiation."

Q:  What impact did the U.S. have?

A: The U.S. had a major impact in the sense that they made, they drove home to the developing countries the degree to which it was going to be very difficult to get the chief offenders. This again goes back to the forestry issues. The developing country was saying look, here's the country, it's own statistics make it clear that they're the biggest offenders. Yet when it comes to solutions they see salutations in our forests, in their patterns on production and consumption.

There's no question that the U.S. unwillingness to recognize any need for change in their own patterns of consumption and production had a pervasive political effect on other issues like forests where the U.S. wanted a forestry convention. But their tough position on patterns of production and consumption is one of the reasons why developing countries were not prepared to accept to their position on other issues.

There's a very fundamental point here. Because developing countries are saying, why should we be the ones who have to be at the forefront of solutions to problems, which you have created when you are unwilling to change the conditions which created those problems.

I have to say, that in these issues, a country that should have been the leader was the U.S.

Q:  I have a series of questions on the leadership. But before we get to that, what other disappointments overall?

A: l think that there was a broad disappointment on the general attitude of the industrialized countries. That reflected in issue after issue. In fact there's hardly an issue in which that isn't reflected. Right from every item of Agenda 21, right through the financial issues, the technological transfer issues, to a lesser extent the institutional issues.

There's one other thing I didn't mention on the institutional issues and that is the need for a link between the monitoring and review processes of the Commission for Sustainable Development and the financing mechanisms that must accompany them and support the implementation of Agenda 21. In other words, a link between financing and the institutions and the policy programmatic decisions taken in the commission.

In fact, I said in my speech to ECOSOC, that if there wasn't such a link that the process would be a meaningless. I’m sorry that's something I should have said under institutions.

I think overall, we have a situation in which the industrialized countries at a high level of generality, are willing to acknowledge that the evidence is there. That they have been the source of most of these global risks. But unwillingness to make any fundamental commitment to change the ways, again the patterns of production and consumption which have done that.

I should say no evidence of the situation has changed. The European community there's some descent of course. Willingness to move on energy efficiency. Japan has made some moves on energy efficiency dictated more by their domestic concerns than be their international concerns but nevertheless very useful and effective. But a general attitude of reluctance to make significant commitments. Now that reflected, as l say, right across the board.

Main disappointment, but not a surprise, was that you know I have seen it needed fundamental shift in the attitudes of the industrialized countries to accomplish what needs to be accomplished. We did not see that fundamental shift. However, this is looking a little bit ahead perhaps. But I do believe that if Rio is going to be successful, it will be successful because it has provided the basis for this fundamental shift. It didn't occur at the conference. Although the fact that you get that recognition in the Declaration and statements, even at a high level of generality, the fact you've got agreement on some of these things that do point us in the right direction. Even if we didn't get a sufficient degree of commitment to them, could be the beginning of the process of that change. That the fact that the change didn't occur there, there's no question that there was no willingness by the industrialized countries to make fundamental changes in their positions, even though at the level of rhetoric and principle there was some recognition on their part of the need for it.
 

Q:  Was this refusal to make fundamental changes one of the things reflected by the failure of financial commitment?

A: Yes, I think that although that is certainly a sign, probably the most specific sign. I never really expected, I don't think anybody, any of the developing countries, didn't expect them to come with open chequebooks. What you wanted is that basic policy commitment which would then be followed by that kind of funding over time that would be necessary. But the attitudes, when we got to specifies. You know, at a high level of generality, there was a willingness, even reluctant willingness, but nevertheless a willingness to recognize some of the principles that need to be evoked in making these changes. But when it came to specifics there was an unwillingness, almost across the board, to make changes.

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Addressing the Committee is Tommy Koh (centre) (Singapore), Chairman of the Preparatory Committee, on the left is Nitin Desai, Deputy Secretary-General of the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED).
UN Photo: Milton Grant


Q:  First of all were there any things at the conference that you considered turning points, that moved it forward or stopped it in its tracks? Talking about the conference itself now.

A: I'm sure there was a single turning point. I think on the, probably on the financial issues, this was the main thing. To get to where the developing countries finally had to accept that they weren't going to get the commitments that they wanted. The very competent, wise Ambassador of Pakistan was very, very good at piloting the 77 with really pushing as strongly as possible for instance a reaffirmation of the commitments. I was a little concerned about that. I was somewhat ambivalent here because on the financing issue my fundamental position which 1 expressed quite clearly was that we can't deal with this in a conventional foreign aid sense. There's a political tiredness, on both sides of the traditional foreign aid partnership. On the donor side, and also on the side of the developing country recipients. I don't like that donor, traditional donor-recipient relationship. l tried to take the position that said, look, this is a whole new ball game. But you really have to look at this as an investment in global security. That if you acknowledge the need for global action on these issues, it follows, from the evidence, that much of an action has to take place in the developing countries. To try and insure that in the course of their development, they don't add unnecessarily to the pressures which we create. And that some of the most cost effective things you can do also in the developing countries. If you're going to invest in global environmental security, in large numbers of cases the best investments are there. I tried to make that the cornerstone in my own plea for more money.

Now, of course, the developing countries, while making their case somewhat on the same basis, nevertheless revert back to the earlier commitment by the industrialized countries to make contributions of official development existence at the level of 0.7 of 1 percent of their GNPs. Something that has been widely acknowledged but never fully implemented. In fact, implemented only by a couple of countries. The Scandinavian countries, plus the Netherlands. The developing countries were pressing for a reaffirmation of that. I sympathized with that. On the other hand, I was worried that in the present political climate too much emphasis on that looked like just a throw back to a totally unrealistic position of just asking for more foreign aid. We needed it to come across, to some degree, that way.

I would say that the industrialized countries did make a very weak reference to the traditional 0.7 percent, but not a strong reaffirmation of it. When the developing countries finally, I think it was the night before, a Thursday before the closing,  did agree on that much weaker wording. That probably was the single decisive point in the conference. Because until that happened there was a very possibility that everything else might break down on the financing issues.
Of course, there were crises in the forest principles. In the negotiations there crises in the main committee, which Tommy Koh chaired so well. But I guess the single, if there was a single decisive point, it would have been that point, when there was an agreement on the financial issues.

Q: How did that come to be? Was it Tommy Koh?

A: No, Tommy Koh wasn't the primary actor there. There were several. The Minister of Finance of Brazil played a very important part, you'll have to check the spelling of this. He played a very important part. I actually enlisted him for that, to do that. Of course my colleague, Bill Wheeler, was behind the scenes in a way. You know the Secretary has to be. But he played a role in facilitating that. No you weren't at that meeting.

Then on the forestry principles were very tough right up until the last. Of course, this is an area where we got agreement. But obviously not as high level a commitment as we would have liked. And didn't get an accompanying agreement  to  continue the negotiating process towards a convention.  

Then within the Agenda 21, the marine issues were tough. For instance, the issue between Iceland and the European community on fishing stocks outside of the 200-mile zone. Finally, Canada did get agreement with conference on that subject which was quite a political plus by Mulroony. I was actually pleased to see that too. I had to retain my Secretariat objectivity.

However, this is one area where my professional interest in the subject matter and the Canadian interest in having a conference, coincided to the point where I was able to take a relatively active behind the scenes role in helping to get that agreement.

Q:  What about bottlenecks?  

A:  Yes, Well, there were bottlenecks in all these  issues because  by  definition  the  problems  in  resolving  them  resulted  from  bottlenecks. Again, the population issue was a real tough.

Q:  Other issues?

A: Yeah. Well, you know, at the very beginning, there's something that needs to be said, I think, about the whole, you know we're right in from the political side of the conference. But remember there are some important logistical and physical things about that created possible bottlenecks as a result.
You see, when we got there three weeks ahead of the conference, some of us wondered if it was going to feasible to hold the conference. Because the side wasn't ready. Vast amounts of things hadn’t been done. Our phones weren’t connected. We couldn't function. We got along extremely well with our Brazilian colleagues. Brazilians have a reputation for completing things right at the last minute that nobody thought they were going to be able to. This proved to be one of those cases.

All along we had good relationships. We had tough issues to deal with. But on the whole, very good relationships with the Brazilians. President Collor, for whatever may have happened afterwards, was very, very good. He, as President of Brazil first, and then as Chairman of the conference did a very good job. He really put his commitment behind it.

Q: I have this question a little later on?

A: Talking about bottlenecks because you see one of the large potential bottlenecks was actually the ability to deliver a serviceable manageable conference.

Q: I was there four days before and l didn't think it was going to happen.

A:  But you want to come back to that. Just remember that you asked me a question. I would say some of the bottlenecks were actually physical and also security issues, security problems which turned out fortunately not to be decisive. But were tough potential problems. And logistical problems, bring as many heads of government. It's never been done before. Imagine New York or Geneva with all their experience in handling big events with large numbers of important people. This was Rio De Janeiro, Brazil, not even a capitol city anymore. And with no experience on this level, hosting the largest conference of heads of government in history, accompanied by the largest attendance ever of any conference. I mean a huge logistical problem. I think we've really got to give tremendous marks to the Brazilians for managing that. And tremendous marks to our U.N. security people, operating not at their home base with their familiar infrastructures in New York or Geneva but in a completely unfamiliar place which had different helicopter flight. Even the facility was not a normal conference facility. It was completed, in fact it was scarcely completed at the opening of the conference. It was completed at the very last minute. And to have people operating out of that kind of a facility, to run the largest conference in history and accompanied by all that logistical and protocol and facility issues, it really is a tremendous accomplishment. If there were areas where I was concerned about blockage, these were the areas.

Of course there political areas. Every issue, you know, when you are negotiating, there's always the threat of collapse and there's always moments in almost all these issues where it didn't look as though it was going to make it. But overall, my greatest sense of concern particularly at the very beginning of the conference. Up until just the beginning of the conference, was the ability of our secretariat plus the Brazilians to handle it all.

In the end, when Collor at the very, when the last gavel went down and Collor said, "Oh Boy. It's great. We finished it." Being very pleased about what happened. Also we can see what didn't happen. Because a lot things that could have happened and that we were worried would happen, didn't happen.

Q: Like what?

A: Well a President or Prime Minister being offended by the treatment he got. Or a security problem, a bomb go off. Because remember everybody knew that Presidents and Prime Ministers were going to be there. Many of them have enemies in their home countries who might have found that occasion a very useful, very good in which to take whatever action they were going to get at one of them. We didn’t have a single incident, at least of any significance, where there was a major security problem affecting a head of government. There were rumours and all kinds of things, reports coming in. But it didn't actually happen. A man burst into the room when Bush was there. A wild man, actually got into the conference room at one point.

I was sitting and I heard someone yelling and just then this fellow burst in the room and fortunately the guards stopped him. But he was making, yelling at Bush, l can't remember.

Q: Was this a Brazilian?

A: l think he was, yeah. We covered that up pretty well. But on the whole, I think it is utterly amazing that in a place there was never a conference facility. You know a great type of place. In a city, that had never hosted any official conference on anything like this scale where everybody was operating with completely improvised infrastructure. That we were able to manage the largest conference in history, the largest summit conference and the largest conference was without major flaw.