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."

Towards a new diplomacy: the first 40 years of the United Nations Environment Programme

A new book, detailing the history of the Nairobi-based United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), over the last four decades, details the role played particularly by Maurice Strong.

Written by award-winning conservationist Stanley Johnson, the book charts the evolution of UNEP from its inception at the landmark Stockholm conference of 1972 to its position today at the heart of the global environmental movement. Entitled: "The First 40 Years; A Narrative", the book - which is not an official UN history but the view of its world-acclaimed author - explains in-depth UNEP's role at the forefront of efforts to protect the environment and is packed with interesting facts and figures.

The book was commissioned by UNEP, which opened all doors to Johnson, resulting in an independent publication, providing a behind the scene narrative of government actions.

No easy ride

Unlike most other UN bodies, UNEP has never had an easy ride and the agency has been at the centre of the debate and action about the environment. The book starts with the run up to the first global conference on the Human Environment, which took place in Stockholm, in June 1972, then moves to it finding a home in Nairobi, becoming the first UN body to be headquartered in a developing country, Kenya, and charts the development of its activities, deftly avoiding attempts by the powerful to clip its wings.

As publications on UN organizations go, the book is replete with mandates, UN resolutions, impact assessments and studies. But it also contains comments and ring-side views of key actors, who were involved in the making of UNEP. To add to the mix, there are some amusing anecdotes.

The book describes the challenges that Strong faced right from the time he was appointed Secretary General of the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment in early 1970. This was not so much about bringing the advanced industrialised countries on board. Somehow, he had to persuade the developing countries not only to participate in the preparations for the conference, but to do so in a constructive spirit. The developing nations were deeply worried that rich countries were going to use the environment as an excuse for cutting back on development aid, or for diverting that assistance into new non-priority environmental channels.


In the run-up to Stockholm, Strong spent months and months trying to persuade developing countries that environment was their “thing”. One important breakthrough came in July 1971. In the long conference room of a motel in the village of Founex, up from Lake Geneva, a two-week meeting of experts was held to consider the development and environment relationship and to produce a viable synthesis.

The crucial meeting was chaired by Sri Lanka’s Gamani Corea, who a few years later would become the Secretary-General of the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), with Mahbub ul Haq, the World Bank’s director of policy planning as rapporteur.

In the UNEP publication, Strong has described the Founex meeting as “the most important single event in the run-up to Stockholm”. Following the successful Stockholm Conference, Johnson, describes the search which ensured to find a home for the new institution.

Finding a home

Kenya’s founding President, Jomo Kenyatta (left), at the official opening in 1974 of the inaugural headquarter location of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) at the Kenyatta International Conference Centre in Nairobi. Maurice Strong, UNEP’s first Executive Director, is seen walking behind President Kenyatta, who is accompanied on his left by the Minister of Foreign Affairs at the time, Dr. Njoroge Mungai
photo: UNEP

The book quotes Strong: “It’s one thing to have a conference, quite another to ensure a proper follow-up. Conferences, when they work, can often be exhausting as well as rewarding. Significant decisions can be made — as indeed they were in Stockholm. But it’s what happens afterwards that is important. Otherwise talk is just talk, resolutions just good intentions. The Stockholm Conference recognized this. One of the recommendations was to set up a new UN body that would monitor progress on the environment and ensure that the conference’s hard-won conclusions were actually implemented. This notion, as well as the conference itself, was widely debated at the next UN General Assembly, in the fall of 1972. There, to everyone’s surprise, Kenya’s delegation, led by its able and respected ambassador, Joseph Odero-Jowi, strongly supported by Foreign Minister Njoroge Mungai, offered Nairobi as the headquarters of the new organization.”

In Nairobi, UNEP was housed at the Kenyatta Conference Centre, but it was not to be UNEP’s permanent home. Strong believed: “We needed to build distinctive structures symbolic of our environmental purposes. We also needed room for the long-term expansion that seemed inevitable. After looking at a number of potential sites, I located a large coffee farm in an attractive location on the outskirts of Nairobi that I understood could possibly be made available, though it was not the site the government preferred. When I walked over the land, I knew immediately that this would be the right place for us, and eventually the Kenyans agreed. We had our new headquarters completed and occupied by the end of our first year.”

During the early years, management styles were unlike accepted UN practices. The book quotes a staff member, commenting about Strong: “His inexhaustible energy was an inspiration. Gabby (Gabby Gervais, PR to Strong) told of a tape that he had sent to her to be typed up after a visit to a game park in Africa. She found herself transcribing a sequence for a forthcoming address like this “.. and so we can see that UNEP’s greatest achievement has been to build a bridge between environment and development. But that message needs to get out to a wider audience — Oh, my, that is a fantastic pride of lions over there! — especially in the developing world”.

There was quite a lot of bickering over what kind of animal UNEP should be. The rich countries - who were dominant at Stockholm, and who were already criticizing the cost of the UN - were clear that there should be no new UN agency. The existing UN agencies wholeheartedly agreed.


Maurice Strong left to go back to Canada at the end of 1975. In 1977, his role was taken over by the indefatigable Dr Mostafa Tolba, whom Strong appointed as the Deputy Executive Director.

The book details the achievement of UNEP. Amongst them:

The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), the first multilateral environmental agreement to be administered by UNEP CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) is an international agreement between governments. Its aim is to ensure that international trade in specimens of wild animals and plants does not threaten their survival.

Ozone diplomacy and the Coordinating Committee on the Ozone Layer: The Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer was designed to reduce the production and consumption of ozone depleting substances in order to reduce their abundance in the atmosphere, and thereby protect the earth’s fragile ozone Layer.

The World Commission on Environment and Development The report deals with sustainable development and the change of politics needed for achieving it.

The United Nations Conference on Desertification (UNCOD) and the UN Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD), which is the sole legally binding international agreement linking environment and development to sustainable land management.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) the leading international body for the assessment of climate change; The Basel Convention is to protect human health and the environment against the adverse effects of hazardous wastes.

The Global Environment Facility (GEF) unites 182 countries in partnership with international institutions, civil society organizations (CSOs), and the private sector to address global environmental issues while supporting national sustainable development initiatives. Today the GEF is the largest public funder of projects to improve the global environment. An independently operating financial organization, the GEF provides grants for projects related to biodiversity, climate change, international waters, land degradation, the ozone layer, and persistent organic pollutants.

The book describes one of the crowning jewels in environmental diplomacy, the UNEP regional seas programme. This programme takes its cue from the opening remarks that Strong made at the Stockholm Conference: “The case for regional cooperation (on ocean pollution) is equally compelling, fora large number of effectively enclosed seas, such as the Mediterranean, the Baltic and the Caspian, are deteriorating at a frightening rate.”

Protecting regional seas

The new buildings house the headquarters of both UNEP and the UN Human Settlements Programme (UN-HABITAT), and are a central pillar of the UN’s broader goal of reducing its greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. The four buildings, which can accommodate 1,200 staff, feature solar panels on the roof spaces, automated low-energy lighting illuminating work-spaces, and energy efficient computers.
photo: UNEP

The regional seas programme kick-started with the creation of the Mediterranean Action Plan (MAP). Action was by no means all plain sailing.

In the book which he wrote with Iwona Rummel-Bulska, Mostafa K. Tolba explained the difficulties UNEP faced when the Regional Seas Programme was launched in the mid-1970s. “A miniature ocean bordered by 120 cities with a population totalling at least 100 million, the virtually enclosed waters of the Mediterranean Sea have been the crossroads of European, Asian, and African civilizations for at least 4,000 years of recorded history.”

The main objectives of MAP were to assist the Mediterranean Governments to assess and control marine pollution, to formulate their national environment policies, to improve the ability of go me cooperation in specific areas. Tolba commented: “What happened in the Mediterranean had significance beyond its shores. As the programme evolved, the participants were able to enlarge their understanding of the environment’s role in development and began to see evidence that both developed and developing nations were prepared to put aside their political differences as they cooperated to protect their shared environment.”

As the field of environmental diplomacy developed, several action plans, conventions, and protocols were adopted. Now, through the Regional Seas programme spans some 130 countries.

Thus, under the initial leadership of Strong and later Dr Mostafa Tolba, UNEP, who led UNEP for 17 years, the organisation survived attempts limit its effectiveness and prove its mettle.

The jury is split on the outcome of Rio+20, which took place in Brazil in 2012. The conference was beset by crisis, But one positive outcome was the strengthening of the role of UNEP.

Upgrading UNEP

The 67th session of the United Nations General Assembly also addressed the future of UNEP, under the leadership of the current Executive Director, Achim Steiner, in re-spect to the Rio+20 Summit's outcomes, including how best to strengthen and upgrade UNEP, realize the benefits of universal membership, provide increased resources and devise a mechanism for better engaging civil society.

It must be a matter of great satisfaction to all those who have been involved in this unfolding story over the last four decades that the UNGA has once again seen fit to reaffirm “its commitment to strengthening the role of the United Nations Environment Programme as the leading global environmental authority that sets the global environmental agenda, promotes the coherent implementation of the environmental dimension of sustainable development within the United Nations system and serves as an authoritative advocate for the global environment.”

The adoption of this UNGA resolution provides indeed a fitting conclusion to Stanley Johnson’s narrative. This book comes against backdrop of a world economic and global crisis.

Despite the growing conflicts between and within nations and now villages, over land, water and natural resources, the publication provides solid evidence on a new diplomacy, where political leaders and nations can rise above national interests and act to care for the other and the wider environment.

The world awaits to see what this future holds.

By Don de Silva, former Co-ordinator of UNEP Regional Information Programmes

To download a copy of the publication (pdf), go to: http://www.unep.org/40thAnniversary/