Disaster strikes UNEP

Governing council suspended, funds withheld as countries bicker to no purpose

The United Nations Environment Programme 19th governing council spluttered to an undignified halt on Friday night, suspended by its president amid confusion and recriminations. Three countries announced that they were withholding financial contributions, and others could follow. There is now a real risk of significant lay-offs of UNEP staff, potentially even a virtual collapse for the agency, which has been the UN's "environmental conscience" since 1972.

One informed UNEP staff member contacted by ENDS Daily described the outcome as "horrendous". "The meeting was going well until Friday...then everything fell apart....We've got weeks rather than months before the money runs out."

What exactly happened is still unclear. Sources contacted by ENDS Daily agree that the meeting went well until Friday. On Thursday evening the Venezuelan president of the council held a "friends of the chair" meeting to discuss some of the thorny reform issues that kept recurring during the first week (ENDS Daily 6 February). This group looked specifically at setting up a ministerial sub-committee and a task force on reforms, and tried to clarify the role of permanent representatives to UNEP.

On Friday morning, the group presented its work to the plenary session, and it emerged that the president had - in the words of one official "failed to choose his friends carefully enough." Prominent members of the G77 nations, understood to include India, Bangladesh and Colombia, objected to not having been invited to the meeting. They felt the president's actions had helped to move the balance of power in UNEP from its Nairobi headquarters to a northern country. UNEP is the only big UN agency to be based in a developing country.

An acrimonious debate developed, described by Norway's representative at the meeting as "the most depressing moment in 20 years of international environmental negotiation".

UK environment minister John Gummer publicly expressed grave "disappointment" at the turn of events. He said the UK would "withhold contributions to UNEP until such time as the organisation can spend them on the environment rather than internal problems." The US and Spain also withheld funding. At 11.15pm the president suspended the meeting.

The disastrous governing council bodes ill for the UN General Assembly special session this summer, which is supposed to assess progress since the Earth Summit in Brazil five years ago and define UNEP's future role in implementing the broader sustainable development agenda.

Some glimmers of hope remain, though. Technically, the governing council is still in session and could be restarted at any time in the next one to three months. Nevertheless, 1997 is going to be a testing time for UNEP and for its embattled director, Elizabeth Dowdeswell, who has confirmed she will step down by the end of 1997.

Follow Up:
UNEP Information and Public Affairs unit, tel: +254 2 623 084.

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