UNEP back from the brink

Delayed meeting of UN agency agrees new governing body in North-South compromise

A special session of the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) governing council has agreed to create a new senior committee to improve the organisation's management. A "High-level Committee of Ministers and Officials in Charge of Environment" is to "advise" UNEP's governing council on the international environmental agenda and provide "guidance and advice" to the executive director.

The compromise marks the final closure of UNEP's 19th governing council, which was suspended in February amid deadlock over the issue of governance (ENDS Daily 10 February). According to sources in UNEP, the agency is now in a far stronger position to play a significant role during and after this summer's major international discussions on sustainable development (ENDS Daily 4 April).

February's impasse arose from demands by three developed countries for changes to UNEP's governing structure. Developing countries felt the proposal would reduce their influence - UNEP is the only major UN agency based in a developing country - and blocked it. In response, the USA, the UK and Spain threatened to withhold their financial contributions, leading eventually to suspension of the meeting amid acrimony.

Friday's agreement is a compromise between Northern and Southern interests. The essential demand of the North has been met, with the creation of the high-level committee, designed to sharpen UNEP's management. The 36-member body will be "elected from among members of the UN and its specialised agencies", according to a UNEP statement, and will meet annually.

Developing countries have won a countervailing alteration to UNEP's management structure, with an increase in the powers of an existing senior committee, the Committee of Permanent Representatives (CPR). The CPR will now hold four meetings a year in place of three, and has a strengthened mandate, including the right to "prepare draft decisions for consideration by the governing council" and to "review...the implementation of decisions of the governing council."

The agreement has been warmly welcomed within UNEP. "Everyone has breathed a sigh of relief", one official told ENDS Daily, "because if they hadn't reached agreement it would have put us in deep trouble."

Nevertheless, some insiders fear that the agreement may do little to resolve some of the practical governance problems facing UNEP, and could even make them worse. "We still have problems of overlap [with other UN agencies]" said one.

The new committee will also further to UNEP's strained bureaucracy by creating another management layer between the governing council and the CPR. One official described the prospect of servicing "five major meetings a year at least" as a "nightmare".

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

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