New Zealand And The United Nations - The Csd Experience

  • Simon Upton

Twelve months ago New Zealand washed up in the chair of the United Nation's environmental 'watch-dog', the Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD). Our chairmanship culminated in the meeting of 60 government Ministers held in New York last month.

The CSD is a review body that was set up in the wake of the Rio Earth Summit in 1992 to monitor progress in implementing Agenda 21 (the principles for sustainable development that were adopted at the summit). This year the main themes on which it focused were the world's oceans, small island states and the burgeoning global tourism industry.

The oceans cover two thirds of the globe. The pollution and over-fishing of the world's oceans are genuinely global issues. The biggest job of this CSD was to ask whether the international community's response to these issues was adequate and, if not, what should be done about it.

For New Zealand, with its slender resources, to find itself in the chair was a little unnerving. We hadn't been on the commission before (which numbers 53 states), let alone in the chair. We knew very little about the CSD's processes. The more questions we asked, the more a sinking feeling started to set in.

We learned that the CSD had acquired a reputation as a talk shop; that it produced mainly bland and general statements and that it was rapidly degenerating into a forum that would soon be deserted by Ministers who found the experience (in the words of one of them) "an exercise in banality".

As a consequence, I determined that our primary goal would be a procedural one: to rescue the reputation of the CSD as a forum which environment and development ministers attended because it provided a unique and valuable opportunity to advance global issues on a broad front.

We determined that this would be best achieved by injecting a good measure of genuinely interactive debate (in place of sterile set-piece speeches) and a commitment to record disagreements and well as agreements to avoid the turgid, lowest common denominator text that so often issues from the maws of multi-lateral negotiations.

New Zealanders will probably find it hard to believe, but the tradition at most UN forums and international negotiations is for Ministers to parade formally to the podium, read a speech and then disappear, leaving diplomats to their elegant and refined rituals of delay and dissimulation. We did enjoy one stroke of luck. I was to be the first CSD chair to chair a meeting I had organised. (Before this year, bizarrely, you chaired a meeting someone else had organised, then organised the next for someone else to chair).

To advance these goals I travelled extensively to meet ministers from countries that are members of the Commission and tried to build momentum for change in capitals, while a small but dedicated team of New Zealand diplomats worked on the New York diplomatic establishment.

It was worth the effort. The ministerial segment of the conference was, in UN terms, little short of a triumph. I say in UN terms advisedly. Conference-goers from New Zealand would have thought it an unremarkable format. However, to CSD aficionados and, indeed, anyone immersed in the UN culture it was a revolution. Meetings started on time, read statements were kept in their place and some genuine debate ensued.

The success of our approach was, I think, best gauged by the fact that an informal ministerial meeting held in New York immediately after CSD7 to plan for the next round of climate change negotiations was emboldened by the informal approach of CSD to "banish" ministerial statements and resort instead to focussed informal discussion on key points of disagreement. If this practice spreads to other multi-lateral fora, we will have started a minor revolution in the way that these negotiations function.

But it wasn't all procedural reform. On substance too, CSD7 delivered some tangible progress. We achieved a major breakthrough in gaining unanimous support for a recommendation that will, if accepted by the UN's General Assembly, considerably beef-up the annual General Assembly debate on oceans. For the first time, there will be a place where oceans issues that are going nowhere in other fora can be resurrected and exposed to international scrutiny.

There was good strong text calling for action on the use of flags of convenience by fishing vessels engaging in illegal fishing on the high seas and clear decisions on a host of other matters.

Perhaps the biggest innovation was the inclusion of precise acknowledgments of disagreement in the oceans text (on fishing subsidies, the movement of nuclear waste and eco-labelling of fish). This was a radical break from the tradition of watered-down consensus text that, in my view, has plagued the UN system.

This is all very well, you might say. But can New Zealand really afford to have Ministers and diplomats running around the world better organising UN meetings. What's in it for us?

The United Nations, which seeks to find ways forward on global issues with the agreement of a 185 countries, each with their differing interests and needs, is easily mocked for its slow progress. But, despite all its imperfections it's all we've got.

As a small country that relies on international goodwill for its security and prosperity, New Zealand has powerful reasons to do what it can to ensure that global institutions continue to exist, and if possible, operate more effectively.

On another level, the CSD is one of a number of fora in which New Zealand can demonstrate some good 'global citizenship'. Our responsible engagement with the issues gives us credibility with a very wide range of nations whose support we will almost certainly need in other places (WTO, APEC and others) where our interests are vitally at stake.

Chairing the CSD was, to my surprise, the most physically and mentally exhausting political assignment thing I have ever undertaken. It would not have been possible without a tireless effort by a tiny foreign affairs team that confirmed for me the quality and professionalism of those who represent us abroad.

New Zealand does not have the resources to attempt this kind of role very often. But the experience of CSD shows that, despite our limited means, we can and should make a contribution at the global level. And that when we put our minds to it, we can make a difference