Segmentation the Debate on a United Nations Environment Organization

One reform debate in the field of global environmental governance concerns the organizational and institutional fragmentation of global environmental policy. Many observers have pointed to the paradoxical situation that strong and powerful international bodies oriented towards economic growth—such as the World Trade Organization, the World Bank or the International Monetary Fund—are hardly matched by UNEP, the modest UN programme for environmental issues. The same imbalance is revealed when UNEP is compared to the plethora of influential UN specialized agencies in the fields of labor, shipping, agriculture, communication or culture. As a mere programme, UNEP has no right to adopt treaties or any regulations upon its own initiative, it cannot avail itself of any regular and predictable funding, and it is subordinated to the UN Economic and Social Council. UNEP's staff hardly exceeds 300 professionals—a trifle compared to its national counterparts, such as the German Federal Environment Agency with 1043 employees and the United States Environmental Protection Agency with a staff of 18,807.

This situation has led to a variety of proposals to grant the environment what other policy areas long had: a strong international agency with a sizeable mandate, significant resources and sufficient autonomy. The debate on such a world environment organization—or a global environmental organization, as it is sometimes being referred to (e.g., [61])—has been going on for some time. Magnus et al. [62] have reviewed no less than 17 recent proposals for a new organization, and they have not even covered all proposals that can be found in the literature, which dates back 34 years to George Kennan ([1]; see [63-65] for an overview). France has now taken the lead of reform proponents in its recent call for UNEO. However, in recent years many opponents of a new agency have also taken the floor [66-69].

Most proponents of such a UNEO can be divided into more pragmatic and more radical approaches. The more radical strand in the literature demands the abolition of major agencies such as the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), the creation of a new agency with enforcement power—e.g., through trade sanctions—or the creation of a new agency in addition to UNEP, which would have to transfer many of its functions to the new organization [70]. Most of these radical designs are both unrealistic and undesirable. Abolishing UN agencies has been rare in post-1945 history and seems politically unfeasible or unnecessary for most agencies today. Trade sanctions to enforce environmental treaties would unfairly focus on less powerful developing countries while leaving the big industrialized countries sacrosanct [71]. Establishing a new agency in addition to UNEP would create new coordinating problems while attempting to solve them and would likely result in an imbalance between supposedly global issues—to be addressed by a new global environmental organization—and local issues, which would then be addressed by the remaining UNEP.

Pragmatists, instead, propose maintaining the current system of decentralized, issue-specific international environmental regimes along with existing specialized organizations active in the environmental field, while strengthening the interests of environmental protection by upgrading UNEP from a mere UN programme to a full-fledged international organization. This UNEO would have its own budget and legal personality, increased financial and staff resources, and enhanced legal powers. In this model, a UNEO would function among the other international institutions and organizations, whose member states might then be inclined to shift some competencies related to the environment to the new agency. Additional financial and staff resources could be devoted to the fields of awareness raising, technology transfer, and the provision of environmental expertise to international, national and sub-national levels. The elevation of UNEP to a UNEO of this type could be modeled on the World Health Organization (WHO) and the International Labor Organization (ILO), that is, independent international organizations with their own membership.

There are three chief arguments brought forward in favor of a new agency. First, upgrading UNEP to a UNEO could ameliorate the coordination deficit in the global governance architecture that results in substantial costs and suboptimal policy outcomes. When UNEP was set-up in 1972, it was still a comparatively independent player with a clearly defined work area. Since then, however, the increase in international environmental regimes has led to considerable fragmentation of the system. Norms and standards in each area of environmental governance are set up by distinct legislative bodies—the conferences of the parties—with little respect for repercussions and for links with other fields. While the decentralized negotiation of rules and standards in separate functional bodies may be defensible, this is less so regarding the organizational fragmentation of the various convention secretariats, which have evolved into medium-sized bureaucracies with strong centrifugal tendencies. In addition, most specialized international organizations and bodies have initiated their own environmental programs independently from each other and with little policy coordination among themselves and with UNEP.

Streamlining environmental secretariats and negotiations into one body would especially increase the voice of the South in global environmental negotiations. The current system of organizational fragmentation and inadequate coordination causes special problems for developing countries. Individual environmental agreements are negotiated in a variety of places, ranging from Vienna to Montreal, Helsinki, London, Nairobi, Copenhagen, Bangkok, Nairobi, Vienna, San Jose, Montreal, Cairo, Beijing and Ouagadougou, and on various issues, for example ozone policy. This nomadic nature of a "travelling diplomatic circus" also characterizes most sub-committees of environmental conventions. Developing countries lack the resources to attend all these meetings with a sufficient number of well-qualified diplomats and experts [72]. The creation of a UNEO could help developing countries build up specialized "environmental embassies" at the seat of the new organization, which would reduce their costs and increase their negotiation skills and respective influence.

Second, if UNEP were upgraded to a UNEO, the body would be better poised to support regime-building processes, especially by initiating and preparing new treaties. The ILO could serve as a model. ILO has developed a comprehensive body of "ILO conventions" that comes close to a global labor code. In comparison, global environmental policy is far more disparate and cumbersome in its norm-setting processes. It is also riddled with various disputes among the UN specialized organizations regarding their competencies, with UNEP in its current setting unable to protect environmental interests adequately. A UNEO could also approve—by qualified majority vote—certain regulations, which would then be binding on all members, comparable to articles 21 and 22 of the WHO Statute. The UNEO Assembly could also adopt draft treaties that have been negotiated by sub-committees under its auspices and would then be opened for signature within UNEO headquarters. The ILO Constitution, for example, requires its parties in article 19(5) to process, within one year, all treaties adopted by the ILO General Conference to the respective national authorities and to report back to the organization on progress in the ratification process. Although governments remain free not to ratify an ILO treaty adopted by the ILO assembly, the ILO mandate still goes much beyond the powers of the UNEP Governing Council, which cannot pressure governments in the same way as ILO can.

Third, upgrading UNEP to a UNEO could assist in the build-up of environmental capacities in developing countries. Strengthening the capacity of developing countries to deal with global and domestic environmental problems has become one of the most essential functions of global environmental regimes [11]. The demand for financial and technological north-south transfers is certain to grow when global climate, biodiversity and other policies are more intensively implemented in the South. Yet, the current organizational setting for financial north-south transfers suffers from an adhocism and fragmentation that does not fully meet the requirements of transparency, efficiency and participation of the parties involved. At present, most industrialized countries strive for a strengthening of the World Bank and its recent affiliate, the Global Environment Facility (GEF), to which they will likely wish to assign most financial transfers. Many developing countries, on the other hand, view this development with concern, given their perspective of the Bank as a northern-dominated institution ruled by decision-making procedures based on contributions. Though the GEF has been substantially reformed since 1994, it still meets with opposition from the South. A way out would be to move the tasks of overseeing capacity building and financial and technological assistance for global environmental policies to an independent body that is specially designed to account for the distinct character of north-south relations in global environmental policy, that could link the normative and technical aspects of financial and technological assistance, and that is strong enough to overcome the fragmentation of the current multitude of inefficient single funds. Such a body could be a UNEO.

An organization, as opposed to a program, could allow for a system of regular, predictable and assessed contributions of members, instead of voluntary contributions, as is the case with UNEP. A more comprehensive reform that leads to the creation of a new agency could also involve the reassembling and streamlining of the current system of independent (trust) funds, including the ozone fund under the Montreal Protocol and the GEF of the World Bank (jointly administered with UNEP and UNDP). The norm-setting functions of the GEF, for example regarding the criteria for financial disbursement, could be transferred to the UNEO Assembly in a system that would leave GEF the role of a "finance ministry" under the overall supervision and normative guidance of the UNEO Assembly. This would unite the economic and administrative expertise of GEF's staff with the "legislative" role of a UNEO.

In sum, creating a UNEO would pave the way for the elevation of environmental policies on the agenda of governments, international organizations and private organizations; it could assist in developing the capacities for environmental policy in African, Asian and Latin American countries; and it would improve the institutional environment for the negotiation of new conventions and action programs, as well as for the implementation and coordination of existing ones.

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