“The General Assembly, […]

Convinced that increased attention to the problems of the human environment is essential for sound economic and social development […]

Expressing the strong hope that the developing countries will, through appropriate international cooperation, derive particular benefit from the mobilization of knowledge and experience about the problems of the human environment […]

Believing it desirable to provide a framework for comprehensive consideration within the United Nations of the problems of the human environment in order to focus the attention of Governments and public opinion on the importance and urgency of this question and also to identify those aspects of it that can only or best be solved through international co-operation and agreement” […]

Though the citation might seem to be written in the present days, it is actually a fragment of a General Assembly Resolution of 1968, one of the very first UN initiatives concerned with the future of our natural surroundings. More than 40 years later, we are still stressing out the importance of increased attention on the environment, we still strongly hope that the developing countries, in their growth, will reduce as much as possible their polluting activities, we still believe in that comprehensive framework within the UN in which cooperation and agreement on environmental issues are possible. Beyond the empty words and sincere hopes, we now find ourselves half a century later with old environmental problems in a worse state, with new threats and challenges emerged and little, almost no remarkable achievements in what regards the environment protection. Why is that?

The present article addresses and gives some explanation for the reasons why the global environmental concern, not such a novelty in the 21st century, still has not found a powerful structure, with focus on the largest institutional entity we have today: the United Nations. It will be argued that in spite of an important number of difficulties in the achievement of a comprehensive environmental organization, such a structure is not yet damned; instead, it’s the lack of high decisional will that is to deprive us from strong environmental action in the future.

Starting with the ‘70s, environment protection began to represent an increasingly important subject worldwide, the long row of international conferences starting at Stockholm in 1972. Soon after, the UN took action regarding this concern by establishing the UN Environment Program: a powerless institutional tool, with a modest, voluntary fund. To our days, UNEP remained mainly a weak subsidiary program of the UN General Assembly, reporting on its work through the Economic and Social Council, with very little to no authority and a diminished voice. The voluntary financial contributions are not an advantage, the rich countries being very often also the ones polluting the most. The choice for the headquarters (Nairobi, Kenya) does not help much either, UNEP being the only UN institution to be based on the African continent: the difficulty to get to the African capital, the instability of the region, the limited resources, the infrastructure and basic services, obviously have a big influence on the overall performance of the agency.

The idea put forward in this article is that all the above were deliberate choices of the UNEP founding fathers: the limited attributed powers of the organization (“program”) that is only able to “promote”, “provide general guidance”, ”keep under review” and the very broad mandate can only make one wonder if it is not, in fact, a hidden intention to maintain the whole environmental endeavor weak and hazy. It could be argued that it is not only the UN that took the initiative on this matter and that since the ‘70s a high number of institutions, agencies and committees have been created in order to tackle this issue, mostly at non-governmental levels. But this only shaped a sort of environmental paradox in the international community: the less high decisional action was taken, the more people got involved and tried to change the situation non-governmentally. This would seem like a good compensation, but in fact it is just deepening the environmental crisis: decision-makers hide behind powerless, but highly numerous commissions, agencies and programs, while the ones with an actual interest in environmentally protective actions, do not have the decisional power to implement the changes they envision.

Still, finding common ground on such a delicate issue like the human environment and most importantly, creating an organization with broad legitimacy, are not goals easy to achieve now. That is the reason why, at least due to its comprehensiveness as an international organization, the UN still seems like the lesser evil one could choose for solving the environmental urgent issues of our days. Of course, improvements are necessary in almost all the organizational features: membership, funding, attributed powers etc. But it is not impossible! We should not forget that a bit more than two decades ago the “human being” was not a point of reference on the international agenda either and that the state-centered thinking was the only accepted perspective on international relations. It took the international community a couple of serious humanitarian crises and a shocked international public opinion to get priorities on the agenda rearranged and consensus in the high decisional actions (based on the decisions of the UN Security Council, the International Criminal Tribunals of Rwanda and Yugoslavia were founded). Ever since, we have seen a great increase in the humanitarian actions organizations and states undertake (with no reference to those under Chapter VII of the UN Charter though) and we can only hope that we will not have to witness some serious environmental crises in order for the high political leaders to agree on certain actions to be undertaken.

Image source: Hani Amir