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NGO's role grows in global environmental diplomacy.

NEW YORK -- A year after the Rio Earth Summit, nongovernmental organizations are playing an ever-widening role in global environmental diplomacy, and diplomats are adopting their language.

This was evident last month when diplomats and environmental activists gathered at the United Nations for the first meeting of the U.N. Commission on Sustainable Development, one of the major achievements of the Rio meeting (NCR, Oct. 16, 1992).

Strict accreditation criteria, such as having to apply two years in advance, have long limited NGOs' presence at U.N. meetings. But their dynamic presence at Rio, expertise on multifaceted environmental issues and active lobbying led CSD officials in February to extend official status to all applying NGOs who attended the meeting. While other U.N. agencies and some members remain reluctant to allow NGOs such access, the U.N. has begun reviewing its overall accreditation process.

Perhaps the best indicator of NGOs' growing diplomatic credibility is that "these diplomats sounded just like NGOs," an amazed Caribbean NGO representative told NCR. During a CSD session on efforts to fight desertification, a U.N. diplomat echoed activists' language. He said that "people's participation is becoming the watchword for our time. We are recognizing that the negotiator's role is secondary to the real agents of sustainable development, the women, the people at the local level."

While Rio focused on reaching broad international agreements, the CSD is wrestling with how nations and the United Nations itself will implement these agreements. The CSD is charged with reviewing the 900-page program of action called Agenda 21 agreed on at Rio.

Almost 80 percent of U.N. members have set up their own CSDs to oversee national environmental efforts. The U.N. Development Program, soon to be headed by former World Resources Institute President James Gustave Speth, launched a special committee to ensure Agenda 21 decisions are reflected in all its programs and activities.

But money remains a major problem. Few rich nations have come up with the additional resources needed since the Earth Summit. Some nations have even backed away from the commitments they made at Rio. Sweden, Canada and the European community all cut their foreign aid by at least 10 percent in the past year. Thus, few developing countries will be able to afford to shift to less environmentally damaging means of growing food or manufacturing products.

NGOs pushed for new thinking on a number of fronts. "The U.N. should not talk of technology transfer as it it's a one-way street," one NGO observer told NCR. "We need to talk of technology exchange, sharing. There's much the North can learn from the Amazonian tribes about conserving resources." NGOs also urged creation of a U.N. agency on renewable energy.

NGOs continued to press for more democratic decision-making in the World Bankrun Global Environmental Facility, set up to fund poorer nations' shift to more ecologically friendly technologies. Also, an NGO working group issued a statement on the importance of respecting human rights to preserving the environment, to be distributed to governments attending the CSD and the Vienna human rights conference (see accompanying article).

NGOs urged the CSD to address emerging military conflicts over resources and to press governments to reduce military activities because of their destructive effects on the environment. But they also saw the meeting as an opportunity to help build a broader NGO movement, exploring ways to use the alternative "peoples' treaties" developed at Rio to build transnational grassroots work on environmental sustainability.

Perhaps the sharpest difference between the CSD meeting and Rio lay in the dramatically different U.S. stance. Saying that the United States planned to put its own environmental house in order, Vice President Al Gore sharply diverged from former President George Bush's "our lifestyles are not up for negotiation" stance.

Rich countries "have less than a quarter of the world's population, but we use three quarters of its raw materials and create three quarters of its solid wastes," Gore noted. "An American child has 30 times more impact on the Earth's environment than an Indian child."
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Title Annotation:nongovernmental organizations
Author:Collins, Carole
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Date:Jul 2, 1993
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