Citizens, Sustainability and the United Nations

Citizens, Sustainability and the United NationsThose of us concerned about the fate of our planet and species inevitably find ourselves staring at that tall building in New York we all know as the United Nations.  It is here that the series of global summits and conferences on sustainable development, climate change, biodiversity, human rights and other critical issues of our time are planned and documented. It is in the UN's network of intergovernmental institutions that treaties and agreements are negotiated, administered and monitored.

It is the UN which convened the 1992 Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) in Rio de Janeiro (the "Earth Summit") which resulted in Agenda 21: the Program of Action on Sustainable Development. This event was also the catalyst for the creation of the US Citizens Network for UNCED, which later become the Citizens Network for Sustainable Development. The main purpose of this network was to ensure meaningful citizen participation in the Earth Summit and its follow-up and organized preparatory meetings and activities as well as bringing a large delegation of US citizens to Brazil to join and play a major role in one of civil society's most important and historic gatherings.

Some of this activity and discussion is captured in the books Time for Change: A New Approach to Environment and Development (1992) by Hal Kane with Linda Starke (prepared for the US Citizens Network on UNCED) and The Road from Rio: An NGO Action Guide to Environment and Development (1993)  by Michael McCoy and Patrick McCully.

It is also here that the annual Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD) takes place, the institution created in 1993 to monitor progress in the implementation of the Agenda 21 agreements and vision.

Following the 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD), the delegates at the 11th Session of CSD agreed to a "multi-year programme of work" involving seven two-year cycles addressing a range of thematic clusters. The focus of the first year of the cycle is a review of progress, obstacles and lessons learned regarding the implementation of Agenda 21 and WSSD objectives related to that year's themes. The focus of the second year is on policy -- with the idea of identifying, agreeing on and promoting constructive policy and action options that may not be addressed or within the strictures of other processes or multilateral agreements.

One critical question here is the degree that the CSD, without a mandate for designing treaties or binding agreements, provides a useful investment of the time, money and other resources invested into these meetings. Of course the same question can apply to most of these intergovernmental discussions and institutional ventures and structures.