North South row over post Rio panel's role

EVERYONE agrees that the greatest achievement of the world's largest-ever environment conference -- at Rio last year -- was the establishment of the Commission for Sustainable Development (CSD) to monitor environmental degradation. But how effective the 53-member CSD, scheduled to hold its first meeting on June 14, will be is still unclear because while developing countries continue to insist that Western nations fulfil their promise at Rio to increase aid levels to 0.7 per cent of GNP, the fact is that aid levels are already decreasing, giving the South a setback even before the commission can meet.

Meanwhile, the North wishes to use CSD to monitor the progress on various agreements signed in Rio, though how it will fare on this count, too, is not clear. Governments have to provide information for effective monitoring, but, as matters stand, reporting to CSD is not mandatory. Governments are therefore likely to exploit this loophole to avoid furnishing information on controversial issues.

The secretariat still has no way to ensure reports submitted to CSD are clear and correct. Though guidelines on reporting are on the agenda, the discussion is likely to divide Northern and Southern countries. The North wants strict guidelines and expects to oversee the South's enforcement of them. Developing countries can be expected to resist this.

Third World governments are also apprehensive that admitting non-governmental organisations (NGOs) to CSD meetings will result in organised and vocal groups from the North dominating proceedings and lending support to their governments. But Malaysia's UN ambassador, Razali Ismail, who was elected chairperson of CSD, seeks NGO participation because he says they can play a key role in making CSD a high-profile, effective body. Says Ismail, "In this very inhospitable economic environment, NGOs should select areas and agitate to help highlight the global inequity."

Ismail's views are supported by Nitin Desai, the Indian under-secretary general in-charge at the CSD secretariat, who wants more NGOs to push their national governments into action. But Ismail cautions, "CSD has to be seen as a long haul."

The main item to be monitored will be Agenda 21, a global plan for achieving sustainable development, which was agreed upon in Rio. To make monitoring manageable, Desai has divided the agenda into nine clusters by theme to make monitoring more manageable. This will facilitate monitoring as the data will relate to specific areas and not be too cumbersome. Reports will be prepared on each cluster for the CSD sessions.