III. Adhering to international commitments
The Role of International Commitments in Sustainable Development:
Intergovernmental organizations, such as the United Nations and its related bodies, initiate and facilitate progress towards sustainable development through various types of activities, such as convening international conferences, summits, expert meetings and workshops, providing technical and financial assistance to developing countries, and building capacity and raising awareness.
The primary means for advancing environmental cooperation and sustainable development is through negotiation of multilateral environmental agreements (MEAs). Since the establishment of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), following the 1972 Stockholm Conference on the Human Environment, the number of global and regional agreements has inceased considerably. Well over 200 MEAs have been negotiated, and most of them are presently in force. In fact, the global process of change towards a more sustainable world was initiated as an international commitment.
In addition to the negotiation of international environmental conventions and treaties, a number of declarations and plans of action also further the goal of achieving a more sustainable society. Although these texts are of a non-binding legal nature, they nevertheless represent important moral obligations for States to implement. In the area of sustainable development, the most noteworthy, of course, include the Rio Declaration and Agenda 21, but there are a number of others negotiated in the framework of regional bodies, such as the 1995 ASEAN Cooperation Plan on Transboundary Pollution or, more recently, the 4th Ministerial Conference on Environment and Development in Asia and the Pacific (MCED), which took place in Kitakyushu, Japan, in September 2000.
The countries of the Asia Pacific region participate in the negotiation of a broad range of MEAs, declarations and action programmes. Signing up to a legal instrument or any other negotiated text, however, may not necessarily result in the expected or desired outcome. Problems in coordinating the roles, policies and agendas of functional ministries may likely arise and compromise how well-if at all-States meet an agreement's obligations. In this module we will examine some of the experiences of the Asia Pacific countries in formulating policy and implementing international commitments for the environment and sustainable development.
This module covers the following topics:
1. Whose vision is the "national vision"?
Developing national positions for the negotiation of MEAs and other texts relating to sustainable development involves the input of numerous governmental bodies. Although in many countries of the region officials from the ministries of foreign affairs actually attend and participate in intergovernmental negotiations, the preparatory process of formulating positions and defining national interests must take into account the perspectives of a wide-range of governmental agencies and other stakeholder groups.
The challenge for policymakers, of course, is how to formulate a 'national position' that is representative of the interests of ministries having competing agendas and priorities, not to mention the interests from the different segments of a country's population or stakeholder groups.
In most cases, governments assign lead agencies the responsibility for coordinating ministerial input into the draft national negotiating position. This ministry or agency then leads the delegation during the intergovernmental negotiation process.
2. The constraints to formulation of a 'national position' for negotiation:
3. Regional/Sub-regional Coordination
If a country's 'national position' shares a common interest or objective with the position of other countries, it can lead to development of regional or sub-regional positions. In the case of the Framework Convention on Climate Change, for example, there was particular concern in many Pacific Island countries (PICs) over the devastating effects of sea level rise resulting from the increased accumulation of greenhouse gases (GHGs) in the atmosphere. The PICs strongly felt that stabilizing GHGs was an immediate first step to safeguard their social-economic and cultural well being, not to mention their security. Such common concern for many PICs, in particular, Kiribati, Tuvalu, and the Marshall Islands, led to development of the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS), which eventually evolved into a broad-based coalition of some 43 insular and small island States world-wide. Not only did the creation of AOSIS increase its bargaining leverage in the framework of the initial climate change negotiations, but it also led to active participation in Rio Conference (UNCED) in 1992, the Barbados Conference for Small Island Developing States (1994) and the Commission on Sustainable Development. Other regional or sub-regional positions are sometimes advanced in the framework of regional economic organizations (e.g. ASEAN), and occasionally coordinated with larger coalitions, such as the Group of 77.
4. Successful cases of coordination among domestic agencies with regard to MEAs:
Overview of international agreements concerning the environment (legal aspects)
National Follow-up to international commitments
When a country becomes a Party to an MEA or other internationally binding instrument, it has a legal obligation to implement commitments at the national level. Complying with international commitments typically requires one or several of the following responses:
Examples of responses to MEAs:
In some cases, however, there may be a delayed reaction, a limited or superficial reaction or no reaction to commitments under MEAs.
Constraints for follow-up implementation
Various factors may explain why a Party fails to implement the obligations of an agreement. Across the Asia Pacific region, limited financial and human resources present serious capacity constraints to implement and comply with treaty obligations. To provide an example, non-annex 1 countries Party to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change were required prepare and submit initial national communications on greenhouse gas (GHG) inventories as well as measures undertaken to mitigate GHG emissions, in accordance with Article 12 of the Convention and the guidelines adopted at COP2, in 1996. Limited scientific and financial capacity in many developing countries of the region (not to mention other parts of the world) prevented Parties from complying with these commitments. Through the enabling activities programme of the Global Environmental Facility (GEF), however, some countries managed to overcome these capacity constraints. (See good practice suite example of Thailand... More).
In addition to capacity constraints, other factors explaining non-compliance of environmental commitments may include competing institutional roles and communication failures between agencies overseeing policy formulation and policy implementation-either at the federal level or between the national level and sub national levels of government. (see discussion and examples above).
Another problem associated with implementation and compliance may lie in the non-specific nature of the commitment. For example, many conventions and other legal instruments call upon Parties to build capacity and increase public awareness of the problem; however, the commitments themselves are rather ambiguous on how Parties should comply.
Finally, much follow-up action at the national level is in the form of implementing plans of action, visionary messages and declarations, which are of a non-binding legal nature. Across the region, States have generally assigned less importance to these documents than to the legally binding conventions and their legal instruments.
Examples of reaction
Malaysia: Creation of a Steering Committee "Implementing the Montreal Protocol"Rio Declaration
Examples of reaction
Examples of reaction
Malaysia : Enactment of law
UNCED (1992) and Agenda 21
Examples of reaction
Development of National/Local Agenda 21
Examples of reaction
The need to enhance synergies and coordination among MEAs
Concern over the proliferation of MEAs and the increasing number of commitments to which States must respond, has prompted bodies of the United Nations, UNEP, UNDP, the United Nations University (UNU), regional organizations and programmes, and a host of MEA Secretariats, to investigate ways and means of identifying areas for synergy and collaboration among agreements in order to create the conditions for more efficient and effective environmental management.
Over the past several years, policymakers have increasingly devoted attention to this issue at the global level, in terms of establishing working groups and formalizing cooperative links across MEAs through Memoranda of Understanding. While efforts to increase collaboration at the global level should to continue, policymakers also need to focus on regional and national scales, since it is precisely these levels where many opportunities for linking agreements and enhancing synergies among MEAs exist.
Many countries have created national committees to assist in the implementation, monitoring and enforcement of international environmental commitments.
National committees are effective mechanisms to ensure ministerial coordination and enable direct communication between a convention's focal point (usually a senior professional located in the functional ministry or agency that is most directly related to the substance of a convention) and other concerned governmental bodies. While national committees are generally separate entities from development planning boards, many countries in the regional have established a practice of cross participation between officials engaged in development planning boards and those involved in national committees to follow-up on environmental commitments (see related discussion in Module II).
In addition to providing a forum for ministerial coordination and input, national committees have also become the venue for integrating multi-stakeholder group representatives in decision-making processes (see discussion in Module VI). In many parts of the region, representatives from NGOs, private enterprises, universities and research institutes are invited to participate in these committees.
Examples of National Committees:
While national committees can provide an undeniable framework to assist countries in the implementation of their environmental commitments, two drawbacks have marked their experience thus far. The first is the relatively low frequency of meetings, which can negatively impact the work and influence of the committees. The second drawback relates to the nature and low level of representation of multi-stakeholder groups. Although many countries have made considerable progress with public involvement in decision-making, the participation of many NGOs and other groups is limited to low-level sub-committees and ad hoc task forces.
Trade and environment questions are complex and frequently controversial. It might be useful to analyze these issues by considering four categories of linkages as follows:
Examples of environmental concerns in international trade:
International environmental commitments can potentially interfere with rules governing multilateral trade. However, the number of MEAs with trade provisions is limited to about 20, and only several are considered to be of any significance to the environment-trade interface. These MEAs include:
The following MEAs do not have specific trade provisions, but some concern exists that countries may adopt trade restrictive policies in fulfilling and enforcing their commitments. These agreements include:
Although these agreements may well represent some of the most contemporary and significant efforts to protect the environment, it is important to underscore that not one trade-MEA-related environmental dispute has been presented before the trade dispute settlement procedure by a Member State of the WTO as of the time of this writing.Examples of country experiences:
1. Sub regional organizations concerned with the environment
East and Southeast Asia
2. Obligations in sub-regional cooperative arrangements: Membership in a sub-regional organization may require a country to adopt legislation or policies to meet certain harmonized standards, or non-legally binding more obligations to promote sustainable development.
Myanmar: ASEAN membership
3. There are costs and benefits involved with participation in regional and sub-regional agreements and programmes.
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