The weekend prior to UNEA-2, civil society gathered in the 16th Global Major Groups and Stakeholder Forum in Nairobi, Kenya. For a number of years, this Forum has been the space where organizations interested in UNEP’s work prepare their engagement with UNEP’s Governing Council, now UNEA. But the advent of UNEA in the “new UNEP” has raised the thorny question of the Forum’s format, and more generally, the way in which civil society should engage with UNEP. Rio+20’s Future We Want set the general direction for that discussion by emphasizing the importance of “exploring new mechanisms to promote transparency and the effective engagement of civil society.” The discussion has begun to assess UNEP’s current approach and practices, and some answers are found in UNEP’s draft new Stakeholder Engagement Policy. The draft policy now on the table is based on a proposal by UNEA-1 President resulting from exhaustive negotiations among Member States, and it is expected to be adopted by UNEA-2.
UNEP’s current approach to stakeholder engagement is largely based on the nine Major Groups identified in Agenda 21 (the Rio Earth Summit blueprint for sustainable development). Therein lies a first hurdle: when adopted, the Major Groups approach was relevant to identifying the voices in society key to sustainable development policy-making and discourse. Using the Major Groups frame allows for the environment to be integrated into the social and economic dimensions of sustainable development by the key actors recognized in Agenda 21. At the same time, the voice presenting the environmental dimension of the sustainable development trilogy is somewhat lost, or at least diluted, by the multiplicity of actors and interests.
For that reason, some have called on UNEP to recognize a special voice for Environmental NGOs. This proposal, however, was attacked by certain Major Groups for posing a threat to their designated seat. UNEP’s draft new Stakeholder Engagement Policy navigates this issue in a lukewarm manner, simply noting that “UNEP recognizes the importance of environmental NGOs”.
As to UNEP’s practices with stakeholder engagement, the most important include access to documents and the ability to attend the Governing Council (now UNEA), including the possibility of making oral statements. Since Rio+20, UNEA subsidiary bodies have also opened to civil society participation, such as the meetings of the Committee of Permanent Representatives (CPR). But these practices, while they do contribute to transparency and better governance, have not translated into a greater role for civil society in influencing policy decisions or agenda-setting. Civil society organizations have spent considerable efforts preparing statements and at times have even succeeded negotiating common positions across all Major Groups. But statements delivered at UNEA have very limited impact in shaping actual decisions, since these are negotiated in advance, and in a space where civil society is not present. So far, civil society has not engaged the ongoing, inter-sessional policy debates in Nairobi that ultimately shape UNEA’s decisions due to a lack of capacity, lack of investment in capacity, and lack of active involvement by Kenyan-based NGOs in UNEP’s work. The result is that UNEP’s draft new Stakeholder Engagement Policies codifies good practices that are nevertheless largely irrelevant to influencing UNEP’s work.
UNEP’s approach and practices to stakeholder engagement were analyzed in detail a couple years ago when UNEP’s Executive Director convened an Expert Group to make recommendations to improve them. The expert group’s report identified the Global Forum on Food Security and Nutrition of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization as a good model, given that it self-organizes an inclusive big tent open to social movements, local organizations, and civil society organizations. The Expert Group suggested treating business as a separate and distinct actor, as well as science and technology. The report came under considerable heat from certain Major Groups, however, that saw a threat to their ability to retain a numbered seat among the selected nine. Ultimately, the Expert Group’s report was largely ignored by UNEP’s Executive Director. UNEP’s draft new Stakeholder Engagement Policy, however, does include some of the recommendations, including the possibility that local organizations may accredit themselves with UNEP (and not just organizations having a presence in two or more countries).
UNEP’s Executive Director, perhaps echoing the frustration with the limitations and ineffectiveness of current mechanisms for stakeholder engagement, convened (jointly with IUCN) a meeting with the big Environmental NGOs in New York. Ironically, elected representatives of the NGO Major Group were not invited to attend this meeting, not even as observers. This move has been interpreted by some observers as giving a clear message: the Major Groups approach, including its bi-annual Forum, is passé and no longer relevant to the New UNEP; it needs fundamental reform. Whether or not this reading is correct does not obviate the more general question of how to improve UNEP’s stakeholder engagement.
UNEP has begun to answer this question by organizing a separate private sector space during UNEA, the Sustainable Innovation Expo. While a new space for the private sector has been welcomed by some as reflecting the need to involve corporations in actual solutions to environmental problems, the move has also attracted widespread criticism for allowing the corporate capture of UNEP, as in other UN spaces. Not only is business recognized as one of the nine Major Groups (which often prevents the Major Groups coming together on substantive policy positions), but also now it is given a privileged space for access to government officials present at UNEA.
Partnerships have been another answer to how UNEP should engage with Major Groups. Despite their potential benefits, however, partnerships raise a number of serious issues. For one, opaque partnerships can aggravate the corporate capture of UNEP. For example, the partnership between UNEP chemicals and the International Council of Chemical Associations has allowed industry groups to gain privileged access to influence the agenda and activities of UNEP Chemicals. Partnerships also raise the issue of accountability of the various actors involved, including accountability of governments in upholding their international commitments.
The prospects of UNEP partnering with civil society in agenda-setting and policy-making is anathema to some retrogressive governments that insist on the inter-governmental character of the organization as a euphemism to drag on the now stale, behind-closed-doors approach to environmental policy-making. The world is no longer exclusively government-centered, if it ever was. The advent of global communications, corporate globalization, and the emergence of global public interests and global civil society all call for structural changes to the old parameters of governance, at all levels. In that sense, expression of Rio Principle 10 at the global level, including in UNEP’s governance and environmental policy-making, becomes an imperative of democracy and democratic values. But not all UNEP Member States share these values, beyond lip-service rhetorical documents.
The negotiation of UNEP’s Stakeholder Engagement Policy has had to deal with all these issues, and if it were not for the efforts by UNEA-1 President Oyun Sanjaasuren from Mongolia and CPR Chair Julia Patakis from Romania, the process could have sunk long ago. But there is still an unresolved poisoned issue in the negotiations: the silent, arbitrary veto insisted upon by China. This silent, arbitrary veto (at times referred to as the no-objection principle) would allow any country to examine the list of potential participants to UNEA, and UNEP more generally, and blacklist any organization not of its liking without a reasoned and transparent process. Ironically, China appears to insist on a silent veto not out of concerns with stakeholder engagement, but in regard to its political sensitivity over Taiwan. This silent, arbitrary veto is the opposite of constructive stakeholder engagement based on good governance principles, and it represents a serious retrogression from actual good practices. If adopted, the silent, arbitrary veto would fatally undermine UNEP’s new Stakeholder Engagement Policy.
The draft Stakeholder Engagement Policy proposed by UNEA-1 President does not currently include a silent veto. Instead, it allows countries to raise concerns about the accreditation of a particular organization. In said case, UNEP’s Secretariat would ultimately decide on the accreditation issue and report on the concerns raised and its decision. While this process introduces an indispensable element of transparency, it does not however allow for an appeal or independent review, and its integrity rests on the independence and impartiality of UNEP’s Secretariat.
Against this outlook the adoption of a new Stakeholder Engagement Policy by UNEA-2 ceases to resound as that landmark moment in the “New UNEP” that was envisaged by Rio+20. While the draft Stakeholder Engagement Policy does not regress on existing practices at UNEA, it does not codify best practices in the UN system and does not achieve the promise of Rio+20’s Future We Want. Furthermore, it would set a precedent that may hinder positive progress in multilateral environmental agreements and other fora. In the end, serious soul-searching by UNEP and civil society is still needed in order to drive the transformative change in their engagement frameworks that will make a real difference to environmental protection worldwide.
Originally posted May 24, 2016