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International Issues

Multilateral relations - United Nations

1. Historical and Organisational Background

Environmental concerns did not figure on the international agenda when the UN was created. This explains the absence of a UN role in environmental protection in the UN Charter. However, with increasing evidence of deterioration of the environment scale in the following decades, the UN became a leading advocate for environmental concerns and sustainable development.

Following the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment, held in Stockholm in 1972, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) was established as the main UN body in the field of environment. As a subsidiary of the General Assembly, the Governing Council of UNEP reports to the Assembly, which considers and decides on selected environmental and environment-related issues, including institutional arrangements and related international processes.

After the general debate at the beginning of each regular session of the General Assembly, most questions are discussed in six main Committees. Environmental and sustainable development issues are considered in the Second Committee (Economic and Financial).

The Economic and Social Council may make or initiate studies and reports with respect to international economic, social, cultural, educational, health and related matters (including environment) and may make recommendations to the General Assembly, to the UN members to the concerned specialised agencies.

In the post-Stockholm years, mounting concern over continuing environmental degradation led the UNGA to convene the World Commission on Environment and Development in 1983. The report of the Commission (the Brundtland Report) was a catalyst for the 1992 UN Conference on Environment and Development (UNCCD), also known as the Earth Summit. Among other outcomes, the Summit adopted Agenda 21, a comprehensive plan of action for addressing both environment and development goals in the 21st century and the Rio Declaration.

To ensure effective follow-up of Agenda 21 and UNCED as a whole, the General Assembly established in 1992 the Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD) as a functional commission of the ECOSOC. The UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs (DESA) provides the secretariat for CSD.

A five-year review of UNCED progress, what became known as Rio+5, was made in 1997 by the UNGA meeting in special session.

A Summit-level ten-year review of UNCED, the World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) was held from 26 August - 4 September 2002, in Johannesburg, South Africa, with the purpose of reinvigorating the global commitment to sustainable development. The WSSD negotiated and adopted two main documents: the Johannesburg Declaration and a Plan of Implementation designed as a framework for action both to implement the commitments originally agreed at UNCED as well as new commitments (see here)

2. European Commission and UN Cooperation on the Environment

Conscious of the gains to be made by cooperating actively with the UN, in 2004 and 2005 the European Commission significantly upgraded its links with UNEP. In September 2004 the Commision and UNEP signed a Memorandum of Understanding which aims inter alia to reinforce synergies, thereby contributing to the achievement of the environmentally related UN Millennium Development Goals and to the implementation of the WSSD environment commitments. Further objectives include: policy exchanges on issues of common interest, cooperation on analysis and assessment and utilisation of each other's comparative advantage.

Under the MoU, the Commisison and UNEP held a first High-Level Meeting on 23 May 2004. The meeting discussed major technical and operational policy issues and agreed a joint Work Programme designed to further the work of the MoU link to the press release

Subsequent meetings under the MoU (with review meetings every six months) will review progress on the Work Programme and concentrate on achieving practical outcomes through cooperation.

One aspect of practical cooperation will be the provision of information in preparation for the February 2006 UNEP Governing Council / Special Session at which issues such as chemicals management, energy and tourism and their respective influence on the environment will be considered. On these issues the European Commission can offer significant experience and will be keen to feed this experience in to the global debate.

On a further level, that of international environmental governance, the European Commission and UNEP see opportunities for synergy and cooperation. At its June 2005 European Council, the EU, conscious of the need to improve international environmental governance, called for negotiations at the UN which could lead to the gradual upgrading of UNEP into a Nairobi-based United Nations Environment Organisation (UNEO). Such an organisation should better be able to address the environmental dimension of sustainable development in an integrated and consistent manner.
Link to the Council conclusion, see paragraph 39

Finally, in 2005 the European Commission also agreed to support UNEP policy on sustainable consumption and production, mercury reduction and strategic chemicals management through a number of direct grants. The Commission sees that support for UNEP in theses areas is an excellent way to further European standards and policies on a wider, indeed on a global scale.

3. Links

For more information on UNEP, see www.unep.org/

Information about the UN

The main UN website is http://www.un.org/

The UN System (the whole UN family of organisations) has a separate website at http://www.unsystem.org/

UN documents can be found at: http://www.un.org/documents/

There is a comprehensive website on the EU at the UN, under the following address: http://europa-eu-un.org/. This contains extensive links, a description of EU policies at the UN, EU Statements, EU priorities for each General Assembly, EU publications on UN issues, etc.Specific information about the European Commission's environmental policy of global relevance, statements and speeches on the environment and sustainable development can be found the above-mentioned website.

The External Relations DG has created a webpage on the EU's relations with the UN, including an overview of relations between the two bodies, useful links and publication. This is to be found at : /external_relations/un/index.htm

Other useful links: