Volume 6, No. 36 March 2001
The spectrum covered the United States, Canada, France, Britain, Germany and China, along with India, Pakistan, Botswana, Burundi and Malawi, with delegations from the European Union, the Commonwealth, and development banks and funds from Africa, Asia, Europe and America. So what level of presence did Arabs have in this turning point for humanity?
There were four Arab
ministers, while other Arab representation was rather low-key. Lebanon
was absent, in spite of the elaborate environment plan pledged in the
government's policy statement. Whilst many delegations from poor countries
included experts in specialized fields of environmental and international
law, the Arab delegations were signified by administrative personnel.
Yet, while the political Arab absence from this important international event was quite obvious, the absence of specialized Arab agencies was even more apparent. The environment is no longer a subject to be dealt with in general terms, because it falls under a variety of specialized fields. Whereas agencies dealing with agriculture, industry, science and development funding, affiliated to governments and regional groups, participate in such international meetings, Arab agencies are often absent. Officials of Arab development funds did not show up in Nairobi, nor did the Islamic Bank for Development, which has Arab leadership. However, the most conspicuous absence was that of the specialized agencies related to the environment within the Arab League, while there was a huge turnout of similar agencies affiliated to other regional groups.
Desertification, water resources and genetically-modified foods were prominent concerns on the agenda. So why were the Arab Center for the Studies of Arid Zones and Dry Lands (ACSAD), and the Arab Organization for Agricultural Development both absent?
The meeting discussed industry and clean production measures, while the Arab Organization for Industrial Development was also absent. The Arab League's Education, Culture and Science Organization (ALECSO) was also absent, missing the chance to have input not only on scientific and educational matters, but cultural topics such as the environmental perspective for dialogue between civilizations.
This conspicuous Arab absence from a meeting that will decide future issues is pitiful it is pathetic to observe the Arab delegates' resigned attitude during such international meetings, as if they were powerless to contribute to any change. One of the delegates described this situation by saying that the decisions come ready-made from New York, so what is the point of discussing them or trying to change them?
But reality presents a different story, because active regional groups, whether they come from rich or poor countries, have actively contributed to making decisions and amended resolutions to suit their purposes, within clear strategy and vision that Arab states and organizations lack. However, since the recommendations of the Global Ministerial Environment Forum in Nairobi have been issued, regardless of Arab presence or absence, let us try to come to terms with the results.
With regard to land degradation, decisions acknowledged the support of the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD), especially in Africa. The new development is that combating desertification will soon be eligible for financing under the Global Environment Facility (GEF), which will create the need to develop local knowhow to develop project proposals in accordance with GEF's submission requirements.
ACSAD is the qualified authority to lead this activity, in direct cooperation with the substantive counterparts at UNEP's headquarters in Nairobi. Hama Arba Dialo, the secretary-general of UNCCD, said in Nairobi that Arab participation in implementing the terms of this convention was still limited, as rich countries were expected to extend bigger assistance to help their less fortunate neighbors in significant programs to combat desertification.
He noted that oil-rich Gulf countries should extend their reforestation efforts beyond urban areas and beautification projects, to cover genuine rural development in remote regions, which is the only sustainable approach to combat desertification. As desertification is a major concern for the Arab countries, political pressure on GEF to allocate substantial funds for this matter should be coordinated by the Arab League.
The forum came up with decisions with respect to bio-safety and announced a GEF program to develop a national bio-safety framework project in 100 countries. Which Arab authority will follow up this issue? What is the role of the Arab Organization for Agricultural Development and ALECSO, and how can we benefit from international aid allocated to this issue?
The forum decided to support crisis areas in Africa to make people's livelihood more productive and environmentally sustainable, and assist African governments in integrating environment in central social and economic processes, including poverty reduction strategies. It also decided to assist African countries in the preparation for the 7th Conference on Climate Change and for the World Summit on Sustainable Development, to ensure that Africa's needs are incorporated.
This creates another venue of contribution for the specialized agencies of the Arab League, in addition to research centers and universities, in order to use all available capabilities through the league's system which are not well utilized, and come up with viable programs for Afro-Arab countries. This necessitates political leadership at a level not less than the secretary-general of the Arab League.
The importance given to the issue of water was reflected in the decisions, which included establishing an expert group to exchange information on the best practice in fresh-water management, and the creation of partnerships among countries to transfer water technologies and support local capabilities of developing countries, through UNEP's International Environmental Technology Center in Japan.
During the discussions there was no clear input as to the Arab point of view regarding the issue of water. Does the Arab League have a policy or strategy pertaining to water? To what extent do Arab countries support UNEP's strategy regarding water? Where are the specialized Arab organizations' studies on water issues? Were any Arabs chosen to be in the water expert group? Are the Arab League's agencies cooperating with the International Environmental Technology Center and benefiting from its services?
It was evident from the discussions of the Nairobi forum that current international environmental policies revolve around the Malmo Declaration that was issued by the ministerial forum in Sweden two years ago, and focus on the inherent relation between environmental problems and social and economical problems. The report stressed the role of UNEP as the leading world environmental authority. Do Arabs agree with the political and intellectual implication of the Malmo Declaration, and what have they done to support its implementation?
Environmental law was an integral part of the decisions, since international environmental action is now based on treaties that bind several parties and whose implementation requires congruity between local laws and international agreements. The forum decided to support developing countries in improving their environmental laws and establishing capable national institutions to implement them. What is the role of the legislation section in the Arab League? What is the specialized agency capable of following up this issue, and to what extent do Arab countries benefit from aid designated to the development of laws and environmental institutions?
While ministers and regional organizations were participating in round-table discussions that covered rationalizing energy consumption and developing renewable energy, Arabs were absent from the discussions that supported alternatives to fossil fuels, which could have a significant impact on the economy of oil-producing countries. A few days before the Global Ministerial Environment Forum was to take place in Nairobi, 19 Arab environment ministers accepted a generous invitation for a one-day meeting in Abu Dhabi, which endorsed a Declaration on the Future of Arab Environment. The United Arab Emirates' initiative was able to gather 19 ministers, who have rarely shown enough enthusiasm to even attend the regular meetings of the Council of Arab Ministers Responsible for the Environment.
It is a pity that this enthusiasm failed to reach Nairobi, where only four Arab ministers attended, and none of the concepts discussed in Abu Dhabi were presented. One would have expected, at least, that copies of the Abu Dhabi report, as an Arab position paper at the Nairobi Forum, would have been distributed.
Good intentions are not enough to achieve effective and advanced environmental action; neither can we expect miracles from an Arab council of ministers which lacks funds and experts. However, does the solution lie in an Arab Environment Agency, supported by human resources and adequate funding, which could lead Arab environmental action regionally and globally, in coordination with other Arab specialized agencies?
Some major players are proposing the idea of establishing a World Environment Organization (WEO), alongside the World Trade Organization (WTO), as an umbrella for all global environmental programs, financed by mandatory environmental taxation. Are Arabs prepared to contribute at the forthcoming World Summit, and will they do any better in WEO negotiations than the less-than-satisfactory record they have with the WTO?