Off-the-Cuff Remarks by Achim Steiner, Executive Director United Nations Environment, at the NGO Workshop on Chemicals Conventions
First of all, thank you for inviting me this afternoon. It is always good to be able to escape one’s office and meet with NGOs. I did the same during the Climate Conference here and we had a very productive session.
The first message I really wanted to start off with is to thank you for the work that you do around the whole Chemicals Agenda and around the Basel, Rotterdam, and Stockholm Conventions.
I know some of you are literally veterans who have been following these instruments for a long time. My interest was to meet you and show our appreciation at UNEP for the work that you do.
This convention and these discussions would not happen the way they do, in the positive sense of the word, if it wasn’t for civil society action not only in terms of creating public awareness but also in terms of the substantive work that NGOs do and the issues that are being addressed - such as SAICM, where I know a number of you have played a very active role.
I have my own experiences of how it is to interact with intergovernmental processes from the outside. When somebody opens the door from inside, it is very easy. It’s not always easy to do so when the door is not opened. One of the things that I would be interested in listening to you on is positive examples of UNEP being able to engage with NGOs in a constructive, productive, and ultimately long-term relationship. Because I think some of these issues do not lend themselves to one-day interactions and consultation as we do, for example, in preparation of our Governing Council.
UNEP conducts - more than most UN agencies actually (which is a tribute to my predecessors) - consultations with NGOs in the regions in advance of the Governing Council. Civil society representatives from the different regions come together and we interact. I think there has been a lot of very lively interactions, some of which have led to very specific initiatives or actions.
But my sense is still that firstly, formal processes may sometimes make such interactions almost an exception that you have to fight for every time. Secondly, interactions with NGOs may not be largely viewed as part of the continuous process of moving the agenda forward. And you know the reasons better than I do. They are rooted in the nature of governmental and intergovernmental processes. It is not worth banging your head on the wall….my instinct has always been to look for the passages around that wall and to seek experiences and opportunities where things could work because sooner or later that wall will come down.
So, what is the best way of creating this interactive process? The interface between UNEP and Civil Society organizations, particularly on the more substantive side that would be of benefit to the various issues at hand?
At this meeting we have a number of important issues. The incident in Cote d’Ivoire is just, as you know the tip of the iceberg. Some of you were involved in that research, where it emerged that almost half of the waste that was examined in a random sample was found to be actually some form of illegal transport. And these are things that are just unacceptable in this day and age and unnecessary. Also, I have been intrigued by the ship - which was on every newspaper and every TV station even to this morning - I cannot fully establish where this boat loaded or offloaded some of its cargo.
One of the reasons why I believe in civil society having to take the issue of chemicals so seriously is that much of what is happening right now still falls into legal loopholes. But they are legal loopholes. They are no longer societal consensus loopholes.
Once people find out about something like Cote d’Ivoire - even if there is never going to be someone who may be prosecuted for what happened there because of the way the laws interface at the moment - the outrage was enough of a signal that this sort of behaviour, this sort of conduct, these kinds of events are just not tolerated anymore in our day and age.
So our ability to have a platform for uncovering those incidents and to profile them and to make leaders realize what is actually happening every day is one of the areas where it is extremely important that we work together. Not just on the one day wonders when somebody stumbles across something. What is the monitoring capacity of NGOs? How does it feed into the Basel Convention processes? To mention but two examples.
My second question for you deals really with where are we going next with the chemicals agenda? We now have Stockholm and Rotterdam and we have Basel and you know we are all in the process of struggling with this debate - that somehow got saddled on the wrong horse - about coherence and synergies and clustering.
Notwithstanding the fact that intergovernmental process will take its course and it has to unfold the way it does, it doesn’t mean we cannot do a lot in-between and I’m interested in the views of those of you who have followed these different processes for a while.
What do we need to do in the next few years on the chemical’s agenda? Have we got the instruments roughly where they need to be? Is it now a matter of not necessarily having more legal instruments but having more public awareness, more mobilization and more political engagement?
So these are just a few questions that I wanted to pose to you. So with that, thank you very much and over to you.