Understanding the Workings of the UN Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD) Fr. Seán McDonagh, SSC

The UN Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD) claims that it offers the world one of the most open and participatory intergovernmental processes on sustainable issues.  It believes that the original mandate given at the ‘Earth Summit’ in Rio in the Agenda 21 text was re-affirmed at the UN Summit on Sustainability in Johannesburg in 2002. The Johannesburg Plan of Implementation (JPOI) and the Johannesburg Declaration on Sustainable Development called for CSD to meet in seven two-year “implementation cycles.” The CSD began to focus on a cluster of themes directly associated with the issue of sustainability on a two year cycle.  The present cluster of issues involves, transport, chemicals, waste management, mining and a 10-Year Framework of Programmes on Sustainable Development and Consumption Patterns (10 YFP on SCP).

Preparatory process

The first year of the current cycle was 2010. It was devoted to developing the Secretary General’s report through structured contact with governments and civil society.  It produced an 8,000 word review document which has been translated into all the UN official languages. The nine Major Groups represented at the CSD come from a broad spectrum of non-government organisations and other entities from Civil Society. These include women, youth, trade unions, farmers, Indigenous Peoples, NGOs, local authorities, science and technology, business and industry. Some of the  organisations involved in choosing representatives include, the ITUC (the International Trade Union Confederation), WEDO, Women in Development, WBCSD, (The World Business for Sustainable Development) and SIND, the  organising partner for NGOs, (The Sustainable Development Issues Network). Non-government organisations have actively lobbied their governments to support enhanced participation of civil society in the CSD process.

Whereas most delegations have welcomed the presence of civil society, a number of countries, particularly from the G-77, would prefer a stricter regime of participation for non-government groups. As often happens in such cases, a certain amount of horse-trading takes place.  In the working group, the EU, US and others countries expressed a preference for a text that allowed for the engagement of a broader input into the CSD process. Following a lengthy discussion on March 3rd 2011, a subparagraph was approved supporting the involvement of civil society and others in implementing the decisions which are taken.  As part of the trade-off, the EU, US and Australia agreed to a request by the G-77/China to delete a paragraph listing various constituencies/stakeholders, such as disabled persons, consumer groups, educators, parliamentarians, media and the elderly.

This struggle for an effective place in the negotiations for the civil society is an on-going battle.  At a meeting of representatives of the Major Groups on May 3rd 2011, some voice their concerns that civil society groups were being squeezed out of the negotiation process.  Some of those who spoke encouraged civil society groups to lobby their respective governments and the chair of each topic groups to ensure that the space which civil society has won is not whittled away.

Implementation cycles

To return to the “implementation cycles”, towards the end of the first part of the two-year CSD cycle, governments, NGOs and Civil Society take part in a two-week long review session held at the UN headquarters in New York.

In the second year policy documents are developed by various elements on the UN system based on the Review Session. This becomes the basis for negotiation and is called the “Secretary General’s” document. Each of the 9 Major Groups also prepare policy documents. These documents must not exceed 1,000 words.  The CSD deals with policy outcomes at two meetings. This is the Intergovernmental Preparatory Meeting which took place here in New York from the 28th to the 4th of March this year. The current meeting of the UN CSD from May 2nd to 13th 2011 is tasked with hammering out policy directives.  This often means a line-by-line negotiation which can seems tedious, slow and often boring.

The procedure is as follows. One of the members asks for a change in the Secretary General’s in the text.  He/she reads out it the change it would like to see in the text and sometimes, but not always, give a reason for the desired change.  This phrase, sentence or paragraph is inserted in the text surrounded by  brackets. The initials of the country that suggested the change is included. On the positive side, the process is inclusive and gives a voice to countries that are seldom given any prominence in world affairs.

The following snippets on some of the themes which being negotiated gives a feel for what is at stake in the present negotiations.

On transport: “There is, therefore, a need for urgent action, ranging, inter alia, from the promotion of integrated transport policies and plans, the accelerated phase-out of leaded gasoline, the promotion of voluntary guidelines and the development of partnerships at the national level for strengthening transport infrastructure, promoting and supporting the use of non-motorised transport and developing innovative mass transit schemes.”

The Text on Transport had the above additions by 8pm on May 3rd 2011


[Transportation is a central component of sustainable development and economic growth.-G77] Addressing the growing transport challenges is increasingly urgent. [Access to mobility is essential to achieve the MDGs.  But growing motorized transport can have negative impacts on environment and human health.-EU]

On mining: “Minerals are essential for modern living, and mining is still the primary method of their extraction. To date, it appears that the main constraints to sustainability in the mining sector derive from the ever-increasing demand for mined resources, the consumption of resources (mostly energy and water) needed to extract and process metals, and the increasing pollution generated by the extraction process. This holds true for both large-scale, often multinational corporate, operations as well as for small-scale or artisanal ventures…….In the 20th century, the extraction of construction minerals grew by a factor of 34, while that of ores and industrial minerals by a factor of 27. This growth significantly outpaced a quadrupling of world population and a 24-fold increase in GDP.”

At a briefing on May 4th 2011, the contact person from the Group of Nine,  reported that the US, Australia and Canada, wanted  to delete from the text all the references to the environmental aspect of uranium mining. Another destructive call from the U.S, Canada and Australia was the demand that  the phrase, “free prior consent” be removed from the text.  According to this interpretation, in a consultative process with groups who might be affected by mining, consultation does not involve the right to say no to an individual mining project.  The G-77 and China did not have all their proposals to hand, but reserved the right to insert them at the second reading of the text.

There were a few positive changes. Switzerland wanted a phrase included in the text which would make it mandatory that the payment for a mining license which governments receive from a mining corporation would automatically be made public. The G-77 and the EU argued that there should be some formula in the text to stop transfer pricing by transnational corporation.

On hazardous waste: “Effective control of the generation, storage, treatment, recycling and reuse, transport, recovery and disposal of hazardous wastes is, according to Agenda 21, “of paramount importance for proper health, environmental protection and natural resource management, and sustainable development.”

No one person can follow all the intricacies of each negotiation, so each morning at 8.30 am the Group of Nine meet and people who have been at different negotiations share their perception of what has been happening.  They judge whether the changes to the texts are designed to improve the outcome for the sustainable living, or are they really concessions to the powerful vested interests of powerful transnational corporation who are intimately involved in mining, chemical, waste management and transport.

When it comes to “walking the walk” as well as “talking the talk,” many activities at the UN show that sustainability is not high on the priority list of those who administer the building. I noticed that all food and beverages are served in paper cups, paper plates and plastic cutlery.  It was raining heavily on the morning of May 4th 2011. When I arrived at the building I was presented with a plastic bag and invited to put my wet umbrella into the bag. Once again, the bag was for a one-off use. As I walk each morning from 39th Street E. to the UN Building, I see scores of black bags full of rubbish outside almost every building, especially commercial one. There appears to be very little segregation of waste which would facilitate recycling. It would appear that a culture of recycling and sustainability has not yet taken deep roots here right at the heart of the UN Commission on Sustainable Development. The one major change which I see here in New York since I was a student in Washington in the early 1970s, is that the size of the average car is much smaller than it was in then.


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