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UN Commission on Sustainable Development: a backgrounder

27 April 2009

Diplomats, NGOs and business groups met at the United Nations in May 2009 for the highest level forum on Sustainable Development. But what is the history of the Commission on Sustainable Development, and what is this forum designed to achieve? 

Against a background of rising numbers of hungry people and environmental degradation in both developing and developed countries; governments, UN representatives, NGOs and business leaders addressed issues of agriculture, land, water, desertification and Africa at the 17th UN Commission of Sustainable Development in New York from 4-17th May 2009.

One of the tangible outcomes of the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, the UN Commission of Sustainable Development (CSD) represents the highest-level forum for governments, international organisations and civil society groups to discuss and promote issues of environment and economic development. In many ways, the CSD illustrates both the utility and the frustrations of the UN as a forum to progress international policies on environmental and development issues.

In overall terms, the CSD attempts to hold governments to account for their commitments made towards the environment in Rio in 1992, and suggests ways in which decision makers could put forward more sustainable policies in the future. On top of this aim, the Commission attempts to strengthen Agenda 21, a progressive blueprint agreed by governments in 1992 to guide human behaviour towards the planet in the 21st Century.

The CSD acts as a functional commission of the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), and the Commission will forward its decisions to ECOSOC. In total, the Commission includes 53 member states, although all governments with UN status may participate in its sessions. The Division for Sustainable Development (DSD), within the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs (DESA), serves as the Commission's Secretariat.

Specifically in its process, the CSD receives input from governments outlining how they are attempting to meet their obligations outlined in the Earth Summit of 1992, and provides feedback on that information. In the forum, diplomats also negotiate a text to suggest ways in which governments could improve their policies on sustainable development, using input from UN agencies, NGO groups and businesses.

During the 2003 meeting, UN member states decided to arrange the work of the Commission into themes that run consecutively over a two-year period. The topic for the 2008/9 cycle is Africa, agriculture, drought and desertification, land and rural development. In 2008, diplomats therefore assessed the progress that governments have made towards implementing sustainable development goals in these key areas. The 2009 meeting recently held in New York then allowed government representatives to negotiate a document that the organisers hope will guide decision-makers in their future policies concerning these issues.

CSD-17: What Happened?

Negotiations on the CSD outcome document took place in two working groups, the first assembled by Vice-Chairs Kaire Mbuende and Tania Raguž, and the second by Vice-Chairs Ana Bianchi and Javad Amin-Mansour. A High-level Segment convened from 13-15 May, with opening statements followed by three roundtable discussions.

Following two weeks of lengthy discussions between diplomats and notable amendments to the negotiating text, the Chairperson produced a Summary document to conclude the CSD, pointing governments towards sustainable policies in agriculture and rural development. The text suggested that agriculture should remain at the heart of government attempts to eradicate poverty and hunger, and that specific policies such as equitable land access, strengthening property rights and promoting women's role in agriculture could aid these goals.

The high-level segment of the Commission proceedings, involving ministerial level government representatives, also produced an outcome document highlighting a ‘shared vision' between politicians, civil society and UN agencies. The chairperson's summary noted the urgency of addressing the multiple crises in climate, finance, food and poverty through international cooperation in agriculture and "a revolution in ideas and a revolution in technology".

Whilst the Chair lauded a successful outcome to the Commission, many NGO leaders were sceptical of the final text. Several commentators suggested that division and distrust had characterised negotiations, with notable sticking points on issues such as bio-fuels, biotechnology and organic farming.

Analysts also noted that the negotiators had sidelined many of the most pertinent development issues such as unequal terms of trade and subsidies from richer countries, and that the document failed to address issues such as the human right to food and the findings of a seminal UN-lead report on the potential for small scale, low input agriculture (called the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development, or IAASTD).

Many poorer countries and NGO leaders also feared that the wording in the final summary, such as the promotion of ‘science-based agricultural approaches', ‘enhancement of the nutritional quality of food', and ‘reduced tillage', could be used by large Northern-based business as opportunities to introduce genetically modified solutions and ‘super seeds' to new markets in poorer countries.  

The CSD will meet next year for its next thematic dialogue on the issues of transport, chemicals, waste management and mining.

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