On track

On track environmental and human disasters may be discussed at the United Nations Security Council. A special task force has been set up to formulate a un response to disasters and emergencies. The task force, formed at the behest of un secretary-general, Kofi Annan, is headed by Klaus Topfer, the former German environment minister who is now the executive-director of the United Nation Environment Programme ( unep ). The setting up of the task force is an effort to strengthen the response of various un agencies in environmental disasters and human settlement areas.

The move to set up such a force apparently got underway in 1992, when there was talks of dissolving the un Trusteeship Council. The Council - set up to assist colonies of the Axis nations (the German-Italian-Japanese alliance during World War II) in the process of democratisation - had little to do in the new global order. The purpose for which they were formed was over - the former colonies had attained independence.

At that time, Malta had suggested that the Council should take over the Global Commons - pockets of the world's ecology are common global property, such as the oceans. "It failed to take off because Rio was a more important event that had the world's attention," says Ramu Damodaran of the un department of Information. After assuming office, Kofi Annan revived this process, with the perspective of preserving the environment and human settlement areas. He proposed that the Trusteeship Council be reconstituted as the forum through which member-states exercise their collective trusteeship for the integrity of the global environment.

"There is no high-level deliberative forum that could take a comprehensive, strategic and long-term view of global trends and provide policy guidance to the world community," says a note by Annan. "The task force will elaborate on the proposals for a new concept trusteeship."

The idea gathered momentum after forest fires ravaged the forests in Kalimantan province of Indonesia in the middle of 1997. The resultant smog and haze spread across many parts of Southeast Asia, raised the spectre of a disaster on a global scale.

In April 1998, Annan directed Topfer to coordinate the action plan of the un to combat the fires. This plan involved fire-fighting experts from around the world, and an estimated cost of around us $10 million. This was to be used for training 1,000 local fire-fighters, use of aircraft, support to government liaison teams and operational management and communications.

While the response to the challenge of the Indonesian fires did not form a part of the work of the task force, the fire in itself ignited the process of having a streamlined un response to a disaster.

"I am convinced of the need to streamline and make more coherent the integration of environmental and development approaches," says Topfer. "It is the unep' s task to develop the capacity to sound early warnings and catalyse action within the un system and even beyond."

Adds Nitin Desai, under secretary-general for economic and social affairs: "The task force will strengthen the environmental reach of the un , and will lead to substantial efforts on the environmental front through the un system. " Apparently, this will come about only by focusing on the distinctive functions of the policy and development of appropriate norms and standards.

"The task force is to review existing structures and arrangements through which environment and environment-related activities are carried out within the un ," says Damodaran. This is being done with special reference to those departments, funds and programmes which report to the secretary-general. It takes into account the relevant programmes and activities of specialised agencies. Thus, it will not involve setting up of a new agency, but will merely draw up a system that would guide the various un agencies in an emergency.

This effort is being made after it became apparent that the responsibilities of several un agencies overlapped, thus reducing the efficacy of a un response to an emergency. The task force will also evaluate the efficacy and effectiveness of existing structures and arrangements and make recommendations for changes and improvements to optimise the work and effectiveness of the un environmental work at the global level and of unep as the leading environmental organisation.

As the Trusteeship Council is likely to be called upon to administer the funds for the un response in an emergency, it is not clear whether such a response would be diluted for those nations out of favour with the international community.

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