Should the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) become a Specialized Agency?

As discussed earlier, one of the main discussions at the Rio+20 Conference this summer will be about the future of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).  The preeminent international environmental organization from 1972 until 1992, the situations became confused and disparate with the formation of the Commission on Sustainable Development in 1992.  Now, there is a growing chorus of countries and actors calling for UNEP to be significantly strengthened at Rio+20.

One proposal for strengthening UNEP is to transform it from an programme to a U.N. Specialized AgencyWhat would such a move actually mean?

The official UN Organization chart below shows that the United Nations system has a few different bureaucratic arms: subsidiary bodies of the General Assembly, Security Council and Economic and Social Council, administrative offices of the Secretariat, and organizations officially affiliated to the United Nations (specialized agencies are those linked through the Economic and Social Council).

Click to link to enlarged PDF

UNEP is currently a programme and in the proposal would move it into the Specialized Agencies.  These Specialized Agencies are a set of organizations established with treaty structures outside the U.N. system, but which have developed some integration into the U.N. System.  U.N. Specialized Agencies include the Food and Agriculture Organization, World Health Organization, World Bank and International Monetary Fund, Universal Postal Union, and others.  These various organizations are expected to coordinate activity with one another in order to deal with the social and economic problems that exist in the world: although this varies based on the agency (with the World Bank and IMF being particularly autonomous).  These agencies receive money outside of the regular UN Budget and can establish their own funding and voting schemes.

UN Programmes are a much more constrained part of the UN System.  Programmes, according to a 2010 UNEP comparison report,

do not have the same clear distinction under the UN as compared to specialized agencies. UN Programmes are considered subsidiary organs of the UN General Assembly under Article 22 of the Charter. Article 22 is very vague in describing the details of the governance…Many of the programmes set up under Article 22 have assumed certain but limited legal personality as necessary to carry out their work and operational independence. However, most matters still derive their legal personality from the UNGA and follow UN rules and procedures as adopted by the UNGA. Decisions taken by UN Programmes and other subsidiary organs do not become effective until they have been reviewed and adopted by the General Assembly.

They can have alternative funding, but many of the programmes rely significantly on the UN General Budget for funding.

The proposal to transform UNEP into a Specialized Agency has often times been attached to additional reforms: increased funding, increased staff, etc.  In most aspects though it would retain its charter, its structure, and the location of its offices.  So, what are the advantages of becoming a Specialized Agency:

  • AutonomyEarlier discussions about whether to create a new World Environment Organization (WEO) or to strengthen UNEP centered largely around the debate between autonomy or membership.  A WEO would be treaty-based and have significant autonomy, but UNEP would start with the legitimacy of universal membership.  UNEP becoming a specialized agency will not be fully autonomous but will still have some connection to the United Nations, although the terms will have to be developed.
  • Strengthening is endogenous.  Although there are some actions that UNEP can currently take to strengthen itself, these are constrained by the programme environment and funding and staff can be limited.  Although Steiner has actively increased funding from some countries, being a specialized agency would increase this ability.  Strengthening the organization will be largely based on internal understanding and secretarial leadership.  Whether UNEP falls or rises will be on UNEP’s head.
  • Prominence.  The definition of Specialized Agencies are those agencies which bring a specific expertise to bring to the United Nations mission (whether that be mail, meteorology, or tourism).  UNEP as a Specialized Agency would take back prominence in terms of the international environmental law arena.  In addition, it will move its primary connection from the General Assembly to the Economic and Social Committee of the UN; a change which will further improve its ability to make its relevance clear.

However, it is not all rosy and the move entails the following risks:

  • Loss of Key Players.  The failure of the Kyoto process shows that global environmental politics cannot be made through a coalition of Europe and Africa.  The United States, China, India, Brazil, and other countries are essential if it is going to be effective.  Autonomy may come at the expense of certain actors.  Brazil and the United States have both expressed firm resistance to a World Environmental Organization and serious hesitance to UNEP as a Specialized Agency.
  • Leadership Failure.  With the semi-autonomy possible, UNEP’s leadership becomes crucial in getting funding promises, support, and connections.  Poor leadership could seriously hurt the organization.
  • More, not less, confusion.  If the move is not accompanied by clear political capital and clarifying agreements, it is just as likely that the move will add additional confusion about UNEP’s role in international environmental politics.

Should UNEP Become a Specialized Agency?  Probably; but that doesn’t mean it will easily fix the problems.  Whatever happens in Rio+20, the big impact will be afterwards when the pledges and support to UNEP arrive or fizzle.  Current leadership should give hope that this will work, but if it comes at the expense of key actors or if leadership changes, this may be a dangerous move for the global governance of the environment.

And now, Bai Kamara Jr.’s song written to UNEP:


3 thoughts on “Should the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) become a Specialized Agency?

  1. Pingback: Are we in a Constitutional Moment of global environmental politics? « Lullaby of the Commons

  2. Pingback: Where did the Environment Go at International Conferences? A Critical Appraisal of the Rio+20 Approach « Lullaby of the Commons

  3. Pingback: Rio+20 Countdown: UNEP will not be strengthened at Rio+20 « Lullaby of the Commons

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