The United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) can be traced to the June 1972 Stockholm Conference themed “Only one Earth”. The establishment of UNEP was one of the 120 recommendations that formed the Action Plan document which emerged at the end of the conference. This Stockholm Action plan was endorsed by the UN General Assembly (UNGA) and UNEP was established by UNGA Resolution 2997 (xxvii) of 15th December, 1972
UNEP was established as a semi-autonomous body and NOT as an executive organ or specialized agency of the UN after debates. Consequently, UNEP has no legal status but has capacity to contract. Today, the UNEP Headquarters is in Nairobi, Kenya on the request of Kenya and as a measure or compromise to give developing countries some sense of belonging within the UN system.
UNEP’s work covers seven (7) major thematic areas. They include:
- Climate Change
- Disasters and Conflict
- Ecosystem Management
- Environmental Governance
- Chemical and Waste
- Resource Efficiency
- Environment under Review
Here is The Rationale for the establishment of UNEP and the roles it plays in the world today.
- The Resolution which established UNEP was passed based on the conviction of the need for prompt implementation of measures to safe guard and enhance environment for the benefit of the present and future generation.
- UNEP was established in recognition of the fact that environmental problems are no longer at the level of nationalities (knowing no borders) as activities which are detrimental to the environment transcends borders.
- UNEP was established in recognition of the fact that environmental problems and issues are of broad international significance which falls within the competence of the UN System
- UNEP’s Primary role is to coordinate the environmental activities of:
-International Organizations (ILO, FAO, WHO);
-to stimulate national activities aimed at protecting the environment (HYREP (Project (Hydrocarbon Pollution Remediation Project) in Nigeria
- UNEP functions as a CATALYST for coordination of environmental issues and create a platform for common efforts
- UNEP provides and publishes works in the field of environmental law and compendiums on environmental law issues
- UNEP serves as the world’s ecological conscience providing impartial environmental monitoring and assessment
- UNEP facilitates programs at international, regional and national levels to sensitize on and address environmental issues; and creates platforms to discuss and formulate policies. UNEP was at the forefront of the 1982 World Charter for Nature; 1980 World Conservation Strategy; 1992 Rio Conference on Environment and Development; 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development, 2019 Climate Action Summit
- UNEP assists in reconciling environmental and economic concerns (HYREP example)
- UNEP keeps a register of toxic chemicals that serves as a reference point for States in addressing issues of transboundary movement of wastes and chemicals
- UNEP helps initiate and coordinate global and regional environmental agreements
- UNEP has played key roles in development on international environmental law and at the forefront of landmark environmental law agreements including: UNFCCC and its Kyoto Protocol; BASEL Convention; Vienna Convention for Protection of the Ozone Layer. Its modus is to first seek consensus on an environmental issue; develop acceptable strategies to address issues; and then consolidate needed political support for control measures. This makes it eventually easy to get States to ratify any subsequent Treaty drawn up to address the issue
- UNEP works with UN Volunteers to work in communities with environmental issues at grass-root levels and to promote sustainable use of natural resources.UNEP/UNV worked in communities in Ethiopia, Nigeria to support recovery from disasters following conflicts
- UNEP pays special attention to developing countries and their peculiar environmental issues promoting inclusive participation and community engagement in tackling Environmental issues.
Based on Stockholm Recommendations, UNEP has:
- A Governing Council: The GC was established by Resolution 2997. The GC has 58 members elected by UNGA comprising the following representatives: 16 African States; 13 Asian States; 6 Eastern European States; 10 Latin American States; and 13 Western European and other States. The GC functions include: promotion of international cooperation; review of periodic reports of Executive Director; Recommendation of Policies; Address of emerging environmental issues; Promote Scientific Exchange of knowledge and info on environment; Ensure plans compatible with priority of countries especially developing countries; approval of programs; and utilization of the Environmental fund. GC reports to ECOSOC, ECOSOC then reports to UNGA
- An Environmental Coordination Board (ECB): The Resolution establishes an ECB which is chaired by ED. The ECB ensures coordination among all bodies concerned in implementing environmental programmes. The ECB also works with NGOs, regional commissions and inter-governmental agencies with environmental interests to cooperate in implementation of environmental programmes.
- A Voluntary Environmental Fund: The Resolution 2997 establishes a Voluntary Environmental Fund (VEF) and UN Member States are expected to make voluntary contributions to the VEF. The idea was mooted to encourage participation of developing countries who may be put off if a specific levy was imposed. The VEF is administered by UNEP GC and it helps to finance programmes of general interest; for regional and global monitoring of the environment; environmental assessment; data collection and research; public education; training; and assistance.
- A Secretariat: The Secretariat is headed by an Executive Director (ED). This ED is elected by UNGA on nomination of UN Secretary General. The ED advises UN bodies on formulation and implementation of Environmental programmes. The Secretariat also functions as Secretariat to other key international environmental law Conventions.
In its almost 50 years of existence, UNEP has been able to contribute significantly to the development of international environmental law. UNEP has functioned considerably well in its role as a ‘catalyst’ despite its limitations as a non-autonomous or semi-autonomous body.
Perhaps, UNEP may have functioned even better as a specialized agency of the UN or perhaps not! We may not be able to tell. What is without any iota of doubt however, is the fact that the success of UNEP lies in the cooperation of UN member States and the concerted efforts of States to yield to pressure, proposals and suggestions by UNEP in ensuring the safety and protection of the environment.