The world in his pocket

The world in his pocket We are united by a common premise: that human activities are needlessly causing grave and perhaps irreparable damage to the global environment. The dangers are clear to all of us. -- Al Gore, vice president of the United States, speaking at the Commission on Sustainable Development, June 14, 1993.

"What has Rio given us?" This legitimate questioning is itself the result of an environmental consciousness, unparalleled in human history...an awareness confined not just to the literate and the city dweller, but one which has permeated even remote rural hamlets and the poor, who suffer most the consequences of environmental degradation. -- Kamal Nath, Union minister of state for environment and forests, speaking at the Commission on Sustainable Development, June 23, 1993.

ALTHOUGH the US vice president's address was dated a week before the Indian environment minister's speech, officials accompanying the latter noted the points picked up by Gore from one of Nath's earlier speeches delivered at the General Assembly of the United Nations last November.

Their mood was one of satisfaction, for, in the second year of P V Narasimha Rao's premiership, few of his cabinet colleagues, besides the finance minister, have acquired an international image and Nath is one of them. Indeed, New York is not the only stage where Nath has had opportunity to play the role of an international statesperson. Just a month earlier in Nairobi, he was urging the governing council of the United Nations Environment Programme to establish an Inter-Governmental Group on Safe Drinking Water and Sanitation. Argued Nath, "The quenching of thirst is as basic a requirement for human survival as the banishment of hunger." Then, immediately after the Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD) met in New York, Nath was off to Montreal to chair an executive committee session of the Montreal Protocol Multilateral Fund. Three days later, he flew to London to meet UK overseas development minister Lynda Chalker. This explains why in February in New Delhi, Nath quipped, "Environment ministers of the world are meeting far more than the foreign ministers."

Significantly, the Union environment minister has been host in the past four months to several of his foreign counterparts, notably, from China, Germany and the UK. The British minister was Michael Howard, who now occupies another office in Whitehall. However, Nath and Howard established a close relationship, which fructified in the Indo-British Initiative on Environment. Officials at the Union ministry of environment and forests (MEF) say the bilateral initiative lists several guidelines for co-operation between developed and developing countries.
Informal meetings MEF officials also stress the informality that characterises the meetings of environment ministers. The Indo-British initiative was negotiated largely over the phone and no more than four officials from the two countries gave the proposals a preliminary screening. A clutch of 20 environment ministers have met frequently, most recently in Magog, Canada, and their agendas have been freewheeling. As a result, MEF officials say, there is greater accord at more formal meetings such as the sessions of the CSD.

However, it is not as if the MEF's new-found green internationalism is limited to its minister's speeches. Says Nath, "Environmental considerations are going to have a major bearing on international issues." And because this is inevitable, diplomacy will now have to acquire a green tinge. Nath agrees that in recent months, "something that you may call the green diplomacy" has emerged. Its implications are being studied not just by government agencies involved in this new diplomacy, namely, the MEF, the ministry of external affairs (MEA) and the department of economic affairs (DEA), but also by NGOs and environmental activists. Samar Singh, secretary-general of the World Wide Fund for Nature and former additional secretary in the MEF, recalls "green diplomats" emerged in India about two years ago in the run-up to the Rio Summit. Now, he says, green diplomacy is sure to extend far beyond the multilateral platforms that have come into existence since Rio last year.

Today, there are a large number of Western pressure groups campaigning for an entire range of international relations -- from political to economic -- to be influenced by ecological considerations. These groups include the London-based Group of Green Economists (GGE), a body that came out with a publication last year entitled Ecological Economics: A Practical Programme for Global Reform. The book has had considerable influence in some quarters in the UK's environmental bureaucracy. The GGE has argued, among other things, that countries should switch from "international policies of national interest to national policies of international interest."

But it is this "internationalism" that bothers many green diplomats from the South, because of the vicious inequality that exists between the North and the South in the economic, political and military arenas. For them, the concerns are: Who will define "internationalism"? Who will dominate green negotiations? Who will pay for environmental damage and how? Will India be permitted to opt out and say 'no'? Will green internationalism become a ruse for intervention in national development strategies?

Green negotiations are often snarled on these weighty matters, when seeking to settle the specifics of ozone protection or climate change. As Nath points out, "We can assert our sovereignty when it comes to the use of our own natural resources. But we cannot say the same when it comes to the use of global common resources, like the ozone layer or the atmosphere."

The question of restoring damaged global common resources remains open. The Montreal Protocol -- hailed in the West as a landmark environmental agreement -- sets out support for developing countries to help them switch over to non-CFC refrigerators and air-conditioners within what critics call an "aid-and-charity" framework. However, market economies control environmental damage by profit-seeking enterprises through a system of compensation and liability. Why has this principle been abandoned in the Montreal Protocol?

Nath remonstrated at the Copenhagen conference of states that are party to the Montreal Protocol "that we cannot gloss over the fact that the Protocol continues within a framework of inequity...Acquiescing in this 'principle of liability' would connote that we accept that financial resources and technology transfer will come as a matter of mere aid and concession. The 'principle of liability', on the other hand, would mean accurately reflecting responsibility for the damage inflicted on the environment. This calls for a paradigm shift in perception..."

But will such a shift take place? Nath points out that ideas like liability for damages or equitable entitlements for the use of a global common property resource such as the atmosphere, are only slowly being understood and appreciated. Western leaders understand the needs of India's large population and hence the principle of entitlements is being implicitly accepted. "We may not get these ideas accepted in black and white," says Nath. "The issue, however, is what do we want to do with our strength: Do we wish to use it to reason with them or do we wish to use it to punch their nose?"

India has become a key actor on the global green stage because of a number of factors. Nath lists them as: large country, large population, major environmental activities, its credibility as a country that is trying to protect the environment through programmes and legislation. In addition, he notes, India has quality diplomatic representatives and the intellectual resources to succeed in these negotiations.

The feeling in New Delhi circles is that green diplomacy will gain currency because it also directly serves the national interest, which in these days of adverse balance of payments, means as much foreign aid as possible for environmental management. The DEA in the Union ministry of finance has been especially active in ensuring that India obtains a reasonable share of aid from the Global Environment Facility (GEF), the international funding facility for specified environmental activities. The MEF took stock this month of why India received far less money than anticipated this year from the GEF. The result is the establishment of an inter-ministerial coordinating committee, composed of representatives from 16 Union ministries, with the MEf secretary as convenor.

The committee's aim is to ensure that proposals for the GEF are submitted in time and in order. MEF, for example, intends to submit proposals for $1 billion of GEF funding next year. However, the question of how many of these proposals will finally be accepted is moot. In the GEF's current, three-year "pilot phase", total funds allotted amount to only $1 billion, but it was indicated at the GEF meeting recently in Beijing that its funding may be replenished in 1994 to the tune of $2-5 billion.

Questions former foreign secretary Muchkund Dubey, "Do you really think this amount will make a great deal of difference to developing countries?" His comment is corroborated by officials who attended the GEF meeting in Beijing in May. One of them reports being shocked by the manner in which leading Third World countries such as India, Malaysia and China, fought for the green dollars being disbursed, after the rich countries made it clear there was not enough money for everybody. But not everyone is convinced that the emerging green diplomacy will succeed in protecting the national interest. Trade, patents, biodiversity and the environment, for instance, make a heady cocktail. Economist Jagdish Bhagwati, who authored the GATT report on 'Trade and the Environment', labels international trade and the environment as "arguably the two most important issues on the global economic agenda for the last decade of the 20th century".

Both at the MEF and the Union ministry of commerce, officials have started looking at possible links between international trade and environmental relationships, from the point of view of sanctions and barriers. MEF officials concede that a major concern is the threat of unilateral trade sanctions against Third World nations who use their natural resources in a manner disliked by Western countries. Warns a senior MEF official, "We have accepted the principle of environment-related trade sanctions in the Montreal Protocol. Who knows when these may be used unilaterally?" And, Kamal Nath, though aware that environment will be a major issue in the GATT negotiation, admits greater clarity is needed on several vital points of interest.

Officials of the commerce ministry who are privy to the GATT negotiations, reveal the GATT secretariat in Geneva is already considering a proposal that would improve trade sanctions in case of "ecological damage that spills over borders". Examples of this include simple pollution to timber logging. Says Anwar-ul Hoda, former special secretary at the commerce ministry and now designated India's special representative to GATT, "All nations recognise the urgency of the environmental problem. I do not think that we should panic about sanctions from other countries, because we do have experience in regulating our trade and industry on environmental grounds."

Beyond official corridors, much enthusiasm is being shown by environmental groups for the position reached by the Biodiversity Convention with relation to the provisions of the so-called Dunkel Draft for the Uruguay Round. Suman Sahai of the Gene Campaign contends it is important to assert the ecological rights of nations and communities as this is the only way to resist the usurping of the developing world's natural resources by the industrialised countries. But Sahai is apprehensive that India's green diplomats may avoid making such an assertion.

The Biodiversity Convention establishes clear sovereign rights of nations to their biodiversity and its utilisation. But the Dunkel Draft's patenting provision clearly aims at denying such sovereignty. Sahai notes the US signed the Biodiversity Convention only after unilaterally introducing the patenting provision in its version of the convention. The Biodiversity Convention is considered a major success of green diplomacy, but Sahai asks: How stable will such successes be?

Karnataka farmers' leader, M D Nanjundaswamy, a bitter opponent of GATT, argues, "I know that in matters of trade the government cannot retaliate against the developed countries. But surely we can use our environment as a countervailing force in these matters." He cited the example of Venezuela, which temporarily suspended the signing of agreements for research collaboration with US firms on genetic resources at a time when Washington was refusing to sign the Biodiversity Convention.

Dubey has expressed doubts, too, on whether green diplomacy will be able to make such eco-assertions. "Even our traditional diplomacy was never geared for it," he notes. His opinion is that under pressure, "the West can always take the issue of use of natural resources to mechanisms other than the conventions. These would be the GATT, or green conditionalities in the World Bank, or unilateral imposition of green standards to regulate bilateral trade. All these in the long run render the UNCED process redundant."

MEF says the North is holding hold out two "thick olive branches". The first is that the industrialised countries are moving towards accepting the concept that they should bear the full "economic" costs of developing countries abstaining from the use of their natural resources, such as tropical forests; second, under the Biodiversity and the Climate Change conventions, developing countries are entitled to the "full incremental cost" of changing to environmentally sound practices. But environmental activists point out this could result in a scenario in which the country's diplomats will merely count the dollars coming in as environmental aid.

Dubey is convinced that green diplomacy requires the presence of "actors outside the official channels", in a reference to research institutions, grassroots organisations and NGOs. His view is echoed by Savitri Kunadi, joint secretary in MEA's UN division, who says, "NGOs have gone a long way in lending credence to our arguments before an international audience". Other MEF officials agree NGOs have been a substantial source of knowledge and clarity at the convention negotiations.

But Dubey explains, "We could experience euphoria at UNCED because the commitments there were more declarative in nature than substantially binding. No targets were agreed upon." And Prodipto Ghosh of the Tata Energy Research Institute, who attended some of the more detailed negotiations of the Climate Convention, notes, "Indian negotiators seem to rely on rhetorical arguments. But in the more advanced stage of the negotiations, they should do their homework well and be up-to-date with facts and figures."

Most traditional diplomats are irked by these cautions. But Dubey insists that old attitudes must change because "people across the world experience ecological crises in a manner acutely enough to get themselves together even if government do not". The diversity of peoples present at the non-official conference in Rio backs Dubey's stance that diplomacy of any kind in future will have to colour itself green to stay relevant.

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