|The Courier N° 160 - Nov - Dec 1996 - Dossier Habitat - Country reports: Fiji , Tonga (EC Courier, 1996, 96 p.)|
by Gilles Fontaine
The author, a specialist in urban development, offers us his thoughts on the Istanbul conference. This event, he believes, was a landmark in the collective process of raising awareness which was begun at the Rio Conference on the environment.
14 June 1996 - last day of Habitat II
Night fell a long time ago. A feeling of hope permeates the hall. Most of the work is completed but there are still disputes over a few paragraphs of the text of the Habitat 11 Agenda. Some delegates have not slept for two days and they can be seen standing around, afraid they might fall asleep. The sense of fatigue increases further when, at midnight, the symbolic 'stopping of the clocks' (to permit a successful outcome of the final negotiations) is announced over the PA system.
At two in the morning, the wait has become almost unreal. It is virtually unimaginable that the Conference should come to nothing, after two years of intense work. Since Wednesday evening, the general atmosphere has been almost euphoric. Agreement has been reached on all the essential points within the allotted time and the Conference is already being heralded as another success story. All that remains to be done is to finalise the 'Istanbul Declaration', a four-page policy text broadly summarising the work of the Conference. The Conference would finally close about two hours later, amid general relief - but why the impasse?
Breaking new ground... and remaining steadfast
Some problems arose where they were least expected! To everyone's surprise, 'informal' working sub-groups had to be set up to discuss nuclear testing and anti-personnel mines! These themes were a far cry from the Habitat Agenda, but this sort of thing inevitably happens at major international conferences.
Other stumbling blocks appeared without any real warning, when some delegates attempted to renegotiate the conclusions of the Beijing and Cairo conferences. The negotiators had to stand firm on two counts. The hard-won recognition of women's rights needed to be defended all over again. And, more importantly, the attempt in Istanbul to reopen the debate on everything that had been gained at previous conferences had to be avoided. The European Union's negotiators took an aggressive stance on both these issues.
The fact that so much negotiating effort is expended is a good illustration of the political significance governments attach to the topics debated on such occasions. A conference may be seen as resembling the proverbial half-bottle of water - some regard it as half empty and others as half full. One's viewpoint depends on one's expectations - and much disappointment is caused by a misunderstanding of how such conferences operate.
Meeting the delegates
Although I am no anthropologist, I think I was able to identify three major groups of participants. First, there were the 'negotiators', who have built up a common language from conference to conference. I was surprised at the extent to which reference was constantly made, in the negotiating groups, to the 'Languages' of Rio, Copenhagen or Beijing. This is not just a question of vocabulary or syntax, but represents a genuine revolution in thought at international level.
The second group, to which I myself belonged, was made up of national and international officials. These are the people who, to a greater or lesser extent, prepare the conference. They then attend it and, ideally, write a mission report on returning to their offices (bemoaning the fact that few people will read their words of wisdom !)'These delegates tend to offer the harshest judgments. A common refrain is: 'We have long argument about words in parenthesis in a huge document that no one will ever read!'.
The third group, which nowadays is the largest, consists of representatives of so-called civil society. Since Rio, every United Nations conference has seen the parallel organisation of an NGO Forum, and the latter's influence has constantly increased. At Beijing, the authorities banished the NGO Forum to a site 60 km from the capital, but Istanbul welcomed it with open arms on the same footing as the 'Cities Summit' and the meetings of researchers and industrialists. A more fundamental development was the invitation to NGOs and local authorities to take an active part in the working groups and at meetings. This was a 'first' in international conference history and I was struck by the motivation and competence of many of the participants, as well as by the ease with which they have adapted to the information society. Gone are the days when addresses are exchanged on scraps of paper, accompanied by the ritual 'We must keep in touch!'. These days, your business card must include your Internet Email address. Contacts are organised through networks connected to databases, and people swap CD ROMs with each other.
What did Habitat II achieve?
The 'official' end most visible result of the Conference was obviously the adoption of the Habitat Agenda - the final fruit of long hours of work within the national committees set up for the occasion. This document, over a hundred pages in length, contains a 'World Action Plan', accompanied by the 'Istanbul Declaration'.
What is not so well-publicised is the fact that many countries - including a number of ACPs - took the opportunity to publish their own national reports containing individual action plans. The amount of preparation that went into these reports revealed a high degree of motivation.
Having looked at them more closely since, I have gained a somewhat better understanding of the months of work put in tens of thousands of people across the world. This reassures me that the majority of state participants will monitor the Habitat 11 follow-up very closely.
One has to recognise that the mere adoption of a text, however significant it may be, cannot be regarded as a magic formula which will change the face of the world overnight. To the impatient among us who want everything straight away, and to unrepentant sceptics, I would say this. In environmental matters there are two major periods in our recent history - the period before Rio and the period after Rio. The Rio meeting, and each subsequent conference, have been milestones in a long, coherent process of collective reflection and growing awareness. Istanbul did, in fact, keep its promises: the right to adequate shelter is now recognised internationally as the fundamental right of every human being.