International Geneva, a hub for environmental governance?

Geneva’s International Environment House a few days before its inauguration in 1999. (Keystone/Martial Trezzini)

As one of the beating hearts of multilateral diplomacy, International Geneva has played a key role in writing the rulebook in global matters, including protecting our planet. Home to a number of international environmental agreements, it has the potential to become a hub for environmental governance, but not without civil society’s participation, according to two members of International Geneva that have seen the space develop over the years.

For the past 70 years, Geneva has become home to major actors in environmental governance, from the World Meteorological Organization, to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, to the lesser known secretariat of the Basel, Rotterdam and Stockholm Conventions on hazardous chemicals and waste.

Historical meetings that have shaped global politics around climate, biodiversity and pollution have also taken place in the Swiss diplomatic capital. In 1996, member states of the second UN climate change conference in Geneva recognised the findings of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and called for legally binding goals for cutting back on greenhouse gas emissions, which paved the way towards today’s widely known “Paris goals” of limiting global warming to 2ºC, if possible 1.5ºC.

“Geneva has always played a role in the field of environment, even if it never became the environmental hub like it is for trade, labour, humanitarian, human rights and so on,” said Diana Rizzolio, head of Geneva Environment Network, a platform for environmental organisations in Geneva set up by UNEP, speaking to Geneva Solutions.

A fragmented landscape. One of the possible explanations that Geneva has yet to emerge as a distinct hub is the fragmentation of the environmental framework. There are hundreds of multilateral environmental agreements, each with their own specific methodologies, mechanisms and overseeing bodies. This makes it hard for civil society to interact with them.

“Environment is a series of sub issues with different constituencies, different legal standards, different approaches, different philosophies,” Yves Lador, representative for the US-based environmental organisation Earthjustice at the UN in Geneva since 1988, told Geneva Solutions.

Geneva hosts a number of these instruments on topics such as wildlife protection, conservation, air pollution and waste management, making it one of the hotspots for global environmental governance. But with other key instruments sitting elsewhere, such as the UN Framework for Climate Change in Bonn, Germany and the Convention on Biodiversity in Montreal, Canada, linking different environmental issues and participating in all spaces can be tricky.

By setting up the UN Environment Programme’s (UNEP) headquarters in Nairobi, Kenya instead of Geneva as it had been originally suggested, UN members made environmental governance even more decentralised. While this historical decision saw the first UN agency run from the global South, it may have also unintentionally isolated the world’s leading environmental authority from its UN sisters in the North.

“I think it's important we have UN institutions based in other continents, but it's also true that for example the internet didn’t develop in the region until the year 2000, so even hosting websites in Nairobi was until a few years ago very complicated,” said Lador.

“A hub is a place where you come because that's where the things are being discussed and so regardless of the importance of one meeting or the other, you are constantly involved with what is going on,” he added.

Despite Geneva’s potential, a number of key elements are still lacking: “You would need to support the development of stronger expertise, and civil society networks around that so they can meet regularly.”

Scientists are an example of a group that would benefit from a stronger geographic focal point, he says. “They meet on different occasions, and of course you have a great community coming in but they don’t have a regular discussion on an annual basis or every six months. So that's exactly why we need these types of hubs. They give the capacity to have a space which is wider, constant, and where real work can be done.”

One of the fields in which efforts have paid off is in chemicals, Lador noted. “With the Rotterdam, Basel and Stockholm Conventions – and now Minamata – Switzerland made efforts to really anchor them institutionally in Geneva.”

The landmark agreements on hazardous and chemical waste share the same secretariat, simplifying coordination and collaboration among stakeholders.

However, efforts to strengthen multilateralism around the environment have been undermined in the past beyond Geneva. “Over the years, a clear will of the states has emerged not to have one coherent system to protect the environment,” Lador explained.

“The proof of that is when President Jacques Chirac proposed to have a world environmental organisation, there was a very strong opposition. This strong opposition came back recently when Macron proposed to have a global pact on the environment to try to secure, legally speaking, in one instrument, what are the fundamental principles of the rights of the international environmental law,” he added.

Initially presented before the UN General Assembly by President Emmanuel Macron in 2017, the proposed pact is expected to become the third most important global agreement, alongside the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. Negotiations, which are still ongoing, were launched at UN level in 2018, with five states opposing the process, including the United States, Russia and Turkey.

Advocates hope that the pact will be adopted in 2022 at the next Earth Summit, although with Covid having delayed most multilateral negotiations, this remains to be seen. A global pact coalition, gathering the support of celebrities, political leaders and renowned academics, was launched in February to pressure governments into adopting an ambitious text next year.

Linking human rights and the environment. Despite the fragmented and decentralised landscape, environmentalists have found other spaces in Geneva to raise their concerns and make sure that they’re properly heard. The Human Rights Council, which meets in Geneva three times a year, is a unique multilateral space where citizens can address states directly.

"The field of human rights is the only field in international law that recognises the capacity to act for individuals at the international level and that totally changes the dynamic,” he said.

“You can see that in the way that the meetings are organised, if we take climate change summits, where you have massive civil society involvement, at the end NGO get the floor only if time allows. They're there à bien plaire.”

At the HRC, NGOs are given a proper time slot to speak during formal sessions. “The whole mentality changes, because people are part of the system. They are in the room, they take the floor, they can challenge countries, they can say ‘my country is violating my rights’, they can stand up and they're not kicked out,” he added.

Environmental rights groups are increasingly taking advantage of this space by linking human rights with environmental protection. Since the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the only additional right to be recognised at UN level has been the right to water and sanitation in 2010.

For the past decade, advocates, including Geneva-based NGOs, have been working tirelessly to get the right to a healthy and sustainable environment to be recognised similarly by the HRC and has already received backing from a majority of countries.

Read also: UN closer to recognising the right to a healthy environment

A proposal to create a UN special rapporteur tasked with evaluating how climate change is affecting the rights of people has been gradually gaining traction as well. These efforts have met resistance from states that would rather not see climate change be linked to human rights, Lador warned.

International Geneva’s environmental actors are also getting increasingly involved in some of the other multilateral fora such as the World Health Assembly and the World Trade Organization, where discussions are happening to build a framework for key topics including pandemics and plastic pollution.

Read also: A new global treaty to tackle plastic pollution?

While these spaces have traditionally been less inclusive, the growing interest from civil society to take part in discussions could spark a shift.