United Nations Environment Programme

The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), created by the General Assembly in 15 December 1972, is the main authority within the United Nations responsible for environmental issues in global and local levels. Its role is to manage the construction of an environmental policy consensus among the United Nations’ members and to bring the world’s attention to emerging risky situations. In 2010, UNEP has defined its six priorities for the 2010-2013 term. It will focus primarily on climate change, resource efficiency, disasters and conflicts, environmental governance, harmful substances and hazardous waste, and ecosystem management.

The UNEP’s Governing Council reports to the General Assembly through the Economic and Social Council and is composed by 58 member states elected by the General Assembly. Their term lasts four years and their election respects the principle of equitable regional representation: 16 seats for African states, 13 seats for Asian states, six seats for European states, 10 seats for Latin American and Caribbean states, and 13 seats for Western Europe and other states.

The Programme acts through recommendations, and is also responsible for monitoring national and international policies. It has an important role also in contributing to scientific development, as well as reporting annually to the General Assembly especially in regard to coordination issues and the environmental policy inside the United Nations. It may not have any binding decision, but it has a strong moral pressure over United Nations’ states members.

This year, delegates attending the UNEP meeting will debate two important topics in nowadays environmental discussion: environmental justice and biodiversity and genes patent.


TOPIC A: Environmental Justice

Environmental justice is the idea that all environmental costs and benefits of development should be equally distributed across the population. The concept emerged mainly in the 1980’s, when studies first showed that in the United States of America the incidence of pollution was higher in poor communities areas. Other studies have since endorsed these conclusions, meaning that some specific populations are more affected by development costs than they are by its benefits. The ones that suffer the most with environmental injustices are mainly determined by their social status, their race or their nationality. Furthermore, those people are not only more affected by pollution, but also are usually excluded from policy and decision-making processes, rendering them even more vulnerable.

In this sense, the matter of environmental justice also comprehends the idea of social justice and how economical and political inequalities have influence over the distribution of environmental costs and benefits. On the one hand, the placement of highly polluter industries or landfills, for example, would be more likely determined to be in low-income settlement regions because people living there would not have the power to react against it. On the other hand, some argue that the cause is on reverse: low-income populations would settle down in hazardous areas after the industries are there located, since lands in industrial areas are cheaper than in other areas of the cities. Thus, independently of the temporal ordering, both visions relate environmental injustice with economical inequality.

Environmental injustice affects fundamental human rights, such as the right to live with dignity. People living near polluted areas are more likely to have health problems, due to air pollution, animal proliferation and contaminated water. Besides, since those people do not have political influence, polluting industries are hardly ever accountable for their violations. Environmental justice has, then, two dimensions: the participation in the decision-making process and the fair distribution of costs and benefits (Keller 2011). Both are essential to the discussion and cannot be considered solely. Another important side of the problem is the pollution itself, for if it was controlled it would not have negative consequences. Therefore, the environmental justice debate includes also the matter of responsibility and accountability over development externalities.

This year, the United Nations Environment Programme will, thus, discuss the role international society can play and how it should act in the issue of environmental justice, an issue that involves not only the sustainable use of the environment but also fundamental rights of affected people. The focus will be on the distribution of environmental costs and benefits of industrialization and development, even though not ignoring the participation dimension of the subject. It is expected for delegates to take into consideration, when discussing such extensive problem, issues of social justice, environmental responsibility and accountability, and economical needs.


TOPIC B: Biodiversity and Gene Patents

During the last decades, there has been a significant change in biodiversity governance: from the “common heritage of mankind”, biodiversity is becoming a resource subjectto national sovereignty and Intellectual Property Rights (IPRs). Bioprospecting is increasingly supported by laws and measures, at both national and international levels, involving ethics, patenting, and benefit-sharing. This change, led not only by scientific development but also by policy and judicial changes, isn’t occurring without controversy, and the main question is who should benefit from it: government, community, patent holders, or just nature itself.

According to the UNEP, “biodiversity provides the basis for ecosystems and the services they provide, upon which all people fundamentally depend” (UNEP 2004). Additionally, genetic diversity is related to adaptation and natural selection, and it also provides benefits to people, such as genetic material used to control diseases and develop medicines and other products. Genetic diversity is characteristic in the process of bioprospecting, which is the exploration of biodiversity creating products with social and economic value, useful to a variety of industries such as pharmaceuticals, cosmetics, and companies that manufacture agricultural seeds. This activity is being standardized by international entities such as the Convention of Biological Diversity (CBD), United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), and World Trade Organization (WTO), which raises a range of controversial issues.

Among all causes of disagreement, the first question is over the nature of biodiversity patents, whether genes or organisms are appropriately classified as patents, both being natural in themselves, and therefore challenging the basic criteria of novelty, inventiveness, and utility. Moreover, it provokes an ethic discussion: is it humane for genes to receive intellectual property protection? Human genes are recognized as the common heritage of humankind according to the UN Universal Declaration on the Human Genome, yet they are still patented.

The second issue is how to distribute properly the benefits of bioprospecting. Ideally, patents can promote effective benefit sharing by supporting the development of new products and processes to society. Patent supporters argue that research and development are necessary to encourage biotechnology and since this kind of research is very expensive, the earnings from patenting are justified. However, patents have been criticized for doing exactly the opposite; that is, not encouraging the creation of benefit sharing arrangements between companies and community, and not even promoting progress in biotechnology.

Finally, at the national level, there is the issue of traditional knowledge, coming from local and indigenous communities who conserve and utilize biodiversity in a sustainable way. Nonetheless, these ideas later become recognized to be a product of the multinational companies instead of their rightful visionaries. On the other hand, there is the problem of how to make the traditional knowledge available to all people, while conserving the biodiversity. The international assessment to local biodiversity is the common way of synthesizing natural composts and distributing it into the market. Also, most of governments lack tools for controlling their biodiversity, especially in remote areas, putting in great danger the conservation of both unexplored and explored ecosystems.

Bearing it in mind, UNEP calls upon this meeting, in which the delegates of UFRGSMUN 2013 shall discuss the implementation of fair rules regarding biodiversity and gene patents. Delegates shall take into account the several international documents and agreements already signed, as well as the role of multiple actors, such as enterprises and local communities. We expect to find a solution for the controversies over this matter and also contribute with reducing inequality and incentive local community “to conserve their biodiversity and reduce the threat of over-exploitation” (UNEP 2004).



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