unep240614Nairobi, Kenya: As the United Nations Environment Assembly (Unea) opened in Nairobi Monday, the event marked one of the greatest diplomatic coups for a developing country.

The story of United Nations Environment Programme (Unep) and Unea goes back to the 1960s when several developed countries first conspired to frustrate formation of an environmental body within the UN and then engaged in even greater conspiracy to keep the headquarters from the Third World.

Most details of the efforts are captured in the book Unep: The first 40 years, a narrative of Unep’s history, and in official papers released by the British government in January 2002.

“A secret group of developed nations known as the Brussels group conspired to limit the effectiveness of the UN’s first conference on the environment held in Stockholm in 1972,” the papers read.

It is this conference in Sweden that gave birth to the Unep.

However, unknown to the ambitious conference organisers, who included the first director-general of Unep Maurice Strong, the Brussels Group (Britain, US, Germany, Italy, Belgium, Netherlands and France) was working hard to frustrate the Stockholm event.

“The group was concerned that environmental regulations would restrict trade and also wanted to stop Unep from having a large budget. The group seemed unconcerned about what its stance would mean for poorer countries,” the papers read.

The rich countries, dominant at Stockholm, also opposed the formation of the new UN agency citing the cost. Even Sweden, the sponsor of the original proposal for the UN to hold its first world environment conference, was luke-warm about the formation of Unep.

There would be more heated exchanges and underhand dealings ahead after delegates at the conference agreed to set up Unep but failed to make a decision on its location.

The Stockholm delegates were so exhausted during the passing of the resolution that they left it to the General Assembly to decide where it would be located.

The proposed locations included Geneva, London, Madrid, Mexico City, Monaco, Nicosia, New Delhi, New York, Valetta and Vienna.

When the Kenyan delegation led by former ambassador Joseph Odero-Jowi and the then Foreign Minister Njoroge Mungai offered Nairobi as the headquarters, the whole gathering was shocked because Kenya was a developing country and not the kind of developed nation the UN system preferred as headquarters of its agencies.

According to the Unep book, while addressing the gathering, the Calcutta-trained economist and colourful speaker Odero-Jowi criticised the UN for not having the headquarters of any of its agencies in the Third World.

Odero-Jowi termed the situation “unjust” and immediately called for its rectification through New York, Geneva, London and Vienna withdrawing from bidding to host Unep.

Meanwhile, Mungai lobbied the other African States within the Group of 77 to have a common stand of hosting the new body in Africa.

How Kenya won battle to host Unep in Nairobi

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