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.:. Sustainable Development Knowledge Platform

22nd Special Session of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGASS) on Small Island Developing States
New York, 27-28 September 1999

Press Kit on Small Islands: Issues and Actions

Trade, Environment Issues to dominate UN Special Session on Small Islands

un logo(New York, August 1999) -- Some forty small island nations will use their two days in the global spotlight to seek international support on trade and environment problems, when the United Nations focuses on island issues at a special session of its General Assembly on 27-28 September in New York.

While island nations often conjure up images of a paradise, their coasts, coral reefs and forests are under increasing stress from pollution, development, climate change and natural disasters -- problems often beyond their means or control to solve.

The UN special session -- to be attended by a number of island Presidents and Prime Ministers -- will assess progress on the action plan adopted by over 100 countries five years ago at the 1994 Global Conference on the Sustainable Development of Small Island Developing States, held in Barbados. There small island and donor nations agreed to tackle the islands' challenges in partnership.

The difficulties small islands face in an increasingly competitive global economy was a top issue at preparatory talks held this past April at the UN Commission for Sustainable Development. Caribbean nations protested recent rulings by the World Trade Organization against the long-standing trade preferences for their bananas and other products in European markets. Pacific island economies have suffered from the financial crisis that has afflicted their Asian trading partners.

In light of their limited resources and options, island nations are seeking some kind of compensatory mechanism or assistance while they try to restructure their economies.

"Most small island developing states have taken positive steps since Barbados", said UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, "but international assistance to them has declined". He added, "If we can find solutions to the special vulnerabilities of islands, it will help us address more global problems.

The small islands action plan aims to strike a balance for "sustainable development , which promotes needed economic growth and improves social well-being while preserving the environment". This approach was popularized at the 1992 Rio Earth Summit, which called for the Barbados Conference.

Financing the Action Plan

Island nations contend that, while they have taken the Barbados action plan to heart, donor countries have lagged behind on their end of the partnership. In line with global aid declines, official development assistance to small island developing States has continued to fall since 1994, when the UN Conference generated a surge of interest. Net disbursements for bilateral and multilateral aid combined have dropped from $2.36 billion in 1994 to $1.96 billion in 1997.

Although the small islands action plan did not come with a price tag attached, governments agreed in Barbados that to carry out the plan, Aadequate, predictable, new and additional financial resources would be needed. At the April preparatory talks, donors signalled they would reaffirm this statement, but given global aid declines, there is a pragmatic recognition that these may be promises on paper only. Gordon Bispham of the Network for Barbados NGOs, a spokesman for small island groups, considered it a key issue that Adonor nations have failed to fulfil their commitments regarding this agreement. For their part, donors suggest partnerships with the private sector and non-governmental groups, better coordination and use of aid, and improved domestic policies.

Ambassador Tuiloma Neroni Slade of Samoa, Chair of the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS), said that while islands "hold high the ethic of self-reliance, their acknowledged vulnerabilities and small size mean that development challenges are often seriously magnified. The support of the international community thus becomes a vital element in sustainable development efforts".

Progress on Environment

Despite funding shortages, most small island nations have moved forward on environmental protection as a result of the Barbados Conference. Many have devised national green plans and set up sustainable development councils or agencies. Dozens of projects have been carried out nationally and regionally, but much more is needed.

Of the 14 problem areas identified in the small islands action plan, six have been prioritized as needing urgent attention over the next five years:

  • adapting to climate change and rising sea levels, which could submerge some low-lying island nations;
  • improving preparedness for and recovery from natural and environmental disasters;
  • preventing worsening shortages of freshwater as demands grow;
  • protecting coastal ecosystems and coral reefs from pollution and overfishing;
  • developing solar and renewable energy to lessen dependence on expensive imported oil;
  • managing tourism growth to protect the environment and cultural integrity.

One contentious environmental issue in early talks has been the right of small island nations to restrict or ban the transport of hazardous and radioactive waste through their seas -- which was recognized in the Barbados action plan. Small islands want to reaffirm this right, but other proposals still under negotiation emphasize rights of free passage and navigation.

Press Contact:

Ms. Pragati Pascale
Tel: (212) 963-6870
Fax: (212) 963-1186
Development and Human Rights Section
UN Department of Public Information  

Published by the United Nations Department of Public Information
DPI/2063 -- August 1999 -- 5M 

Copyright United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs

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