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On-line Access To United Nations Documents
by Robert Pollard, International Synergy Institute

Reprinted from the newsletter of the South-North Centre for Environmental Policy, School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, June 1994.


The first five months of 1994 have seen an intensive spell of meetings at the United Nations on issues directly or indirectly related to follow up to the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio. The scope and range of these meetings points to the breadth of the ongoing global agenda on sustainable development and how the Rio Conference has succeeded in redefining the scope of issues that must be addressed by global environmental policy. The scope and frequency of the meetings also highlights the demands on governments, intergovernmental organisations and non-governmental organisations alike to keep abreast of the meetings and of the never-ending flow of information and documents relating to the issues.

Since the middle of January there have been two sessions - one each in New York and Geneva - of the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee on a Convention to Combat Desertification; the First Preparatory Committee for the World Summit for Social Development to beheld in Copenhagen in March 1995; a resumed session of the Preparatory Committee for the Global Conference on the Sustainable Development of Small Island Developing States, along with the Conference itself that took place in Barbados in May; meetings of intersessional Working Groups on Technology Transfer and on Finance for the Commission on Sustainable Development; a Preparatory Committee for the 4th World Conference of Women to be held in Beijing in September 1995; a session of the UN Conference on Highly Migratory Fish Stocks and Straddling Fish Stocks; the final Preparatory Committee for the International Conference on Population and Development that will take place in Cairo in September 1994; and the 1994 session of the Commission on Sustainable Development.

For those who have been concerned about the implications of the involvement of non-governmental organisations in all these meetings, there was an organisational session of the Open-ended Working Group on the Review of Arrangements for Consultations with Non-Governmental Organisations, with a substantive meeting of the Working Group to be held towards the end of June.

If this were not enough, the President of the General Assembly has scheduled meetings in early June for a preliminary exchange of views on the Agenda For Development that has just been presented by Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali as a complement to the Agenda For Peace he issued in 1992. The Agenda For Development seeks to charter a global course for development that incorporates issues of peace, environmental integrity, social justice and democracy in addition to economics in the definition of development.

To the extent that environmental policy issues are to occupy a key role in an emerging global consensus on the shape and direction of development, it is essential that the voices of representatives of non-governmental organisations concerned with environmental issues - along with those of their colleagues in the academic community - be heard in the discussions taking place on this full range of issues in the United Nations and in national capitals as well as in other cities, towns and villages.

One of the major challenges to those who would try to keep up with deliberations relating to global environmental policy at the United Nations has been the difficulty of getting hold of documents of the proceedings. Typically, unless one is present at a conference, it is extremely hard to get hold of the official documents, not to mention copies of statements by governments, UN agencies and non-governmental organisations - there are often barely enough of the documents to go around in the first place.

However, the use of document scanning techniques by representatives of non-governmental organisations and electronic communications networks that enable electronic dissemination of the documents is radically changing access to documents from UN proceedings. There is now a steadily growing trend - and one that is getting the attention of policy-makers within the UN Secretariat - towards the availability of a comprehensive set of UN conference documents on-line. Increasingly the trend appears to be towards dissemination of the documents on a "gopher" - a format that allows access by anyone who has direct access to the Internet - and towards an inclusive definition of what constitutes the "document environment" of the proceedings. Thus, the gopher of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) - accessible by typing "gopher gopher.undp.org" at millions of computer terminals at universities around the world - includes under the Commission on Sustainable Development not only the official UN documents, but statements of governments, intergovernmental organisations and non-governmental organisation as well as the Earth Negotiations Bulletin, providing a daily summary of the proceedings, and of ECO, a daily newsletter published by non-governmental organisations during the meetings.

Robert Pollard is the United Nations Representative of the International Synergy Institute [now Information Habitat: Where Information Lives]; he has been actively involved in the proceedings for the Earth Summit, and in many related follow-up proceedings for the past five years, and has maintained a focus on the application of information and communication technology in support of broad-based access to, participation in, and action in support of, international proceedings relating to environment, development and sustainability. For additional information on electronic access to United Nations documents, Robert Pollard can be contacted on the Internet at infohabitat@igc.apc.org

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