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A Human Environment Ombudsman

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A statement presented on behalf of the Union of International Associations to the Preparatory Committee for the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment (Stockholm, 1972). Published in International Associations, 1973, pp. 46-47 [searchable PDF version]

  1. New threats to the human environment will be identified each year as the global civilization becomes increasingly more complex.

  2. It is characteristic of multi-disciplinary human environment problems that it is difficult to predict what domain such new threats will arise in, and therefore to decide in advance which agency should be responsible for any action. Problems are turned into crises if adequate responses cannot be rapidly organized.
    What finally makes all of our crises still more dangerous is that they are now coming on top of each other. Most administrations are not prepared to deal with multiple crises, a crisis of crises, at one time. Every problem may escalate because those involved no longer have time to think straight. (John R. Platt. " What we must do ". Science, November, 1969)

  3. In order to equip itself to respond to complex unpredictable crises, society needs to make full use of all the organizational resources at its disposal and willing to contribute in some way.

  4. Specific recognition therefore needs to be given to the function of national and international no/i-governmental bodies and pressures groups as  " look-out "  institutions which, through their specialized interest and sensitivity :
    • identify new threats to the human environment at an early stage;
    • mobilize support to draw public attention to the nature of each new threat;
    • encourage governments to take legislative action to counter act the threats to the environment;
    • help to generate the political will without which governments cannot act;
    • support government agencies by providing a pool of experts to monitor the problems and steps toward its solution, and to advise on legislation;
    • supply a non-political forum in which the problem can be discussed before it is handled between governments in a political setting.

  5. These are all aspects of the democratic process which are relevant to the rapid solution of human environment problems. The speed and effectiveness with which society can respond to crises is highly dependent on the effectiveness of the information system. An exclusive information system restricted or oriented toward the current responsibilities and interests of a limited sector of society, even if highly significant, as in the case of intergovernmental social and political communication mechanism to restructure itself to carry out the functions identified in point 4 above, with respect to new problems:

    • does not facilitate the ability of government to interact with the non-governmental sector to obtain advice on and support for action in response to human environment problems.
    • encourages non-governmental  groups to set up their own independent communications networks and information centers, leading naturally to a dissipation of effort and competition for limited resources, lack of coordination and reduction of overall effectiveness.

  6. A further aspect of the human environment problem is the increasing alienation of the individual in the urban environment, who is faced with the maze of " faceless "organizations perceived as increasingly invading his privacy. The creation of exclusive governmental information systems which ignore the need of the individual and his groups to be able to use an information system to make and maintain contacts to further his interests, serves in many ways clearly to :

    • aggravate the problem of alienation
    • increase the problem of the governments to create the " political will to change ";
    • increase the " credibility gap " and suspicion inherent in individual perception of distant government programmes.

  7. To prepare for unpredictable problems, the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment in considering the communications and  information  processing  system  which would be most appropriate for the coming decade, should study :
    • Means of guaranteeing the interaction between governmental and non-governmental users through the system -- even when a given problem recognized by a non-governmental body is not currently recognized by a government or governmental agency.
    • Means of guaranteeing the interaction between non-governmental users through the system (independently of a governmental agency's current judgement of the value of a particular inter action) in order that non-government bodies should be able to initiate rapidly new links and patterns of interaction themselves in response to any new problem, or in response to a call for support by a governmental agency.
    • Means of guaranteeing the  interaction  between  individuals through the system so that active individuals or bodies, anxious to contribute significantly, can detect:
      • bodies or programmes (governmental) or non-governmental) in which they can participate,
      • problem areas for which individuals or bodies with matching interests could group together and create some new body to further their interest,
      • individuals interested in working, together on a particular problem area.
    • Means of guaranteeing that when the connection between . apparently unrelated  problem areas is discovered, this link is incorporated  into the information system, so that users interested in one problem area will be automatically exposed to the complete list of problems known to be related to the one which primarily interests them.
    • Means of decentralizing the  information system to provide a network of input and output centers at regional, national, and city level to insure that funds for the system can be sought at the level at which they will be most frequently spent, whilst at the same time guaranteeing the circulation of information vertically to the regional and international level, and horizontally to other bodies in other areas.

  8. The increasing multidisciplinary interest in the human environment counterbalances many of the excesses of economic development -- which was narrowly conceived as the major key to world problems. The Human Environment Conference will be counterproductive to the extent that human environment programmes are, in their turn, narrowly conceived as the panacea, which, it is hoped, would give a new lease on life to economic development programmes. The as-yet ill defined social organizational and problem context of governmental human environment concerns could, if ignored, undermine effective response on environmental issues -- as happened with respect to development issues.

    Human environment problems need to be seen as intimately related to social development, which itself needs to be preconception as distinct from its current definition as the development of human resources for the benefit of economic development.

  9. In order to improve communication and action throughout the network of governmental and non-governmental agencies with respect to multidisciplinary human environment problems, the Conference could consider the feasibility of creating the Office of " Human Environment Ombudsman ". This Office would act as an independent international clearing house for comments from all sources on human environment problems (or administrative circumstances preventing their rapid solution), particularly those arising from the uncoordinated interaction of different agency programmes. Such an Office would be responsible for informing agencies and governments of aspects of agency programme content or procedures likely to have unwelcome side-effects which could neither be detected by the disciplines represented within the agency nor be considered relevant in terms of the agency's mandate.
The existence of such an Office could guarantee that :

The precise limits of the responsibility of the Human Environment Ombudsman would need to be defined to fill any gap between conservation agencies, human rights commissions, and development-oriented agencies. The Office could in fact act as a referral centre for queries outside its mandate, particulary if its existance was widely known as a result of adequate public information programmes.

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