The UNECE has been quietly reshaping the world for 66 years--first through the rebuilding of postwar Europe, more recently through the laborious process of establishing standards; standards that are born in Europe, but applied throughout the world.
As one of the UN's five regional commissions, the Economic Commission for Europe has the major aim of promoting economic integration across Europe--but its actual reach extends much further. In fact, not only are Canada and the United States both members, as well as former Soviet republics (a hangover from the commission's origins in postwar reconstruction and Cold War dialogue), but any member of the UN, as well as professional and nongovernmental organisations, is welcome to participate in some of its activities.
Executive secretary Sven Alkalaj met me recently to talk about the many facets of the commission's work. It may be low-profile--as he told me, "We don't make headlines"--but the results of its efforts are felt around the world, and in everyday life. Through establishing safety standards, addressing economic problems and smoothing diplomatic relations, the UNECE works to promote regional cooperation and improve the economic plight of its member countries in transition.
The surprising undercurrent of our conversation was the theme of security. Energy security, environmental security, road safety, and even security from conflict--these are all key concerns, and outcomes, of the UNECE's work. As he showed me, we all benefit directly from its work every day, without realising it.
UN secretary-general Ban Ki-Moon noted in 2011 that the UNECE's work benefits many countries beyond Europe. How is this achieved?
Our work is norms, standards policy recommendations and technical cooperation. Our work has been praised outside our region because a number of countries realise they can benefit from joining our conventions.
We have eight programmes: environment, transport, statistics, trade, forestry, housing management, sustainable energy and economic cooperation and integration. (See panel for some details of the transport programme impacts.)
On the environment UNECE is a custodian of five environmental conventions. Our flagship is the Water Convention on the protection and use of transboundary water courses.
Ninety percent of the world's population lives in countries that share transboundary river and lake basins. And you know when countries are sharing water, there might be disputes; and water management between upstream and downstream countries is very important. Non-cooperation can provide a flare for instability and even possible tensions and eruption of conflict among the states. Our convention was adopted in 1992 and has now become global.
The second issue that is very interesting for the environment is the question of access to information and public participation. For example, when...