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Environment : The Ozone Conference: Subtle Nuances in the London Air : The complexity of the issues are enough to baffle the most sophisticated diplomat. The U.N.'s Mostafa Kamal battles to keep a key environmental accord strong.


LONDON — It was early evening as Mostafa Kamal Tolba hurried across from Buckingham Palace making his way toward Green Park.

"I've been meeting all day," he said as he reached the curb. "And, yes, there is a dinner tonight. I just needed to get out and take a walk."

Few participants at the just-concluded United Nations conference here begrudged Tolba, 67, a few moments for himself. As executive director of the U.N. Environment Program, he was engaged in a virtual nonstop round of complicated negotiations.

Tolba, they say, is one to "knock heads." His goal: To strengthen the Montreal Protocol, an international accord to protect the Earth's ozone layer from further erosion. But, whose heads is he "knocking?"

As the London ozone conference showed, each delegation brings varying degrees of sophistication and understanding to the task.

Richer countries like the United States dispatch a veritable task force to such diplomatic parleys, including scientific experts, diplomats and staff members with extensive expertise with the most confounding minutiae. There are politically savvy delegates sensitive to the ways that subtle nuances in each paragraph of a protocol might affect a country's national interests or a politician's fortunes.

Other countries, especially less-developed nations, are not always so well prepared.

All, however, attempt to represent their national interests.

While it is true, for example, that the entire world faces a common threat from ozone depletion--increased cases of skin cancer, cataracts, reductions in crop yields and the disruption of the marine food chain--there were and continue to be both national and parochial interests that had to be addressed.

The complexity of the issue alone is enough to tax the most able diplomat. But, it can be a painful dilemma for the uninitiated.

Typically, according to professional conference watchers, delegates are not scientists, even though science is an integral component of what many are calling a new era of environmental diplomacy. More often than not, they are career bureaucrats and generalists.

"In highly developed countries, it is no problem at all. They are not all scientists, but they know what they're talking about. That is not always so with less-developed countries," said Rumen D. Bojkev of Canada, an atmospheric physicist and secretary of the International Ozone Commission, an arm of the International Scientific Union.

There have been cases in which heads of state and their staffs have been ignorant of the most basic provisions of treaty proposals that would directly affect them.

One official with the U.N. Environment Program, who asked to remain anonymous, recalled a 1989 meeting in Brazil called to draft a hazardous waste treaty protecting Third World nations from exploitation by industrialized countries anxious to export their toxic waste.

Shortly before the Brazilian conference, a leading U.N. official went to Africa to confer with leaders there. "He was appalled by the lack of knowledge on an issue they would be deciding in a month," this source said. The official immediately ordered a simple-to-understand explanation of the hazardous waste accord, stripped of technical jargon, for heads of state.

Yet another U.N. staffer, who also requested anonymity, said many developing countries can hold their own in any bargaining.

"They know what they're talking about. They're not junior in the negotiating process."

Indeed, Maneka Gandhi, India's environmental minister and daughter-in-law of the late Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, easily fielded questions from the press, exhibited knowledge of the subject and was cagey enough not to tip a negotiating hand.

At times, she would say something and flash a knowing smile at her inquisitors as if they had just shared a private joke.

She became a veritable media star at the London ozone conference. It was easy to spot her from the clusters of reporters, television cameras, lights and tape recorders usually gathered around.

Others, like Julio Santos, deputy head of Brazil's delegation, states his country's case forcefully. By his own account, he will speak to a reporter in plain, often undiplomatic terms even though his demeanor in the often rarefied world of multinational negotiations can be quite solicitous.

Before commenting to The Times on a U.S. position that was particularly annoying to him, Santos said: "This is not the way I would speak in negotiations, but to put it bluntly . . . it's stupid to do that. They are going against their own interests."

Many thought the Chinese delegation at London would be the last to consent to a press conference in view of the strained relations since the Beijing massacre a year ago. But they were the first.

Wang Yang Zu, deputy administrator of the National Environmental Protection Agency of China, carefully fielded questions, laying down a foundation for his reply and exhibiting a keen sense of subtlety that took the United States to task with a silk glove .

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