Maurice Strong, the founding Executive Director of the UN Environmental Programme (UNEP), passed away on 28 November at the age of 86. Achim Steiner, UN Under-Secretary General and Executive Director of UNEP, credited Strong with making “history by launching a new era of international environmental diplomacy.”
From sinner to saviour
Born in 1929, Strong grew up in very poor conditions in Canada, and began his career in the oil and gas business, becoming a self-proclaimed “environmental sinner.” His work later shifted towards foreign affairs and focused on showing support for developing countries. In the 1960s, whilst running the Canadian International Development Agency, his success in increasing foreign aid, as well as his interest in environmental and social disruption, did not go unnoticed by the UN Secretary General, who selected him to convene the 1972 Stockholm Conference.
The father of Earth Summit
Heading the UN’s famine relief programme in Africa was the first in a series of UN advisory assignments. Strong was later appointed as Secretary General of the UN Conference on Environment and Development, also known as the Earth Summit, held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in 1992. The Summit attracted delegates from 178 nations, including 118 heads of state or government, and plenty of media attention. The Earth Summit issued Agenda 21, a 40-chapter manifesto concluding that eradicating poverty was necessary to achieve environmentally sustainable development; however no specific or tangible goals were set.
Following the Earth Summit, Strong continued to lead the way by focusing on implementing the agreements reached in Rio. He helped establish the Earth Council and Earth Charter movement, served as a board member of numerous institutes, and acted as Senior Advisor to the President of the World Bank.
Reviving the mismanaged
From 1999 to 2007, Strong led the process of revitalising the mismanaged University for Peace in Costa Rica, established under the authorisation of the UN General Assembly, helping to rebuild its programmes and leadership. In 2003, UN Secretary General Kofi Annan appointed Strong as his personal envoy to lead support for the international response to the humanitarian and development needs of North Korea.
With regards to the Climate Conference in Paris, Achim Steiner reiterated Maurice Strong’s message to the 2014 UN General Assembly, calling on world leaders to “rise to their historic responsibility as custodians of the planet, to take decisions that will unite rich and poor, North, South, East and West, in a new global partnership to ensure our common future.”
A personal account
Growing up with a father who, in the early 1970s, was the initiator of the Bavarian Ministry for Environment, industrial environmentalists were not a new species to me. But Maurice Strong was special. I still remember the first time I met him; it was in 1989, at a workshop together with Stephan Schmidheiny and others industrialists. Maurice didn’t only define the problems, he also incorporated sustainability into the solutions, a topic that at the time was given little consideration.
His organisation of the Earth Summit in Rio in 1992 was a milestone in the history of modern environmental protection. Many initiatives, protocols, and agreements have their roots in this conference and today lay the base for future conservation strategies.
Homage to his legacy
Despite suffering health problems since 2008, it is significant that he leaves us on the eve of the opening of this most important Climate Conference. Let us hope that the loss of this brilliant man is a sign of inspiration and commitment to finally agree on a solution for the environment. A protocol signed by all attending countries would surely be the greatest homage we could pay to the greatest environmentalist.
Photo credit: UNEP