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A Global Alliance> Archive
UPDATED: November 5, 2007 NO. 45 NOVEMBER 8, 2007
Building a Better Planet

Transitioning into a broader role as senior civil servant of the United Nations after 37 years as a Chinese diplomat, UN Under Secretary General Sha Zukang certainly has had a tough task to quickly understand UN culture and internal operations since taking the post on July 1. But so far, his signature outspoken, straightforward style has won high praise from his staff and colleagues at the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs. In a recent exclusive interview with Beijing Review in New York, Sha talked about climate change, UN reform and the transition into his new role.

Beijing Review: As the under-secretary general in charge of economic and social affairs in the UN, your responsibilities touch on a number of "hot" issues like climate change, poverty reduction, sustainable development, women's rights and social policies in general. Which issue is on the top of your agenda?

Sha Zukang: It's really difficult to define. As you know, the UN has 192 [member] countries. Different countries have different priorities. My predecessor told me that my department produces 260 reports annually. Practically, 260 reports mean 260 issues and each issue is a priority of a group of countries. So it's really difficult to say what my priority would be. But, there are some [issues] that are more immediate, more urgent than others and there are issues that involve more countries or the whole international community.

For me, climate change is a top priority, which has a huge impact on all aspects of our lives and future generations. I think it's almost a [global] consensus that climate change is the biggest issue that needs to be addressed without delay. Climate change is also an economic and social issue, and a sustainable development issue, so it is certainly one of my priorities.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon announced four pillars in dealing with climate change: mitigation, adaptation, financing and technology. What kind of role do you think the technology pillar will play?

The technology for dealing with climate change is available, though it needs to be further improved. The question is not availability, but to whom it is available. It is available to those who can afford it. That means the technology is available to developed countries, broadly speaking. It is not--or not fully--available to developing countries, particularly the least-developed countries, which are the biggest victims of climate change.

The financing for technology transfer is a big issue, as it is closely related to intellectual property rights. The industrialized countries, countries in possession of technologies including the technology for climate change, emphasize intellectual property right protection because without protection there would be no incentives for development of technology. But for the developing countries, their major concern is whether the application of technology is affordable. If the cost issue is not solved, for whatever technology you may have, application will be limited.

Also, financing means a lot of things. Not only the transfer of technology, but mitigation and adaptation all need financing.

What is your expectation on the upcoming Bali conference on climate change later this year? Are you expecting a new international agreement will be signed to replace the Kyoto Protocol?

First, the existing UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and the Kyoto Protocol should be complied with and implemented. Second, those who have not ratified the Protocol should do so and fulfill their obligations under the Protocol. Once this has been done, the international community should discuss and negotiate new protocols. To make progress in Bali, the international community should aim at achieving a meeting of the mind. That is to say they should first agree in the approach to [solutions to] the climate change.

Climate change has been caused by industrial development, or industrialization. The change of climate has been caused, in a way, by the "development" of developed countries. To solve that issue, the approach should be putting the climate change issue in the framework of sustainable development. Only through development can the issue be mitigated, adapted and solved.

Also, solutions to climate change should be guided by the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities. There is agreement on this after intensive consultations. The question is how much common responsibilities should be and how much individual counties should have differences in undertaking their responsibilities. Countries are not same, their contributions to climate change are not same, and their capabilities are not same. So, they cannot take on the same responsibilities. In that connection, there is agreement that developed countries should take the lead--but that doesn't mean that developing countries should stand still and do nothing. They also should make contributions.

You have a dozen divisions under your guidance at the UN. Are you planning to introduce any reforms to those divisions during your term?

Reform, yes; I think there is agreement that the UN should be reformed. The international situation has changed and so have the concerns of member states. Therefore, the priority of UN bodies should also change, consequently. But the reform issue has to be treated in a cautious manner and in a gradual step-by-step manner.

Where will you start?

Because I am a beginner, I have been in close consultations and discussions with my colleagues over the past months. I'm feeling my way at this stage. Reform is a very complex issue. People are used to the status quo and there is a kind of inertia because any change, any adjustment would affect the interests of certain people. So, whatever step you take, you are bound to meet or come across resistance.

The UN has developed its own culture [during its 60-plus-year history], so reform is not easy, but it is a must and we also need patience. Persistence, patience and creativity are necessary.

You are the first Chinese national to become UN under secretary general in charge of economic and social affairs. Do you feel any pressure?

Pressure, yes, and it's extremely big, I should say. First, my department is in charge of economic and social affairs, which are closely related to the well being of people from both developed and developing countries, and they have high expectations for the UN and my department to deliver.

Second, I am an under secretary general from China, the biggest developing country and one of the fastest developing countries in the world. The developing countries expect that this under secretary general would do better than my predecessors because they believe that this under secretary general from China should better understand the concerns and interests of developing countries.

Third, my background is closely related to international security, such as arms control, disarmament and non-proliferation. Over the last six years, when I was China's permanent representative to the UN in Geneva, I did have a chance to learn and deal with issues related to economic and social affairs, but only from a China angle. Now, as under secretary general of the UN, I have to look at those same issues from a different angle, the world angle. In that sense, I feel pressure.

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