Global Biodiversity Outlook 1

Chapter 3 The Operations of the Convention


The Conference of the Parties is the governing body of the Convention, and advances implementation of the Convention through the decisions it takes at its periodic meetings. This chapter explains briefly how meeting are conducted and decisions made, and discusses the main thematic areas covered by decisions to date.1

It is worth noting at the outset that a key issue confronting the Conference of the Parties is to assess the extent to which the decisions it takes are acted upon. In the case of action to be taken by the bodies established by the Convention (subsidiary bodies, the Secretariat, the financial mechanism) or by other international bodies, procedures for reporting back to the COP, and its review of action taken, are straightforward. In the case of action to be taken by Parties, the COP depends upon the submission of the national reports on implementation called for by the Convention or of voluntary submission of case studies or other information by Parties.

To assist in clarifying expectations and responsibilities, the Conference of the Parties has decided to adopt targeted decisions - identifying who is expected to carry out the action in question - and has begun the process of developing a strategic plan for the Convention until 2010. It has also further elaborated the modus operandi of SBSTTA in order to improve the ability of SBSTTA to provide the COP with scientific, technical and technological advice.

To date the Conference of the Parties has held five ordinary meetings, and one extraordinary meeting (the latter, to adopt the Biosafety Protocol, was held in two parts). From 1994 to 1996, the Conference of the Parties held its ordinary meetings annually. Since then these meetings have been held somewhat less frequently and, following a change in the rules of procedure in 2000, will now be held every two years. To date the Conference of the Parties has taken a total of 114 procedural and substantive decisions.

Table 3.1 Meetings of the Conference of the Parties
Meetings of the Conference of the Parties Location Date No. of decisions
First ordinary meeting (COP-1) Nassau, Bahamas 28 November - 9 December 1994 13
Second ordinary meeting (COP-2) Jakarta, Indonesia 4-17 November 1995 23
Third ordinary meeting (COP-3) Buenos Aires, Argentina 3-14 November 1996 27
Fourth ordinary meeting (COP-4) Bratislava, Slovak Republic 4-15 May 1998 19
First extraordinary meeting (ExCOP) Cartagena, Colombia and Montreal, Canada 22-24 February 1999 and 24-29 January 2000 3
Fifth ordinary meeting (COP-5) Nairobi, Kenya 15-26 May 2000 29

The sixth ordinary meeting (COP-6) will be held in The Hague, The Netherlands from 8 to 19 April 2002.

The agenda of the meetings of the Conference of the Parties is very wide-ranging, reflecting the programme of work the Conference of the Parties has established for itself. At its first meeting, the Conference of the Parties decided on a medium-term programme of work for the period 1995-1997. Implementation of this programme has laid the groundwork for the long-term implementation of the Convention itself. In particular it has seen the development of a number of thematic work programmes, and identified a series of key cross-cutting issues relevant to all work programmes. These are discussed in more detail below.

The fourth meeting of the Conference of the Parties established a programme of work to cover the period from then until the seventh meeting and, more importantly, established a process to review the operations of the Convention and set out a longer term programme of work. As part of this process, an intersessional meeting on the operations of the Convention was held in 1999, the results of which were reported to the fifth meeting of the Conference of the Parties and formed the basis for a decision on future operations of the Convention.

Table 3.2 Major themes at meetings of the Conference of the Parties
Meeting of the Conference of the Parties Items for in-depth consideration
First (1994) Guidance to the financial mechanism
Medium-term programme of work
Second (1995) Marine and coastal biological diversity
Access to genetic resources
Conservation and sustainable use of biological diversity
Third (1996) Agricultural biodiversity
Financial resources and mechanism
Identification, monitoring and assessment
Intellectual property rights
Fourth (1998) Inland water ecosystems
Review of the operations of the Convention
Article 8(j) and related issues (traditional knowledge)
Benefit sharing
Fifth (2000) Dryland, mediterranean, arid, semi-arid, grassland and savannah ecosystems;
Sustainable use, including tourism;
Access to genetic resources
Sixth (2002) Forest ecosystems;
Alien species;
Strategic plan 2002-2010
Seventh (2004) Mountain ecosystems;
Protected areas;
Transfer of technology and technology cooperation.

In this decision the COP set out a series of standing items for the provisional agenda of its meetings, namely:

  • Organizational matters;
  • Reports from subsidiary bodies, the financial mechanism and the Executive Secretary;
  • Review of the implementation of the programme of work;
  • Priority issues for review and guidance; and
  • Other matters.

The COP has also undertaken to prepare and develop a Strategic Plan for the Convention, with a view to adopting it at its sixth meeting. The plan will initially cover the period 2002-2010. It will be based on the longer-term programmes of work of the COP and SBSTTA and is intended to provide strategic and operational guidance for the implementation of these programmes. It will contain a set of operational goals that the Conference of the Parties wishes to be achieved in the period covered by the plan, relating to the three main areas of work, these being the thematic programmes, cross-cutting issues and initiatives, and the implementation of the provisions of the Convention.

The Subsidiary Body on Scientific, Technical and Technological Advice (SBSTTA)

SBSTTA has also met five times to date and produced a total of 49 recommendations to the Conference of the Parties, ten of which have been endorsed in full by the latter. Such endorsement makes these recommendations de facto decisions of the Conference of the Parties. Parts of other recommendations have also been endorsed, and many others have been taken up in modified form.

Table 3.3 Meetings of the Subsidiary Body on Scientific, Technical and Technological Advice
Meetings of the Subsidiary Body on Scientific, Technical and Technological Advice (SBSTTA) Location Date No. of recommendations
First meeting (SBSTTA 1) Paris, France 4-8 September 1995 9
Second meeting (SBSTTA 2) Montreal 2-6 September 1996 12
Third meeting (SBSTTA 3) Montreal 1-5 September 1997 7
Fourth meeting (SBSTTA 4) Montreal 21-25 June 1999 7
Fifth meeting (SBSTTA 5) Montreal 31 January – 4 February 2000 14
Sixth meeting (SBSTTA 6) Montreal 12-16 March 2001 9

The seventh meeting will take place in Montreal from 12 to 16 November 2002.

The Conference of the Parties has recognized the need for an improvement in the quality of scientific, technical and technological advice provide to it and decided at its fifth meeting in 2000 to give further guidance at its next meeting to SBSTTA on ways for the latter to improve its inputs. It decided that SBSTTA should meet every year and gave it more flexibility in the way it carried out its work, for example by allowing it to make requests directly to the Executive Secretary (rather than channelling these through the Conference of the Parties as in the past) and using the clearing-house mechanism to help prepare its meetings.

The form and content of decisions

Decisions of the Conference of the Parties cover matters ranging from the date and venue of the next meeting to substantive issues such as the budget of the Convention, adoption of protocols and the establishment of major work programmes. Under Article 29, the Parties may even decide to amend the text of the Convention itself, although this has not yet happened.

Decisions vary greatly in their form and content. However, those concerning substantive issues generally contain some or all of the following:

  • Advice to Parties, including:
    • General advice concerning national policies and activities,o
    • Advice concerning the Convention processes, such as submission of case studies to the Secretariat, sharing of experiences through the clearing-house mechanism, the form, content and submission date of national reports,o
  • Instructions to the Secretariat concerning implementation of the decision, including mechanisms for reporting back to the Conference of the Parties,
  • Instructions to, and requests for advice from, the Subsidiary Body on Scientific, Technical and Technological Advice,
  • Responses to recommendations received from SBSTTA, including noting and full or partial endorsement,
  • Establishment of and terms of reference for various other intersessional bodies and activities, including liaison groups, expert groups and working groups,
  • Advice to the institution operating the financial mechanism,
  • Decisions on the relationship between the Convention and other relevant processes, including transmission of statements from the Conference of the Parties to other processes.

Detailed work programmes, sets of guiding principles and statements for transmission to other processes are generally placed in annexes to the decision.

At its fifth meeting, the Conference of the Parties decided to try to standardise its decisions, by ensuring that as far as possible they identify expected outcomes, activities to achieve those outcomes, those to whom the decisions are directed and timetables for action and follow-up. Previous decisions are to be reviewed periodically to assess their implementation.

The ecosystem approach

The Conference of the Parties decided early on the ecosystem approach should be the primary framework of action to be taken under the Convention. The Convention defines an ecosystem as “a dynamic complex of plant, animal and micro-organism communities and their non-living environment interacting as a functional unit”.

In deliberations on the ecosystem approach, it has become apparent that there are different interpretations of what the term might actually mean in practice. In order to help try to resolve this, a workshop was held in Malawi in 1998. At its fourth meeting, the Conference of the Parties noted the results of the workshop, which included a set of guidelines, and asked SBSTTA to develop the guidelines further. The resulting document contained a description of the ecosystem approach and a set of twelve guiding principles in its application, together with five points of operational guidance. At its fifth meeting, the Conference of the Parties endorsed the description of the ecosystem approach and the points of operational guidance, and recommended application of the principles as reflecting the present level of common understanding. It also encouraged further conceptual elaboration and practical verification.

Table 3.4 The ecosystem approach (decision V/6)
Guiding principles The following 12 principles are complementary and interlinked:
Principle 1 The objectives of management of land, water and living resources are a matter of societal choice.
Principle 2 Management should be decentralized to the lowest appropriate level.
Principle 3 Ecosystem managers should consider the effects (actual or potential) of their activities on adjacent and other ecosystems.
Principle 4 Recognizing potential gains from management, there is usually a need to understand and manage the ecosystem in an economic context. Any such ecosystem-management programme should:
  1. Reduce those market distortions that adversely affect biological diversity;
  2. Align incentives to promote biodiversity conservation and sustainable use;
  3. Internalize costs and benefits in the given ecosystem to the extent feasible.
Principle 5 Conservation of ecosystem structure and functioning, in order to maintain ecosystem services, should be a priority target of the ecosystem approach.
Principle 6 Ecosystems must be managed within the limits of their functioning.
Principle 7 The ecosystem approach should be undertaken at the appropriate spatial and temporal scales.
Principle 8 Recognizing the varying temporal scales and lag-effects that characterize ecosystem processes, objectives for ecosystem management should be set for the long term.
Principle 9 Management must recognize that change is inevitable.
Principle 10 The ecosystem approach should seek the appropriate balance between, and integration of, conservation and use of biological diversity.
Principle 11 The ecosystem approach should consider all forms of relevant information, including scientific and indigenous and local knowledge, innovations and practices.
Principle 12 The ecosystem approach should involve all relevant sectors of society and scientific disciplines.
Operational guidance In applying the 12 principles of the ecosystem approach, the following five points are proposed as operational guidance:
  • Focus on the functional relationships and processes within ecosystems.
  • Enhance benefit-sharing.
  • Use adaptive management practices.
  • Carry out management actions at the scale appropriate for the issue being addressed, with decentralization to lowest level, as appropriate.
  • Ensure intersectoral cooperation.

The description of the ecosystem approach stresses that, as defined under the Convention, an ecosystem can be a functional unit at any spatial scale. It also observes that humans are an integral part of many ecosystems, and notes that, because of the often unpredictable nature of ecosystem responses and our incomplete understanding of ecosystem functioning, application of the ecosystem approach will require adaptive management techniques. It further states that the ecosystem approach does not preclude other management and conservation approaches, such as protected areas and single-species conservation programmes, but could rather integrate all these approaches to deal with complex situations.

The Conference of the Parties has asked Parties to strengthen regional, national and local capacities on the ecosystem approach by identifying case studies, by implementing pilot projects and by organizing workshops and consultations to enhance awareness and share experiences. It has asked the Secretariat to collect, analyse and compare case studies and to prepare a synthesis of experiences and lessons learned.

1 Further information on the conduct of meetings is contained in the Annex to this chapter. Full information on the decisions adopted by the Conference of the Parties can be found in the Handbook of the Convention on Biological Diversity