IN 1975, a coalition of Western and Eastern European countries signed the Helsinki Accords, which were broad agreements addressing the conduct of nations in economic, security, and human rights concerns. Many skeptics questioned how such nonbinding accords could be effective, especially regarding human rights, without close international monitoring.
My late colleague, US Rep. Millicent Fenwick (R) of New Jersey, had an answer: the Helsinki Commission. Her proposal for this joint legislative-executive branch organization has been one of this century's greatest success stories. For nearly 20 years, by monitoring compliance with the accords and helping to focus international diplomatic pressure on offending signatories, the Commission has kept the 1975 agreements intact.
This month we are celebrating the first anniversary of an equally historic conference: the Earth Summit last June in Rio de Janeiro. The United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) brought together 178 nations to discuss how to prevent the exponentially increasing demands of human population from destroying Earth's ability to sustain life. Sweeping agreements to promote sustainable development - integrating environmental protection with economic growth and equity for all nations and all people - were signed. These documents express great hope for the future of our planet. As in 1975, however, there is considerable skepticism as to the enforceability of the agreements.
I have introduced legislation to do for the Earth Summit what Ms. Fenwick did for the Helsinki Accords: establish a commission to monitor international compliance with and progress toward the development goals articulated by UNCED. The Rio Commission would address the threats to the global environment identified at UNCED, including global climate change, ocean pollution, deforestation, biodiversity loss, and persistent poverty. It would also provide non-governmental organizations, which played such a cri tical role at UNCED, with an official and ongoing forum in which to voice their concerns on environmental or human-rights abuses and to share their expertise regarding sustainable development.
The agreements produced at UNCED have the potential to change the course of history. However, the consequences of failing to enforce them are enormous. Every day that we delay, scarce natural resources disappear, the fragile ecosystems that sustain the earth are savaged, and the human suffering exacerbated by our neglect multiplies.
This must not be the legacy we leave to future generations. For most of my lifetime, the galvanizing principle for America was meeting the challenges of the cold war by opposing the forces of oppression and tyranny. Now, while the fight for human rights and freedom continues, the cold war is behind us. As we join people around the world in celebrating the demise of many totalitarian regimes, we must recognize that there are new and urgent challenges demanding our leadership - those of promoting sustainab le development and of ensuring that all people live in a healthy and sound environment.
International agreements mean nothing unless they are followed by concrete actions. The United States Congress and the American people realized this twenty years ago and fought to establish a body that would institutionalize our commitment to human rights. The question is, will we have the foresight to do the same for the global environment? The quality of life enjoyed by our children and grandchildren depends on our response.