A Summit That Failed

An IDC Report


New Delhi, 06 September 2002

The ineffectiveness of the UNO can be judged by the poor media coverage received by one of its major undertakings, the World Summit on Sustainable Development, which opened in Johannesburg, South Africa on 26 Aug. Over 4,000 delegates discussed five key areas for 10 days,: including water, energy, health, agriculture and biodiversity, aimed at drafting a plan to turn promises made at the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio into reality. President Thabo Mbeki of South Africa in his inaugural address termed, "the global human society... characterised by islands of wealth, surrounded by a sea of poverty, unsustainable" and called for greater solidarity with the world's poor.

That is what the UN has been reduced to 末 an organization of world痴 poor nations to which the rich give attention on a need to basis besides of course, just paying lip service.

No formal treaties were to be signed at the summit. But the final declaration 末 to be signed by heads of state who arrived later at the summit climax 末 was hoped to be "credible and meaningful". 

More than 100 heads of state including the leaders of Britain, France and Germany were to attend the summit, but only about 60 turned up. The president of the USA 末 the world's largest economy and biggest polluter 末 declined to be there. Right from the start, more disdain than hope prevailed over the wide-ranging discussions. Most of it was due to the intransigence of USA who, it was felt, wanted a weak agreement, or none at all, so as to leave it free to act as it will. Among the thousands of anti-globalization marchers who regularly demonstrated outside the venue, several carried hand-written signs criticizing Bush's absence. Delegates from the Sierra Club, a conservation group, noted it by placing an empty chair and a pair of shoes at one of the meeting venues.

Talks continued through the weekend and to the relief of most representatives, most agreements could be reached on 02 & 03 Sep and the final plan of action got ready by 4 Sep, for the summit to end on due date. The conference had a twin-track programme, running environmental issues, of more concern to the industrialised world, in tandem with development themes of greater interest to poor countries. A review of the decade (since 1992) showed there were as many, or perhaps even more people below subsistence level as in 1992, when the last earth summit was held in Rio.

All the same, negotiators felt a bit upbeat on 02 Sep after reaching deals on climate change and trade, as heads of state began arriving to discuss poverty and the environment. One contentious issue was resolved late 31 Aug, when negotiators settled on wording to address the Kyoto Protocol on climate change, which the United States, under President Bush, has refused to sign. Environmentalists also welcomed the wording, though they tempered their enthusiasm. Steve Sawyer, climate director for Greenpeace, called it "a tremendous achievement in this process because basically it doesn't go backward."

To appear more reasonable than Bush and underscore Washington痴 isolation, Russian President Putin announced on 03 Sep that Russia would sign the Kyoto Protocol and so did China. Compromises were also reached on trade that largely stuck to language agreed to at a World Trade Organization meeting in Doha, Qatar. They included a reaffirmation of commitments to hold negotiations concerning phasing out agricultural and other trade-distorting subsidies. The last outstanding issue was resolved late 02 Sep when negotiators agreed to delete language giving the WTO precedence over multilateral environment agreements. Developing nations sided with the United States against setting targets on renewable energy sources, while the EU and other countries pushed for a commitment to halve the number of people without access to sanitation by 2015.

By week痴 end, the Delegates had agreed on more than 95 percent of the nearly 70-page plan, though a few tough issues remained. Negotiators met behind closed doors and worked late into the night, to settle remaining differences over energy and sanitation. The breakthrough came after diplomats again worked late into the night on 03 Sep to resolve a dispute over language in the conference's plan on health care for women. Finally, they arrived at a plan early 04 Sep that is intended to reduce poverty and preserve the earth's natural resources.

The plan is meant to set the global agenda for the coming years. It calls on nations to reduce by half the number of poor people who lack sanitation by 2015; to commit to the sound management of chemicals with the goal of minimizing their adverse effects on health and nature by 2020; and to reduce significantly by 2010 the number of animals and plants having endangered status. Fishing in areas where stocks are depleted will also stop until renewed. In the end, the nations agreed to promote an increase in renewable energy, but rejected the specific target and time frame (15% by 2010).

The plan calls for the reduction of agricultural subsidies in wealthy countries, which, poor nations say, protect farmers in the United States and Europe from competition. It also urges nations to promote renewable energy sources like solar and wind power as well as to expand access to energy services by the poor. Officials from the United States and the United Nations praised the document, but it was sharply assailed by environmentalists and advocates for the poor, who complained that wealthy countries had weakened the language.

The secretary general of the conference, Nitin Desai, emphasized that leaders had succeeded in finding common ground in difficult discussions. But he, too, acknowledged that the plan was weaker than many hoped. "In some areas," he said, "I wish we could have done more."

"If you were taking score," said the spokesman for the National Environmental Trust, an advocacy organization headquartered in Washington, "you'd have to say the US just got everything they wanted. The environmental lobby is extremely disappointed. The Bush administration won this ballgame 44-0."

US Delegates, however, defended their actions, saying that targets and timetables are meaningless without devising strategies to carry out plans, particularly for poor countries that often lack the infrastructure and resources to comply. What came out loud and clear was the fact, howsoever unpalatable, that no summit can achieve the desired results without the consent and approval of the sole super power!

Yet, the last word still remained with those representing the majority as Mr Powell, US Secretary of State whilst addressing the closing session of the summit, was jeered when he criticised Zimbabwe and talked of action the US was taking to meet environmental changes. When he criticised Zambia 末 also facing a food crisis 末 for rejecting genetically modified corn that Americans eat every day, demonstrators shouted "shame on Bush" and some unfurled a banner reading, "Betrayed by Governments". Several of the two dozen protesters, many of them Americans, were escorted from the hall so that he could resume his 10 minute address.

International aid agency Oxfam summed up in branding the whole deal on the table as offering only "crumbs for the poor", and called the agreement, "a triumph for greed and self-interest, a tragedy for poor people and the environment".

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