The battles of Johannesburg

Published : Sep 14, 2002 00:00 IST

The World Summit for Sustainable Development in Johannesburg falls short of its aims and objectives.

"WE are fighting a global apartheid of the rich against the poor in dealing with sustainable development," said South African President Thabo Mbeki at the end of the two-week-long World Summit for Sustainable Development (WSSD) in Johannesburg.

The summit came ten years after the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro, which put environment and development high on the global agenda, and after four preparatory committee meetings. Attended by over 180 nations, the summit put on the negotiating table the most contentious 23 per cent of the draft Plan of Action, which was in brackets. As part of his bid to make the Summit a success, Mbeki, the host, whose country went unrepresented in Rio for political reasons, set up the Friends of the Chair with 25 countries to find some common ground before the Summit. The Summit was also advanced by two days in a last-ditch attempt to help officials thrash out the differences.

United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan brought into focus five priority areas - water and sanitation, energy, health, agriculture, and biodiversity and ecosystem management (popularly called WEHAB). The stakeholders' discussions were held among nine major groups - women, indigenous people, non-governmental organisations, farmers, children and youth, business and industry, workers and trade unions, local authorities, and scientific and technological communities - identified by Agenda 21, and 16 caucuses formed across these groups.

But all this did not help, and Johannesburg became a battleground as countries and participants slugged it out on such crucial issues as "targets and time-frames", "common but differentiated responsibilities", "new and additional finance", "good governance", "corporate responsibility" and trade and globalisation. Diluting government promises and empowering global businesses to protect the earth from degradation and, in the process, undermining the problems faced by millions of poor people whom the WSSD promised to protect, the Summit came out with a highly compromised Plan of Action, a largely rhetorical Political Declaration and a non-binding Type-II partnership between businesses, NGOs and governments.

According to Shiney Varghese, co-chair of the Fresh Water Caucus, the watered-down Action Plan - which came after several "walk-outs" by governments, boycotts by NGOs, heated arguments among delegates and over 1,000 negotiation sessions in small, medium and large groups that worked round the clock on most of the 12 days of the Summit - "commits no one to anything, is full of partnership language undermining the multilateral process, thereby providing a handle to the big global corporations to manipulate and exploit global resources".

But Kofi Annan, perhaps with little choice as the official organiser of the event, preferred to be optimistic, and said governments, businesses and civil society groups had agreed on "an impressive range of concrete commitments and actions that will make a real difference for people in all regions of the world". However, he cautioned against expecting such conferences to bring about miracles.

Even if it did not hope to work miracles, the Summit tried to bring into its fold all binding conventions and agreements signed by governments till now and all the issues ranging from the local to the international. But it ended up echoing the two-point agenda of the United States: of rolling back what was agreed upon at Rio, and pushing non-binding private partnerships under Type-II initiatives. Although the term "partnerships" was mentioned in the draft of the Plan of Action, it assumed importance only after the third preparatory committee meeting, with the U.S. giving it a big push. This, according to NGOs, was done primarily so that governments could disown responsibility, and to show some results at the Summit which, otherwise, turned out to be a damp squib.

To make business and trade the driving force of sustainable development, several Type-II partnerships were announced at the WSSD. These initiatives, criticised widely as a regressive outcome, fall outside the binding commitments of the U.N., and dilute the process of multilateral agreements which were central to the Rio Conference. An observer said: "This makes the hijacking of the sustainable development agenda process by the global business community complete."

According to the Heinrich Boll Foundation's "Joburg Memo" (acknowledged by the U.N. as one of the best documents presented at the Summit), the process of implementing Agenda 21 had begun two years after Rio, where governments had taken on the mantle of the saviours of the earth. When they reconvened in Marrakesh, Morocco, at the conclusion of the Uruguay Round of General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), they had come as vendors of the earth. With the establishment of the World Trade Organisation in 1995, the environmental and developmental agenda became subservient to trade and business.

If Rio was concerned about the protection and prudent use of natural resources, Marrakesh concerned itself with giving corporations unconditional access to natural resources. If Rio promoted the authority of governments to implement rules in favour of the public good, Marrakesh weakened the regulatory powers of governments in favour of free corporate mobility. If Rio was good on rhetoric, Marrakesh was fast on implementation. This change in priorities not only put the brakes on any serious progress post-Rio, but also reversed the process in many a case. Johannesburg saw the sustainable development agenda being given away to global corporations on a platter. Developing countries became a voice in the wilderness with even the Group of 77 (G-77) and China - which were vocal and effective in Rio - being pushed to the sidelines. India's presence was also low-key, especially in the absence of Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee. Environment and Forest Minister T.R. Baalu led India's negotiators until August 31; External Affairs Minister Yashwant Sinha came on Vajpayee's behalf on September 1.

The WSSD has clearly shown the developed countries' way of achieving sustainable development: through world market integration by discarding all promises made at Rio, and even the pretence at Doha (where the fourth ministerial meeting of the WTO was held in November 2001) of "upholding and safeguarding an open and non-discriminatory multilateral system...", and Monterrey (the venue of the International Conference on Financing for Development in March 2002) where developed countries committed themselves to additional resources. But all this is now history. At Johannesburg, the developed countries were negotiating on almost everything agreed at and since Rio - from the principles to the commitment on additional resources.

"The WSSD has been set up more like Doha plus ten months instead of Rio plus ten years," said Anuradha Mittal, co-director of the Institute of Food and Development Policy, also known as Food First, a U.S.-based food policy think-tank. "The original purpose of this summit has been hijacked by corporate interests. Some of the most environmentally destructive corporations have emerged as partners of the U.N., and are permitted to operate without binding rules or regulations to curtail their destructive habits," she said.

The way in which the WSSD was moving was clear from the emphasis given to Type-II initiatives - the non-binding, loosely defined partnership initiatives to promote sustainable development. This was stressed even by Kofi Annan on the Business Day event: "Ten years ago, at the Rio Earth Summit, the role of business in sustainable development was poorly understood. Much has changed in the decade since. Today, there is growing recognition that lasting and effective answers can only be found if business is fully engaged. And more and more we realise that it is only by mobilising the corporate sector that we can make significant progress."

After intense ministerial negotiations for nine days (from August 24 to September 1), several contentious issues such as "trade and finance", "globalisation", "good governance", "trade distorting subsidies", "targets and time-frames" and "common but differentiated responsibility", were, in U.N. parlance, "kicked up" - that is, left to the political leaders to decide on.

The Summit was also used by various countries to settle scores. For instance, between the U.S. and Iraq, between Israel and Palestine, and the U.K. and Zimbabwe.

But the 103 heads of state who discussed the remaining text to arrive at a common Political Declaration - another Type-I outcome of the WSSD - apart from the Plan of Action, further watered down the text, making it a much-compromised document, too vague to pin down anyone to anything. The take-over by global corporations was complete, undermining multilateralism and throwing to the winds the lives and livelihoods of billions of poor people around the world who had pinned their hopes on the WSSD.

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