WSSD: dialogue of the deaf

The needs of many were once again compromised to accommodate the demands of a powerful few. Given the alarming tilt towards self-interest and unilateralism by the rich, will the concerns of poor countries ever be addressed in global negotiations?

Battle of the brackets
World's biggest trade fair
"Let's put our cards on the table"

By Richard Mahapatra, Clifford Polycarp, Anju Sharma
Published: Monday 30 September 2002

WSSD: dialogue of the deaf

-- (Credit: FOE)
The World Summit on Sustainable Development (wssd) failed Thobeka Fani, 24, resident of Alexandra, a poor suburb just nine kilometres from Sandton, the upmarket venue of wssd. Some 21,000 delegates, including 104 heads of state and governments, gathered between August 26 to September 4 to bridge the gap between the world's poor and the rich -- metaphorically the distance between Fani's Alexandra and the summiteers' Sandton. At the end of the summit, the distance seems impossibly intractable.

"I expect many things from the world leaders which can help me live a quality life with good health and a job," Fani said, three days before the summit ended. After 11 days of hard negotiations, world leaders did not have much to help Fani realise his cherished good life. Like Fani, one-fifth of the world's population that sustain themselves with less than a dollar a day would find the summit a wasted opportunity.

Unlike the 1992 un Conference on Environment and Development (unced) in Rio de Janeiro, no road map for sustainable development -- like Agenda 21, or global conventions like the Framework Convention on Climate Change -- was to come out of wssd. Instead, this was meant to be a conference of action, a summit that set deadlines and came out with a Plan of Implementation for the promises made at Rio. The Plan that finally emerged, however, is no more than a series of vague expressions of intent (see box: Highlights ).

Few concrete deadlines were agreed: to halve the number of the world's poor living on less than a dollar a day by 2015 and significantly improve the lives of at least 100 million slum dwellers by 2020; to halve the number of people living without access to clean drinking water and decent sanitation by 2015; and, to restore the depleted fish stock in the world's oceans by 2015. Targets for renewable energy were rejected -- there was only a commitment to 'substantially increase' the global share of renewable energy. The plan calls for 'a significant reduction' in the planet's loss of biodiversity by 2010. However, there was no breakthrough in highly contentious issues such as opening the markets of industrialised countries to products from the developing world and removing Northern agricultural subsidies that work against farmers in the South.

A political declaration circulated by host South Africa was almost dumped at the last moment when the us wanted to include terrorism as a threat to sustainable development. The Palestinian government, meanwhile, wanted foreign occupation listed as an obstacle to sustainable development. Consensus was reached only after separate paragraphs on these two issues were added. The final Johannesburg Declaration on Sustainable Development is mild, recognising that poverty eradication and changing consumption and production patterns as prerequisites for sustainable development, and the ever-increasing gap between the rich and poor as a major threat to global prosperity, security and stability.

The declaration also underlines the importance of multilateralism in solving global problems, the future of which seemed particularly threatened at wssd. The us, in particular, opposed any firm commitments or deadlines, and made it clear it was not interested in the multilateral wssd process. "The wssd is focusing more on text, more than 35,000 words. These words can't save the Earth," Paula Dobriansky, head of the us delegation, told a press conference midway through the negotiations. Instead, the us tried to shift focus to voluntary 'Type ii' agreements -- partnerships between governments, regional groups, local authorities, non-governmental actors, international institutions or private sector actors. "We need actions," Dobriansky told the media. "That is why we have come to Johannesburg with practical partnerships."

Through the partnerships, she declared, the us had become "the world leader in sustainable development". Far from it, the emphasis on partnerships only reflects usa's allergy to multilateralism in any form. As a us senator was quoted in one of the newsletters circulated in the summit, "The country sees any multilateral process -- be it on arms control or the International Criminal Court -- as obstacles in the way of the world's richest superpower."

The European Union (eu), egged on by France in particular, stalled any progress in the removal of domestic agricultural subsidies that work to the detriment of Southern farmers. Meanwhile, the G77 was as unprepared as ever, and was left either presenting proposals for half-baked ideas like the World Solidarity Fund which will serve more as a begging bowl than a solution for poverty, or defending principles that had already been agreed to at Rio, but were raked up again by industrialised countries. Rifts within the G77 were apparent. While most of the G77 gave in to the demands of its opec (Organisation of the Petroleum Exporting Countries) members and opposed the target on renewable energy, for instance, Brazil came out in strong support for such a target, proposing an even stronger deadline than the eu.

Despite the lack of progress, there was very little pressure from civil society on governments to perform at Johannesburg. This was partly because civil society participants were scattered in several venues around Johannesburg. For instance, Nasrec, the venue allotted to non-government organisations (ngos), was at least 45 minutes away from Sandton. The only collective show of civil society displeasure at the proceedings in Sandton, other than speeches at side events, came when us Secretary of State Colin Powell addressed the plenary. His remarks were greeted with shouts of "Shame on Bush" and with booing. Several of these protesters were arrested by un security.

The meeting was unable to achieve much progress (other than agree on a completely sterile plan and declaration) despite some changes in the usual un format of conferences, and the adoption of certain techniques, which worked to break a deadlock in the negotiations for a protocol on biosafety. According to Mostafa Tolba, former executive director of the United Nations Environment Programme (unep), this was done to provide a more informal setting so that governments do not make formal declarations of their positions that they later find hard to change. The negotiations then followed the 'Vienna setting' borrowed from the biosafety negotiations -- instead of all countries participating in the negotiations and leading to a deadlock, spokespersons were chosen to represent the key positions. The 'Johannesburg setting' was the same as the Vienna setting, except that it was at the ministerial level.

For many who have been slowly getting disillusioned with the ability of the un process to promote global understanding and cooperation on environmental issues, the failure of wssd only highlighted the problem. As Hugo Chavez, president of Venezuela and leader of the G77 group of developing countries, said, " un summits have become an illogical and predetermined dialogue of the deaf in which political leaders of the world have no real impact on the final outcome of major conferences." Added Zimbabwe president Robert Mugabe, "The focus is profit, not the poor; the process is globalisation, not sustainable development; while the objective is exploitation, not liberation."

But for all its faults, the un is probably the one institution that gives less powerful countries the hope that their concerns will receive a fair hearing in a multilateral forum. Multilateralism cannot be written off, much as the us would like to see that happen. Instead, countries will have to put their heads together to find a way out of the current deadlock and to prevent events such as the wssd to become disasters.

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