High hoopla

The meet on the sustainable development of the world's small island states turned out to be a fiasco

Last Updated: Saturday 04 July 2015

-- (Credit: Emkay)With each mega event held, it appears the collective will of the international community to address sustainable development issues is waning. The recent International Meeting to Review the Implementation of the Programme of Action for the Sustainable Development of Small Island Developing States (sids) is a case in point. The meeting's utter failure to come up with any meaningful goals or targets makes even the 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development--flop that it was--seem successful in comparison (see: Dialogue of the deaf, Down To Earth , September 30, 2002).

Their small size, limited resources, isolation and ecological fragility make sustainable development of the 51 small island states difficult. Compounding the problem is the threat from global warming and the consequent sealevel rise. These problems spurred the global community, in 1994, to adopt the Barbados Programme of Action (bpoa)--a blueprint for achieving sustainable development in sids .

As the delegates gathered January 10-14, 2005 in Port Louis, Mauritius, two issues stood out: climate change and trade. But because these issues are dealt with in other global forums, there was reluctance, particularly on the part of industrialised nations, to go beyond what had already been achieved, or not achieved, within these forums.

The meet was attended by 2,000 delegates, of whom 18 were presidents, vice-presidents or prime ministers and 60 were ministers. The rest were official country delegates, representatives of un agencies and intergovernmental and non-governmental organisations.

Climate change The climate change meet held in Buenos Aires in December 2004 (see: Undone, Down To Earth , January 15, 2005), where the us and Saudi Arabia were at loggerheads with the Alliance of Small Island States on several issues, was still fresh in the minds of delegates. And though this unholy alliance was not on blatant display at the sids meet, it was the last issue to be resolved after an all-night negotiating session that ended early on Thursday, the penultimate day of the conference. Later, Ludwig Scotty, the president of the tiny Pacific island of Nauru, remarked the industrialised and oil-producing countries were in a state of denial over changes to the climate being human-induced.

Tuvalu, another tiny pacific island with a population of about 10,000, reportedly waged a lone battle with the us over stronger action to curtail greenhouse gas (ghg) emissions. The sealevel rise caused by melting icecaps because of global warming threatens the very existence of several islands. The us, the leading ghg emitter which remains unwilling to commit to cut emissions under the Kyoto Protocol, was in no mood to compromise.

The meet's final outcome -- Mauritius Strategy for the Further Implementation of the Barbados Programme of Action for the Sustainable Development of Small Island Developing States -- says sids believe they are experiencing major adverse effects of climate change. Earlier, the us had objected to a reference in the strategy document linking the exacerbation of saline intrusion into freshwater resources to climate change, arguing it was the result of inadequate management. Convoluted compromise language of the strategy text states that both factors, amongst a host of others, "may" exacerbate saline intrusion.

A small victory claimed by a few is the acceptance of the need to promote the use of renewable energy as a priority. However, here too, the emphasis on renewables was diluted by the inclusion of advanced and cleaner fossil fuel technologies. And though it was accepted that adverse effects of climate change and sealevel rise "present significant risks" to sustainable development of sids, climate change was not even mentioned in the Mauritius Declaration, the political statement on the meet. This, despite it being there in the original draft, which was never made public and only circulated amongst the delegates.

Trade decline
sids' share of global trade has been declining. They also face an imminent threat to their economies -- often dependent on a few commodities -- from further trade liberalisation. As trade barriers are lowered, the preferential trade access sids have enjoyed with some developed country markets starts to erode. Initially, trade issues threatened to block progress at the meet, but by Tuesday, the second day of the meet, all of them were resolved, mainly because they had already been discussed at an informal January 8-9 session.

A quick agreement conceals the fact that the us and the eu appear to have steamrolled sids. Not only did they strongly oppose the text on trade, they even challenged the validity of a un process directing World Trade Organization (wto) negotiations. The eu in particular had challenged virtually every paragraph in the draft negotiating text made available prior to the start of the informal session. This resulted in a weak text on trade, merely recognising the difficulties sids face in integrating into the global economy because of their size and location. There was no commitment to any action and certainly no direction to wto.

Mauritian foreign minister Jaya Krishna Cuttaree had called for special treatment for sids. But even a modest demand for creating a special category for sids in wto, so they may enjoy special treatment like least-developed countries, could not be achieved. The extension of these preferences would have denied other developing countries access to the developed country markets. Therefore, industry representatives from Mauritius called for some form of compensatory mechanism from developed nations. But none of these ideas were included in the strategy document.

If sids can claim any gains, it is the call made in the Mauritius Declaration to the international institutions, including financial institutions, to pay "appropriate attention" to the particular needs and priorities of the small island states.

In the concluding session, Mauritian President Paul Raymond Berenger called the last 10 years "wasted" in terms of bpoa implementation. But the renewed commitment, needed to make up for lost time, was absent. The apparent satisfaction expressed by all sides may mislead one to believe that the meeting was a success. What most delegates seemed happy about was avoiding the debate becoming "sour and acrimonious" as Berenger put it.

The "success" of the meeting now depends on sincere implementation of bpoa commitments and the Mauritius Strategy. To ensure that, the secretary-general of the meeting, Anwarul Chowdhury, proposed a roadmap that serves as a guideline identifying several intergovernmental opportunities for sids to ensure the strategy is taken into account. He also called on the Commission on Sustainable Development, which meets in April, to identify ways of reviewing the strategy's implementation.

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