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World Leaders Debate Environment and Economics at Largest UN Summit Ever Held

by Adalila Zelada Sunday, Aug. 25, 2002 at 5:53 PM

World leaders, activists, and business elite gather in Johannesburg to decide the fate of the planet in what is shaping up to be merely another clash between globolizatiion proponents who want to impose free markets and privatization as the path to sustainable development, versus environmental and social justice activists who say the neoliberal model is inherently unsustainable.


August 25, 2002

By Adalila Zelada

JOHANNESBURG, S.A. - More than 100 of the world’s presidents and heads of state will descend on South Africa in the coming days to assess the economic and environmental fate of the planet. In what promises to be the biggest United Nations conference ever, the World Summit on Sustainable Development will take place from August 26 to September 5, 2002 in Johannesburg. Many European nations, Japan, and other countries are sending their highest leader. United States President George W. Bush, however, has given no indication that he will attend.

Dubbed “Rio + 10,” the World Summit is a follow-up to the Earth Summit which took place in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. That conference produced various documents, including an 800-page tome known as Agenda 21, a blueprint of specific actions for countries to achieve sustainable development, that is, to make their economies grow while avoiding destruction of environmental resources needed to sustain future generations. The 1992 Summit also produced major treaties on climate change and protection of biodiversity.

Ten years later, the commitments made at Rio’s Earth Summit have gone largely unfulfilled while the global environment is in even worse shape. And in the eyes of anti-globalization activists, the Johannesburg Summit will similarly lead to failure if the pro-corporate globalization forces allied with the Bush Administration have their way.

Critics contend that the World Summit will be the latest clash in the spirit of international meetings at Seattle, then Doha, where environmental and social justice activists protested elite negotiations behind closed doors that they say lead to further social and environmental deterioration. While the World Summit allows for participation from civil society – most notably through a special “Civil Society Global Peoples’ Forum” as part of the Summit’s activities – critics are objecting to the manner in which the official Summit appears already to have been hijacked by corporate interests that favor neo-liberal economic policies as the cure-all for the planet’s woes. According to the International Forum on Globalization, a San Francisco-based think tank, “[g]lobalization, trade and investment designs and structures reinforce a model of development – centered on free trade, hyper economic growth, and export-oriented production – which is inherently unsustainable in ecological and social terms.”

Amid the array of music played last night at the opening ceremony for the Global Forum, renowned physicist and international activist Vandana Shiva denounced the attempted corporate take-over of the summit, just before sharing the podium with South African President Thabo Mbeki who addressed the audience of approximately 2,000 mostly young South Africans.

The U.S. and others, however, including leadership within the U.N., are reflecting the business community’s insistence that free-market models are imperative to sustainable development. U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, speaking at the London School of Economics and Political Science declared that “[I]ndeed the poor are enormous, untapped reservoirs of initiative and entrepreneurship, but their energies are often held in check by poverty, misrule or conflict. They would be the first to say that trade, not aid, is the path out of poverty.”

The World Summit will produce two main documents, a Johannesburg Declaration and a Plan of Implementation on issues ranging from poverty, water, energy and forests to global warming, trade and AIDS in Africa. Key provisions of the draft Plan of Implementation remain in dispute, particularly the role of trade, setting targets and timetables for concrete action, the role of the precautionary principle and the polluter pays principle, as well as the proposition that countries have “common but differentiated responsibilities”--meaning that rich nations have the duty to take the lead in cleaning up the planet’s pollution and in helping poor countries develop sustainably.

While the U.S. delegation has been aggressively pushing for an unrestricted role for trade and the private sector, it has thus far objected to any mention of these other provisions. It has even abandoned commitments the U.S. made at Rio, such as approval of the precautionary principle. That principle, widely adopted in international law, is a better-safe-than-sorry rule to guide governments in protecting health and the environment: products may be banned if they threaten great risks, even if scientific certainty of the risk is lacking. John D. Graham, a White House official, recently called the precautionary principle “a mythical concept, perhaps like a unicorn.”
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