Issue of July, 28, 2002
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Credit:
Report
Rio+10 in a State of Emergency
By Haider Rizvi

The United Nations and the South African government are leading a final attempt to resuscitate the World Summit on Sustainable Development, which gets underway in Johannesburg in less than a month.

UNITED NATIONS, (Tierramérica).- United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan and South Africa's President Thabo Mbeki presided in New York over an informal, closed-door meeting aimed at harmonizing the positions of the industrialized North and developing South about aid for development, fighting poverty and protecting the environment.

These are the essential issues of the Plan of Action of the Rio+10 conference, as the World Summit on Sustainable Development is known, to take place in Johannesburg Aug 26-Sep 4, a decade after the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro.

"Negotiations on several critical issues have reached an impasse," admitted Annan in addressing an informal meeting of environment and finance ministers from 27 countries, called "Friends of the Chair", which included representatives of the United States, the European Union, and the Group of 77 developing countries plus China.

Latin America was represented by delegations from Argentina, Brazil, Mexico and Venezuela.

With the failure of the last official meeting -- which concluded last month in Indonesia without producing any major agreements -- all the zeal and enthusiasm that many stakeholders had so strongly expressed during the early preparatory meetings have suddenly disappeared.

The "Friends," warned by Annan that a "setback now would be a tragic missed opportunity," continued their discussions all day long on July 17, but left the UN headquarters without reaching any consensus on the "bracketed", or outstanding issues.

The next day, South Africa, the Rio+10 host country, issued a statement claiming that the discussion at the meeting was "characterized by a constructive attitude and flexibility in finding consensus on the outstanding differences." However, the statement failed to explain why South Africa’s representatives did not show up at a scheduled news conference for a briefing on the results of the discussions.

However, sources at the UN and some delegates assured that the discrepancies had been notably reduced and that while a new draft text had not been negotiated there is agreement on 75 percent of the existing document. It is now up to South Africa to translate this rapprochement into the document that will be considered by all members of the global forum in Johannesburg.

But there is a long way to go to achieve consensus on a development model that preserves the environment and reduces poverty and hunger worldwide.

The points yet to be negotiated include fundamental aspects like adopting specific goals for development and deadlines for achieving them, and the origin of the resources to finance necessary programs.

According to the summit's secretary general, Nitin Desai, the biggest challenge will be to convince the world that the major international conferences can make a difference.

South Africa's foreign minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma visited Washington to try to persuade U.S. President George. W. Bush to attend the Summit. Some 100 heads of state are expected to take part in the event, including President Jacques Chirac of France, Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder of Germany and British Prime Minister Tony Blair. But observers say efforts to convince Bush were futile.

According to environmental watchdog Greenpeace International, governments, led by the United States, Australia and Canada, are "working overtime" to ensure that the summit does not adopt any real commitments on essential matters like water, energy, health, agriculture and biodiversity.

The environmental organizations World Wildlife Fund and Friends of the Earth urged Annan to exercise all possible influence to save the Rio+10 summit.

The United States and some other industrialized countries remain unwilling to make any new promises in Johannesburg. In other words, the differences over critical issues involving finance, globalization, trade, and good governance continue unbendingly along the North-South divide.

Many developing countries, including South Africa, want participants in the Summit to make time-bound commitments for action on development and environment, having learned their lesson at the 1992 Earth Summit, where many countries made promises only to break them later.

Opposing moves to negotiate new goals, the United States now insists that aid to developing countries be linked to their progress in good governance. But Washington refuses to accept demands for legal accountability for multinational corporations operating in those countries.

The reluctance to make any commitment to a progressive environmental agenda is also reflected in the Bush administration’s withdrawal from the Kyoto Protocol, the only international legal instrument for fighting climate change. The United States produces a quarter of all greenhouse gases, which contribute to global warming.

"The Bush administration has consistently blocked attempts to protect the global environment… and is promoting plans that benefit large corporations rather than the billions of citizens who have to deal with environmental crises, like dirty water and air, and global climate change," says Michael Dorothy, director of Sierra Club, the oldest environmental group in the United States.

But voices like Dorothy’s have yet to be heard within the United States, where the mainstream commercial media have completely ignored the issues of sustainable development and the ongoing debate on the agenda of Johannesburg Summit.

* Haider Rizvi is an IPS correspondent.

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