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Time to Look for Another Planet

By Haider Rizvi*

NGOs complain that there were more setbacks than progress at the third preparatory meeting for the Rio+10 Summit, which concluded last week in New York.

UNITED NATIONS - The air in the conference rooms, corridors, and cafes was thick with anger and frustration for those representing civil society at the third preparatory meeting for the World Summit on Sustainable Development, which wrapped up Apr 5 in New York.

The delegates from non-governmental organizations (NGOs) charged that there were more setbacks than advances at "PrepCom III" on the way to the Aug 26-Sep 4 summit in Johannesburg, South Africa.

During the opening session of the meeting last week, Emil Salim, chairman of the Preparatory Committee, said he hoped the summit would go beyond words and rhetoric towards the action required to achieve specific goals in sustainable development. "I sense there is a new mood for optimism," he said.

But activists, who have been campaigning for years for solid and meaningful global action on sustainable development, say they, too, had similar expectations in the beginning, but now are finding themselves on the sidelines of the debate on the agenda for the Johannesburg conference, a 10-year follow-up to the 1992 Rio Earth Summit.

"Every one expected to finalize a progressive document that would not only be about how we should properly implement Agenda 21 (the global action plan for integrating environment and development in the 21st century economy), but would also be a visionary document for the future," Marcelo Furtado of Greenpeace International, told Tierramérica.

"It turns out we are not getting either of these issues," he said.

Most of the current two-week meeting took place behind closed doors in three working groups focused on various parts of the "Chairman’s Paper," an unofficial document on the Summit’s agenda issued at the end of the PrepCom II in February.

The paper focuses on poverty reduction, changing unsustainable patterns of production and consumption, and protecting and managing natural resources, among other issues.

Salim issued another document last week that follows the structure of the Chairman’s Paper and includes a variety of demands set out by different governments.

Activists say it offers nothing more than a mound of fragmented notes that reflect no serious effort to bridge the ever-widening divide between the industrialized North and the developing South.

"It has become a shopping list where each and every interested government has proposed its own version to the point, to the extent that sometimes we are getting six or seven different versions of a paragraph," says Yin Shao Loong of the Third World Network.

"It is indicative of a crisis in conceptualizing what is needed to bring sustainable development now. (There is no effort) to reconcile the inequalities between North and South," he said.

Loong and other activists believe some countries constantly trying to disengage from the debate on multilateral environmental agreements.

"The United States does not want to talk about international relationships, at least within this forum," said Loong. "They are purposely just talking about national implementation issues. But if we are going to talk about sustainable development in terms of the global ecosystem, that is clearly not sufficient. We have got to talk internationally."

Activists say their experience at PrepCom III is not much different from what they went through during PrepCom II (Jan-Feb 2002, New York), as far as the governments' response to their demand for linking corporate accountability with sustainable development.

"To our surprise, the language that has been proposed by countries like the United States, Japan, Canada, Australia and the entire European Union is terrible," said Furtado.

"The European Union’s proposed text doesn't even have the word 'accountability' in it. The proposals that we are seeing link corporate responsibility to voluntary agreements and I don't think voluntary agreements will do the job. We have cases of corporate environmental disaster in Brazil, India, and South Africa. Where is Union Carbide? Where is Dow Chemicals? Nowhere."

But corporate accountability is not the only issue on which the NGOs are dissatisfied in the preparatory process for the Johannesburg Summit.

"The military is the most destructive and costly of all social sectors and the worst polluter worldwide," said Pauline Cantwell of the Peace Caucus. "It is essential that the Rio+10 Summit identify it as a critical issue."

Activists say that voices like Cantwell's have been completely ignored. Currently, the world spends about 780 billion dollars on military every year, whereas it contributes only 56 billion to development.

Loong claimed that the UN Commission on Sustainable Development was quick to include the private sector's proposals in the Chairman's Paper, but chose to ignore various NGOs' recommendations.

Greenpeace's Furtado agreed. "The agenda is going backwards, here, not forward," he said, referring to predominance of global business interests over environmental concerns.

"The leadership of countries like the United States, Canada, Australia and Japan are calling for undoing Agenda 21, because they feel it is not compatible with the World Trade Organization (WTO)."

Though mindful of the long shadow of the WTO’s November 2001 ministerial conference, the Doha Summit, on the talks for the Summit on Sustainable Development, Loong is not convinced that Doha’s outcome has the capacity to sustain what he described as "the economic side of things."

He and Furtado point out that an overemphasis on economic globalization as a tool for development is not something that could lead to sustainable development.

"If what we have at hand here (PrepCom III) is a good example of what kind of document will be discussed in Johannesburg, we probably don’t need a summit," Furtado said.

"If this is what we are going to show to the world as the outcome of international community meetings since Rio (1992 Earth Summit), we are actually telling the world to look for another planet, because there is no government that is making this planet a better place for anyone."

* Haider Rivzi is an IPS correspondent.

Copyright © 2001 Tierramérica. Todos los Derechos Reservados

"When the World Rests on Your Shoulders", by British artist John Holcroft, 2000. Credit: Photo Stock

External Links

World Summit on Sustainable Development - Johannesburg

PrepCom III, March-April 2002

PrepCom II, January-February 2002

Chairman’s Paper

Commission on Sustainable Development (monitors compliance with 1992 Rio Summit accords)

Agenda 21

Greenpeace: Earth Summit 2002

Third World Network

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