A World Summit for Unsustainable Development



“How to Lose Friends and Manipulate People”

This should be the name of a new best-seller written by George Dubya (short for ‘Dubious’?) Bush. In Johannesburg, the US was not represented by its president who didn’t dare show his face but by his gopher, Colin Powell. Powell had to face the brunt of a series of anti-US anger and hostility that were openly displayed at the Summit. Many groups came out with flags, banners and slogans condemning US’s role in the world today. In his speech while he tried to defend US policies on environment he was heckled and constantly interrupted, when he criticised Zimbabwe’s land policies he was jeered and booed loudly and when he accused it of deliberately starving its people by turning down a US offer to sell them GM corn there was such vociferous protest from the audience that it was all the chairman of the meeting could do to keep control. Many environment groups even staged a walk out over US’s anti-environment stand. Even his promise that the US was committed not just to rhetoric but to a $1bn programme to develop and deploy advanced technologies to mitigate greenhouse-gas emissions was met with loud scepticism and disbelief.

In fact the reception that the US is getting in various world forums, the fact that it is less and less able to get away with its doublespeak and hypocrisy seems to be a growing trend. They ran away from the Durban Conference of Racial discrimination last year and before that they suffered tremendous loss of face when they were voted out of the UN Committee on Human Rights. More and more they face isolation because of their negative stand on the Kyoto Protocol where Bush made the totally unacceptable statement that “it will hurt the American economy” and “cost us jobs” and that he is charged with “safeguarding the welfare of American people and workers” so he cannot commit to an “unsound international treaty that will throw millions out of work”. In other words, the rest of the world – millions of men, women and children - has to go on paying so that the ‘American Way of Life’ can be maintained!

Apart from this, the US’s decision to withdraw from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in pursuit of its totally selfish missile defence, its opposition to the international effort to place a ban on the use of land mines, the manner in which it has scuttled the Precautionary Principle of WTO, the Biosafety Protocol, the Basel Convention on the Transboundary Movement of Hazardous Waste, the Rotterdam Convention on Prior Informed Consent, the Convention on Biological Diversity and its opposition to the Warfare Convention and Convention on Biological Warfare is increasingly making it both unpopular and isolated in the rest of the world.

As if this were not enough, its recent opposition to the International Criminal Court even brought protests from his favourite stooge, Toady Blair! The US government has rapidly depleted all the goodwill and sympathy it earned after 9/11. Its single-minded arrogance, its bullying and arm-twisting of those nations who are weaker and poorer, its unilateral decisions on steel tariffs, agricultural subsidies, bombing of Afghanistan, changing Arafat, attacking Iraq is all part of its supercilious pride in being the world’s only superpower.

As for that damp squib called the World Summit on Sustainable Development, the less said about it the better. Economists have calculated that to feed, clothe, house, educate, medicate and give basic human rights to every person on the planet only $80 billion p.a. is needed but how can this be done when, at the same time, the North is extracting a minimum of $200 billion p.a. from the South on just interest and servicing of loans? One doesn’t need a billion-dollar summit to find the answer to this question!

-Srilata Swaminathan

They came by the thousands, they yakked away for days, but as usual it was Uncle Sam (the one with the big stick) who conquered.

The recently Earth Summit at Johannesburg, South Africa, attracted presidents and prime ministers from countries big and small but the chief of the biggest polluter of the planet — the United States — did not come. Instead George Bush Jr. (or ‘little Bush’ as the Iraqis like to call him) sent his smooth-talking butler Colin Powell to the event and yet had his way on almost every item of the agenda- global warming, renewable energy, subsidies for agriculture, the issue of poverty and debt — the whole lot.

But it was not as if the so called ‘leaders’ of the rest of the world needed to be prodded or threatened to accept the US positions on these pressing subjects. In keeping with the international fashion these days all of them mouthed the neo-liberal mantra that ‘markets know best’ for the globe’s environment and left the job of cleaning up the mess to those chiefly responsible for the mess- transnational corporations, the IMF, World Bank and the WTO.

And thus having talked themselves out of the picture the ‘leaders’ left for home without even one of those ‘ringing’ declarations about cutting poverty by half in a decade or planting a zillion trees within a week. (I guess they realized their past declarations on such subjects is still ‘ringing’ painfully in our ears). What they did produce, after much bargaining, was a weak, non-binding agreement calling for an ‘improvement in human and environmental health and sustainability’.

The major issues that the 200 odd countries that gathered at the Johannesburg Summit were supposed to tackle included global warming, the AIDS epidemic and poverty. On the agenda was also an appraisal of the ten years since the first Earth Summit held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. That assembly too produced a document piously pledging environmental improvement and a betterment of living standards around the world.

But one of the more tangible and time-bound products of the Rio summit was at least a pledge by industrial countries to voluntarily reduce greenhouse gas emissions — which cause global warming — to 1990 levels by the year 2000. This goal, however, has not been met. On the contrary, global consumption of fossil fuels increased by 10 percent from 1992 to 1999.

The Kyoto protocol on global warming, which had its roots in the Rio conference, has been rendered ineffective by the decision of the United States — which accounts for 25 percent of the globes energy consumption — to withdraw from the treaty. While the ‘little’ Bush administration’s decision to pull out of the Kyoto Treaty process was greeted with derision and protests from governments in Europe, the developing world and among green activist groups there is little they have been able to do about changing the only superpower’s unilateralist approach.

The other proclaimed goals of the Rio Summit like improving biodiversity or slowing down deforestation have fared no better. According to the UN Environment Program’s estimates, the extinction rate of species is still accelerating while deforestation too continues, with a net annual loss in forest area of 0.2 percent during the 1990s.

Recognising that there can be no way the global environment can be saved without saving human beings first the Rio summit had also pledged to improve social conditions. Over the past decade however there has been a sharp increase in social inequality on a global scale.

Other goals such as providing basic access to safe drinking water or minimum energy requirements to the world’s poor have also been obviously not achieved.

Given this dubious record of the Rio summit there was nothing much that anyone should have expected to emerge out of the Johannesburg Summit anyway. And yet because of the all the money poured into the event, the publicity given to it and the fact that it was being held in a supposedly ‘new and apartheid-free’ South Africa there were many who harboured hopes of some meaningful outcome.

They were all in for crushing disappointment however as the Johannesburg Summit sent out the wrong messages all around from its choice of venue-at a posh, business district called Sandton City — to its obsequious wooing of private corporations as the new ‘saviours’ of the environment.

Kofi Annan, the UN Secretary General was quoted telling corporate leaders on ‘Business Day’ — a day set aside to shower special attention on big business, “The corporate sector need not wait for governments to take decisions. We realize that it is only by mobilizing the corporate sector that we can make significant progress.” He appealed to companies to invest more in underdeveloped countries in order to solve the problems of social inequality that make these countries “fundamentally unstable.”

In keeping with the neo-liberal paradigm the emphasis at the summit was routinely on ‘rolling back the State’ and eliminating governmental regulations while promoting so-called `private-public’ partnerships. Often these partnerships do not involve the state at all being solely between corporations and NGOs or local authorities. Several hundred such partnerships were announced at the meeting giving a clear signal that global corporations are really the ‘New State’ that override all concepts of ‘national sovereignty’ or ‘self-determination’. (Given these realities one wondered why government representatives bothered to attend the Summit at all.)

Among these partnerships for example there was an agreement between the French water company Suez and the municipal authority of the South African city of Queenstown. The company hopes to privatise the local water supply and make a profit. Other schemes along these lines in other parts of the world have sharply increased water prices, exacerbating the problem of scarcity for the majority of the population.

US government representatives brazenly plumped for protecting the interests of the oil and automobile (among others) business lobbies that run their country. Together with Canada, Australia, Japan and the OPEC countries they opposed even the most nominal of targets and goals, such as a non-binding pledge to increase to 15 percent the proportion of energy coming from renewable resources.

The developed countries, again led by the US, also were united in opposition to a provision calling for cuts in agricultural subsidies… Farmers in wealthy countries receive hundreds of millions of dollars in agricultural subsidies annually — the bulk of which go to agribusiness concerns — a policy that is devastating for small economies that rely on the export of primary agricultural goods.

Despite demands by activist groups — particularly those working on the Bhopal gas disaster case — that multinational corporations should be held fully responsible for the pollution and damage they cause the Johannesburg conference decided not to include multilateral accountability rules for corporations operating in underdeveloped countries. Such rules had been sharply opposed by businesses in the US and Europe. More treacherously such rules did not have the support of leaders from underdeveloped countries either, who after all benefit from the exploitation of resources and labour in their own countries.

The most lasting image of the Johannesburg summit had in fact nothing to do with the environment as such but with the heavy-handed way in which the South African government handled protests by anti-privatisation and land rights activists during the event. Faced with mounting opposition to its policies of ‘corporatising’ its power and water utilities and its inability to redress the demand for land by landless farmers the African National Congress government brought out the army and hundreds of armed police to handle peaceful demonstrations that challenged their credibility.

Ten years after the end of racial apartheid the South African government now presides over what its critics call ‘class apartheid’. A vast majority of black people in the cities are still confined to the ghettos, their power supply cut off because they `can’t pay their bills’ and face mounting unemployment while in the countryside the farms are still largely by the former white rulers. The ANC, despite its initial rhetoric of socialism and redistribution of wealth is busy implementing IMF inspired economic policies and trying to create a new black elite who vow to be ‘responsible and efficient’ in serving the interests of global capital.

More than anything else the lessons from the Earth Summit — Part-II was basically about how most global environmental issues are so closely tied up with ‘class apartheid’ that still plagues the world. A true battle to save the globe’s environment will begin only when those who organise charades like the Earth Summit become the targets of protests by the working people of the world — they are part of the problem and can never be a part of the solution.