by Chakravarthi Raghavan

Geneva, 2 July 2000 -- A special session of the UN General Assembly ended Saturday evening with the adoption of an ‘outcome document’ on further initiatives to implement the social summit commitments of Copenhagen, marking perhaps some advance in declaratory Assembly statements, but no commitments from the rich.

At a final press conference, UN Under-Secretary General Nitin Desai viewed the outcome as having “significant achievements”, and viewed the main achievement as “no renegotiation” of the Copenhagen outcome, but an agreement to strengthen the implementation.

Desai acclaimed the target set for halving the number in absolute poverty by 2015, with a view to eradicating it. This, he said, was a “significant time-bound” target, in contrast to Copenhagen which had set no target at all.

While this half-way target could be seen as a progress over Copenhagen, it leaves the way open for meaningless per capita income targets to be set by the World Bank, IMF and OECD, as they pursue the neo-liberal globalization process and the marginalization of countries and the poor within them keeps rising.

But public interest Non-Governmental Organizations of the North and the South (grouped in the Development Caucus), expressed their “profound disappointment” at the low priority accorded by many governments to the meeting and their “grave concern” at the lack of will to carry forward the Copenhagen vision of social development shown in the positions taken in the negotiations.

These NGOs had played an important role at Copenhagen and since then in the monitoring progress (through the Social Watch coalition of national groups in nearly 80 countries), and in the preparatory processes for the Special Session, and at the session too.

The Special Session, “World Summit for Social Development and Beyond:Achieving Social Development for All in a Globalizing World”, more popularly known as “Copenhagen+5”, had been convened to review the progress in implementing the commitments and proposals agreed to at the Copenhagen Social Summit of 1995.

Billed as a Summit, there were only 19 Heads of State or Government, mostly from Africa, who came, and of them only 2 from the rich North. Many others sent Ministers or persons of equal ranks, but not foreign ministers and such carrying political weight either. Mr. Kofi Annan, the UN Secretary-General, came for the opening, launched a controversial pamphlet (Better World for All) that was presented as a report, and then left Geneva.

May be there was some grounds for it, but the Summit was smothered by ‘special’, ham-handed security arrangements (for coming into or going out of the UN complex, except for the privileged high dignitaries and high UN officials in cars) that the security personnel could not explain or understand.

The Copenhagen+5 Special UN General Assembly Session produced no new commitments or specific promises of resources from the rich industrialized countries - but vague, non-binding formulations that have been trotted out for over two decades.

There was reiteration of the commitments by developing countries for social development set at Copenhagen, with some new intermediate targets—such as halving the number of absolute poor by 2015 and providing universal primary education by the same year.

Perhaps the real benefit of the Copenhagen+5 outcome, several NGO representatives said Saturday, is a political platform that would enable the broad coalition of non-governmental development groups of the South and the North to keep up public pressures and run campaigns against the Bretton Woods Institutions and the World Trade Organization and the policies of the three, as well as several parts of the UN system itself, to promote transnational corporate interests.

The outcome document had paragraphs on initiatives, relating to the Commitments at Copenhagen such as on ‘debt standstill’ by countries in times of financial crisis, the human right of access to essential medicines at ‘affordable prices’ and reaffirmation of rights of developing countries to ‘freely exercise’ their right in an unrestricted manner, options available to them (not specifically mentioned, but meaning compulsory licensing under TRIPS) to have access to life-saving essential medicines, and some initiatives to study new and innovative sources of funding.

No doubt, the UN General Assembly resolutions have some value, though much lower than treaties and the like as sources of international law or as political and declaratory statements of the collective will of the membership.

Any event, the United States put reservations at the final plenary on the paragraph relating to debt. And if the past be any guide to the future, the heads of the IMF and the World Bank would be more attentive to the advice of the US Treasury than to the UN General Assembly or the UN system recommendations.

And as for TRIPS and the formulation in the document, which does no more than recognize rights that developing countries have (by way of compulsory licensing, but subject to the panel views in disputes), the WTO and its dispute panel system can be depended upon by the US and big corporations to continue to rewrite rules through rulings, and add to developing country obligations.

At his press briefing Saturday, Mr. Nitin Desai drew a distinction between the UN General Assembly decisions that provide the mandates for UN policy documents, and the UN Secretary-General’s views in ‘progress reports’ as in the Bretton Woods for All report.

However, if UN officials in their ‘progress reports’ can draw on other sources than Assembly decisions and mandates to reflect an institutional view, and given that institutions controlled and run by the rich (the IMF, World Bank and the WTO) ignore UN decisions in their own programmes and policies, over time all these just add up to growing public alienation everywhere.

Perhaps, as important as some of the declaratory statements in the outcome document, was the refusal to incorporate language endorsing UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan’s initiative for a Compact with Global Transnational Corporations or the US-EC proposals, the thinly disguised moves towards ‘trade-social clause’ linkages—presented as multilateral initiatives on social dimensions of globalization involving ILO, World Bank, IMF, WTO, UNCTAD and other relevant organizations and civil society—to study and make recommendations for their governing bodies.

That the opposition of the G77 was not to labour rights, but rather a new forum (that could easily be manipulated by the majors), was suggested by the other paragraphs in the document containing calls for ratifying ILO conventions, the ILO Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work, and ILO Convention on the worst forms of child labour.

The G-77 objected to the references to Annan’s Global Compact with Corporations, on the ground they had no details and it had been brought up at the last stages. But it was clear from private explanations of some of them that the G77 opposition to a blanket endorsement of a still-to-be-clearly spelt out Annan’s initiative for UN-Global Corporate compact was a reaction to the ill-timed and ill-advised launch of the ‘Better World for All Report’ that Annan had co-signed with the IMF, World Bank and the OECD - a document, produced at the behest of the G-7 for their Okinawa Summit in July.

The launch of the document by Annan on 26 June, and his previewing and endorsing it at the pre-conference Global Forum as well as at the opening plenary of the Special Session had angered a large number of NGOs who have been campaigning for and monitoring the implementation of the Copenhagen Summit commitments, and had also upset a large number of the developing countries.

The way various part of the UN system have entered into compacts with the global corporations, and have been promoting transnational corporate interests in the developing world through extra-budgetary resources, and the blurring of the UN’s public interest roles, has given rise not only to disquiet among governments, but also within the system. There are several studies and reports, including from the UN’s Regional Economic Commission for Europe and the UN Research Institute for Social Development.

The President of the General Assembly, Dr.Teho-Ben Gurirab of Namibia, in some extempore remarks at the closing of the session in effect found the NGO criticism as justified.

Said Dr. Gurirab: “We must hear the civil society who were here in Geneva. They referred to the ‘Better World for All’ report. We have to listen to them, hear them and respond to them.”

The Chair of the Preparatory Committee and of the Committee of the Whole that negotiated the final outcome, Mr. Cristian Maquieira of Chile, talking to some newsmen and NGOs, said that the processes such as Copenhagen+5 were gaining legitimacy all the time - among the international community and on the international agenda, as different from others such as the Millennium assembly which still remained unconvinced about this. The technical outcome of the document on proposals for further initiatives, Maquieira believed “has greater legitimacy” than reports such as Bretton Woods for All.

Added Maquiera, “Here, there was a kind of counter-point. The fact that the report was presented here, created some distraction, but it also served to show that the intergovernmental system can produce results that have legitimacy and that consequently are more likely to be applied than reports or meetings such as those which are being promoted.”

At a press conference Saturday evening, Mr. Nitin Desai, the UN Under-Secretary General for Economic and Social Development, said the Special Session had marked an advance over Copenhagen in setting specific targets on poverty and for some of the new initiatives and mandate for the UN secretariat.

However, said several NGOs, many of the subjects (whether currency tax or other sources of financing for development, debt standstill or measures for poverty eradication) have all been studied enough. Very much would depend on whether the secretariat would be able to be bold enough to formulate them in clear and focused language for governments, or whether the UN and the international system would again be hijacked by the IMF, World Bank and the WTO catering to the interests of the major powers.

The exhortatory new language in the outcome document included:

*        a formulation about measures to reduce negative impacts of international financial turbulence on social and economic development, inter alia, through improving preventive and other measures and early warning capabilities to address the excessive volatility of short-term capital flows, including consideration, inter alia, of a temporary debt standstill;

While the idea of a debt standstill (and the IMF lending to a crisis-country and supporting it in negotiations with private debtors) has been advanced at UNCTAD, and in some of the pronouncements of IMF officials and others, this is the first time that the UN General Assembly has endorsed it.

However, the US made clear that it was disassociating itself from the paragraph on debt.

*        reducing proportion of people living in extreme poverty by one-half by year 2015, with a view to eradicating poverty:

The Copenhagen Commitment asked each nation to determine its norms of poverty and set a plan and target for eradicating it. Viewed an intermediate goal, the reduction by half by 2015 of ‘extreme poverty’ (defined by the World Bank as less than $1 a day of income in purchasing power parity terms) may be an advance, but also capable of econometric jugglery and dubious statistics to imply poverty was being reduced.

*        recognizing central importance of access to essential medicines at affordable prices, and agree that Member States “may freely exercise.... in an unrestricted manner, options available to them under international agreements to protect and advance access to life-saving essential medicines.”

This hortatory and declaratory political statement is unlikely to be heeded by the US administration and its Trade Representatives, but will help NGOs (already campaigning against the TRIPS and the WTO—‘shrink or sink’ campaign) in their public campaigns.

There is now indisputable evidence from a variety of studies that the costs of essential medicines are rising as a result of the TRIPS agreement of the WTO, and that while WTO members have a right to compulsorily license the production (or import) of such medicines, and fix the prices of such medicines, to make them available at ‘affordable prices’, the US as a major country of the pharmaceutical TNCs has been arm-twisting developing countries, through threats of ‘Special 301’ investigations and raising disputes at the WTO, against such compulsory licensing.

While this has been eased recently by US President Bill Clinton’s Executive Order in regard to medicines for combating AIDS, it is confined to sub-Saharan Africa. The US pressures on developing countries on other equally serious diseases and medicines to combat them have not ceased.

As recently as 26 June (according to the US Congressional Record), the House of Representatives rejected an amendment to ease US pressures such as through ‘Special 301’ trade law, to impose on developing countries “TRIPS Plus” protection on pharmaceuticals (South Africa, Thailand, Indonesia, the Philippines, India, Pakistan, Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic were among countries specifically mentioned, as countries being pressured by the US Trade Representative).

*        conducting a rigorous analysis of advantages, disadvantages and other implications of proposals for developing new and innovative sources, of funding, both public and private, for dedication to social development and poverty eradication programmes

This was the final compromise language for a more specific proposal by the G-77, for ‘further study of the idea of a currency transaction tax and its potential implications’.

Though the currency transaction tax as a development financing source is often mentioned in terms of the Tobin tax idea to reduce or eliminate short-term capital movements and volatility, it is clear that a revenue-raising tax at low levels would not discourage volatility, while anything that cures volatility will by definition produce no net revenues.

And given the major financial powers stake in promoting the interests of their financial corporations, UNCTAD experts who have studied these and other international methods of dealing with volatility have come to the view that developing countries have to rely on themselves by not opening up their capital accounts, and imposing capital gains and other taxes to discourage short-term investments (by funds or portfolio investors) on their financial asset markets.

At the Special Session, the United States was steadfastly opposed to any mention of a currency transaction tax or for that matter any tax for mobilizing new and additional resources for financing social development.

The documents adopted had involved a week of intense and difficult negotiations in working groups, and smaller groups, and was finally hammered into shape and approved at the meeting of the Committee of the Whole on Saturday, and then adopted by the General Assembly.

The negotiations operated on the basis that any formulation or amendment or compromise language among the conflicting proposals, would need a consensus, and anything that did not get a consensus would be eliminated.

Unable to have their way on issues like Annan’s Compact with TNCs, and the new forum on globalization and labour issues, the US and EU among others blocked a formulation that said the promotion of social integration and protection of all human rights (Commitment 4 of Copenhagen) called for “concrete measures”. After a prolonged debate in the Committee of the Whole, with all but 4 or 5 speakers supporting the bracketed formulation, a compromise of sorts was reached, by adding some language, not enough though, to a paragraph in an earlier, and more general part of the document.-SUNS4700

The above article first appeared in the South-North Development Monitor (SUNS) of which Chakravarthi Raghavan is the Chief Editor.

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