TWN Briefings for WSSD No.3

Will WSSD Endanger the UN’s Multilateral System?

By Saradha I.R.

The WSSD could signal the beginning of the death of effective intergovernmental  engagement and future international cooperation.  The twin- track approach taken by the UN to address the problems of global poverty and environmental decay risks placing the future of human existence on this planet in the hands of ruthless global corporations.  And only failure looms ahead when governments no longer take prime responsibility for providing public goods and services.

There is disillusionment with the WSSD process.  Notwithstanding official UN pronouncements that three-quarters of the contentious issues have been resolved, Bali only achieved lowest common  denominator-type 1- agreement on least contentious issues leaving the more ambitious aims and real avenues for action/ implementation to purely voluntary partnerships of the willing- type 11s.   One the one hand, this gives un- and under-enthusiastic governments a prepackaged exit strategy for not committing to sustainable development goals that they should aspire to in order to tackle the issues at stake.  On the other hand, it paves the way for entrenching the avarice that has come to signify the free market corporate culture today.

The disillusionment, evident in all segments of society, stems from the fact that the integrity of existing mechanisms for promoting multilateralism and strengthening national sovereignty for the public interest is being systematically undermined by some governments in the WSSD.  Ironically, the Summit’s sponsor, the UN, itself faces the grave danger of emerging permanently incapacitated in the post-Johannesburg era.  The UN for all its flaws, remains the only inter-governmental bastion of hope for countries of the developing world against the tyranny of the market and globalisation. But its own mandate is being whittled away.

The main disillusionment surrounds the debate on Partnerships and especially partnerships being touted in the five identified WEHAB areas; water, energy, health, agriculture and biodiversity.  This represents THE biggest gamble the WSSD is taking. It has all the potential to diminish the capacity of both the UN as well as national governments to  assess, control, monitor and provide much-needed leadership because among the stake-holders/partners it is  business and industry that is poised to become the prime movers and shakers in these crucial areas where essential goods and services are required for the masses.

The disillusionment is generating fears that weakened states could become failed states which in turn would exacerbate global security concerns and breed even more violence. If peace, security and stability are essential for the implementation of sustainable development the process is not laying the groundwork for these to flourish.

The disillusionment is with the worlds only remaining super-power wielding its might to renege on principles already agreed to by governments in Rio in 1992 such as the ‘common but differentiated responsibility ‘ principle  and the ‘precautionary principle.’ If that Earth Summit marked the hey day of international cooperation, this Summit may mark the beginning of the end of multilateralism. As it is there is very little in it to spur participation by Heads of State save perhaps the prospect of a few incentives to join in partnerships.

The roots of disillusionment can also be traced to the absence of political will to rein in the negative aspects of globalisation that has successfully sidelined the sustainable development agenda since Rio.   Despite the spate of corporate scandals that have discredited the doctrine of the self regulating market, rocked US stocks and exposed all the dangers inherent in the free market, the US government is adamant about not portraying the very engines of globalisation, the large transnational corporations in negative light. TNCs are by no means a new phenomenon but their large numbers and variety and the extent to which they are being promoted by some states is astounding and nowhere more evident than in the WSSD’s partnership syndrome.

There is also much disillusionment at the looming prospect of dominance by the World Trade Organisation in sustainable development issues. Globalisation is dissolving the coherence and independence of States to monitor, control, and regulate the movement of capital, goods, services and people within and across national borders. If the WTO is not made to serve the sustainable development goals so vital to humanity’s survival on this planet, the efficacy of multilateral agreements so painstakingly negotiated will be undermined and that will leave very little except the privatization of remaining resources for the WSSD to follow though. 

As Kofi Annan himself mentioned  ‘Johannesburg is a test for multilateralism and the international community.’  Yet, the only clear message to date from the processes leading up to the Johannesburg Summit is that it is preparing for a failure of prodigious proportions.  It is empowering supranational corporations and deflating the power of states. It is acquiescing in further privatization and deregulation.  It is fostering the tyranny of money over politics and not looking to curb the excesses of the unilateralist/imperialist, a state that will ‘unsign’ treaties, not acknowledge the international criminal court, that does not adequately or consistently support the UN.  It is wresting power away from the democratic UN, however compromised, and relinquishing it to willing, albeit, unequal partners.  It is not addressing the root causes of inequities in the global trade and financial system but perpetuating it.

The only way to stem this disillusionment is for the WSSD to ensure democracy at the global level and instilling integrity and faith in the international system by introducing the necessary checks and balances in the international system. The mandate of the WTO must be balanced by acknowledging the authority and autonomy of the MEAs.  At the very least, this Summit should provide for the strengthening of the CSD through additional resources and manpower so that it will be able to fulfill its mandate. In this regard, the creation of a high-level group within the CSD that can relate, through ECOSOC, with the WTO to address cross -institutional processes in an open, transparent manner should be considered.  The WSSD must forge a new and just world order if it is not to be remembered as the Fourth Earth Summit that whittled away all hope of ‘We the Peoples.’