UN infected by WTO virus

The 26 August - 4 September World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg, the largest and costliest UN conference ever, brought together 190 governments to discuss measures to tackle poverty and environmental degradation. Following protracted negotiations marked by deep divisions and at times untransparent procedures, the Summit adopted what many considered an insignificant political declaration and an action plan criticized as having “too many gaps and too few teeth.”

JOHANNESBURG: The World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) ended on 4 September night shortly after 9 pm, with the adoption of what many saw as a “harmless text”, after an extended six-hour final plenary which was held up halfway as delegates haggled over a second draft of the political declaration that was released only after the plenary had started.

The plenary, chaired by South African President Thabo Mbeki, finally adopted the political declaration, called the Johannesburg Declaration on Sustainable Development, and a Plan of Implementation, the two main documents of the WSSD.

It was the culmination of two weeks of negotiations during much of which there was a strong feeling of uncertainty whether an agreement could be reached because of deep divisions, mainly on North-South lines, over several issues. Among the most contentious in the Plan of Implementation were finance and trade, governance, two of the Rio principles (common but differentiated responsibilities, and the precautionary principle), and the acceptance or otherwise of time-bound targets, including for energy and sanitation.

The negotiations on these issues in the draft Plan remained stuck at the level of senior officials, and were elevated to Ministerial level (at which a mix of Ministers and officials took part) in the final phase of the Summit.

When the Plan was submitted at the plenary, many countries took the opportunity to make comments or put their interpretation on one point or another. The United States, however, made major points of interpretation that appeared more like reservations against the consensus on the text, in four areas. The US speech was met with loud boos from the NGO section of the hall.

The loudest applause was given to Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who called the Summit a “dialogue of the deaf” and complained that the heads of state and government could not find a way to influence the Summit outcome. He said he had, during a roundtable where 40 heads of government were present, made a proposal which had been supported by many heads present (including Brazil’s President Fernando Henrique Cardoso), “but our opinions had no influence on this Summit conclusion.”

Another round of applause was given to the representative of St Lucia who spoke for the small island states and criticized the WTO as not being a friend of the small island states. “It has a principle on special and differential treatment but no effect has been given to it. I regard the WTO as having no soul. Trade liberalization has affected our banana industry adversely, that is what trade liberalization and globalization has meant for us. Something is wrong.”

He said the WSSD had failed to set a target for renewable energy. Yet St Lucia had set its own target that 20% of its energy would be from renewable sources. “But the World Bank is pressing us to privatize our water, electricity, telephone services. On one hand we have to privatize, but when we attempt to put our policy of renewable energy in action, the multinationals frustrate every effort we make as they are only interested in the rate of return.”

Declaration debacle

Meanwhile, there was hardly any process on the political declaration, and it was touch-and-go whether the Summit would end with one at all. At the Rio-plus-Five summit in 1997 in New York, there was an extended period of negotiations on successive drafts over many days, yet the meeting ended without a political declaration when the then UN General Assembly president, Ambassador Razali Ismail of Malaysia, abandoned the exercise when it was clear no meaningful text was possible.

The divisions along North-South lines, especially over financial resources, had been too deep (the developing countries having argued that the North had failed miserably to meet their commitments on finance and technology). Razali declared it was better to be honest and have no declaration, than to issue one full of generalities but without any meaningful points. That way, Razali had said, the Rio-plus-Five would not attempt to fool the world into falsely believing that progress had been made by governments.

In the WSSD process, the opposite approach was taken. Attempts to draw up the declaration had taken a backseat all along, as almost all the attention of delegations was focussed on the Plan of Implementation. The last preparatory meeting at Bali ended without a draft declaration, and the Preparatory Committee chairman, Emil Salim of Indonesia, issued a draft of elements paper under his own authority after the Bali meeting.

Even that document was not discussed at all in Johannesburg. Indeed, there was no process or meetings held at Johannesburg on the declaration. The host country, South Africa, distributed a first draft only on the night of 1 September, just three days before the Summit was to conclude.

That draft was received with a lot of criticism from many countries. No meeting was held to discuss it. On the night of 3 September, when the Main Committee met to discuss the Implementation Plan, a few delegations led by Malta asked what had happened to the declaration process and when a meeting would be held to discuss it. The South African Foreign Minister, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, replied that there were as many proposals for amendments to the first draft as there were people in the hall (which was packed with about 300 delegates). She said a second draft would be ready on 4 September morning and the WSSD secretary-general Nitin Desai indicated that a meeting of the Main Committee would be called the next morning to discuss it. However, when pressed by delegates, neither of them could answer when the meeting would be convened.

On the Summit’s last day, 4 September, delegations were eagerly awaiting the new declaration draft and the opportunity to discuss it, but neither the draft nor the meeting materialized.

Thus, the final official plenary chaired by President Mbeki started after 3 pm without delegates having had the chance to see the new draft for a declaration. It was finally circulated after the plenary started, with the heading “Draft political declaration submitted by the President of the Summit.”

With several delegations and NGOs informally indicating their displeasure at the new draft, particularly over some text in the first draft that was now omitted, Mbeki announced the meeting would be suspended for 10 minutes. But the break stretched to almost two hours as several delegations were seen in intense discussion among themselves and with senior South African and UN officials.

After the plenary resumed, a document with four new points or amendments was circulated, and with these, the Johannesburg Declaration on Sustainable Development was adopted.

UN “Green Room”?

The manner in which the declaration was introduced, so late in the process and in almost a take-it-or-leave-it manner, was way out of line with the normal procedure of UN conferences, in which many drafts of such an important document would have gone through months of negotiations at various stages of the preparatory committee and at the summit.

Instead, the Johannesburg Declaration and process of its introduction and adoption was reminiscent of the way the two final drafts of the WTO Ministerial Declaration were drawn up at the WTO’s Doha meeting of November 2001. Up to now, it is unclear who did the drafting of that final Doha text, which was circulated by the WTO Secretariat on the extended final day on a take-it-or-leave-it basis.

Even then, the Doha text had gone through two drafts in Geneva and the final two more drafts at Doha. There were only two drafts of the Johannesburg Declaration, and no opportunity for the delegations to go through it as an informal group or in a committee.

A great deal of disquiet was expressed by many delegations on the utter lack of transparency and procedure of the political-declaration process. Some delegates who were familiar with the WTO remarked in frustration that the infamous WTO “Green Room” process had now crossed over to the usually open and participatory UN system.

In the end, the delegates all accepted the Johannesburg Declaration, despite the frustration of many, probably because there was nothing of significance in the text that anyone would be concerned or unhappy about.

It was, as many delegates were heard to say, a “harmless text.” By which was meant that the declaration contained general statements of goodwill and “motherhood” that did not incorporate any meaningful commitments for anyone and thus did not have the potential to harm the interests of any country.

That, perhaps, is an appropriate description of the WSSD as well. The political leaders and their senior officials came and met, fought over difficult text in the Implementation Plan, agreed to adopt some nice-sounding words in an insignificant political declaration, and then left.

With nothing much achieved, and probably no harm done to anyone either, it left the official participants with the feeling that the meeting was somewhat worthwhile in presenting them the opportunity to meet and in clarifying where everyone stood on the crucial issues facing humanity and nature, but that there was a deadlock, hardly any progress in new areas and almost a setback in old areas of previous agreement (such as reluctance of continued acceptance of the two key Rio principles).

With such small results for such a heavy expense in personnel, time and resources, it will be quite a long time before a convincing case is made for another world summit of this type. (SUNS5187)                                             

From Third World Economics No. 288 (1-15 September 2002)