A disappointing Summit

Ten years after the Rio Earth Summit, heads of state concluded the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg with an untransparent political declaration and a weak implementation plan.

Martin Khor

THE World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) ended on 4 September night shortly after 9 pm, 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, on four areas. The US speech was met with loud boos from the NGO section of the hall.

The first US interpretative point related to Rio Principle 7 on common but differentiated responsibilities.  It said the US does not accept liability under international law.  Also, by its terms, this principle deals with global environmental problems.  (The implication is that the US does not accept this principle except in relation to global environment problems.)

The second US point was in relation to the Implementation Plan’s paragraph on corporate responsibility and accountability.  According to the US delegate, the chairperson of the Main Committee meeting (held on 3 September night) had said that it was the collective understanding that the para refers to existing international agreements, and that this should be reflected in the report of the WSSD.

(The para calls for promotion of corporate accountability through full development and effective implementation of intergovernmental agreements and national regulations.  In fact the US delegate made a factual error in announcing the US interpretative statement.  The chairman of the 3 September night meeting, Emil Salim of Indonesia, expressly rejected a proposal read out by a UN official that it was the common understanding of the contact group on globalisation and means of implementation that only existing intergovernmental agreements were being referred to.  The chairman’s clear decision to reject the proposal came after strong objections by Ethiopia and Norway.  That the chairman had rejected the proposal that there was ‘collective understanding’ which should be reflected in the WSSD report, was confirmed personally by Emil Salim to the author of this article during the final plenary session of 4 September itself.)

The third US point related to the para in the Implementation Plan on the Biodiversity Convention and the Bonn Guidelines.  The US view was that any initiative must give access to biological resources, and also respect other international laws.

(The issue relates to the principle of access and benefit-sharing regarding biological resources and associated knowledge. Through its interpretation, the US was stressing the rights of foreign parties to gain access to the biological resources of countries of origin, whilst ignoring the benefit-sharing aspect, which is of prime interest to developing countries and local communities.  This obviously one-sided emphasis is made more extreme by the reference to respect for other international laws, which might be taken to refer to the World Trade Organisation’s (WTO) TRIPS agreement which facilitates patenting and other intellectual property claims by foreigners over countries’ biological resources.)

The fourth US point was that it did not interpret that UN conferences were in support of abortion.

The US intervention dampened the proceedings, and was in line with its positions during the conference.

The loudest applause was given to Venezuela’s 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 made a proposal during a roundtable where 40 heads of government were present, and his proposal 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 criticised 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 liberalisation has affected our banana industry adversely, that is what trade liberalisation and globalisation 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 privatise our water, electricity, telephone services. On one hand we have to privatise, 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 deadlock

Meanwhile, there was hardly any process on the political statement, 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 meeting held at Joburg 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 that 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 materialised.

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 ten minutes. But the break stretched to almost two hours as several delegations was 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.

Lack of transparency

The manner in which the declaration was introduced, so late in the process and on almost a take-it-or-leave-it basis, 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 WTO Ministerial Declaration was drawn up in its two final drafts 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. For the WSSD, 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, and some delegates, 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 entail 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 as well, it left the official participants with the feeling that the meeting was somewhat worthwhile in presenting the opportunity for them 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.

Martin Khor is the Director of Third World Network.