World Summit on Sustainable Development
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The United Nations World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD), also known as Earth Summit II or Rio +10, took place in Johannesburg, South Africa between August 26th and September 4th 2002. This was some 10 years after the Rio Earth Summit. (Side NoteThere was another United Nations conference on the environment in Stockholm, 1972. This would then make the current one Earth Summit III!)
On this page:
Progress on Sustainability so far
As highlighted in the introduction page, the record on moving towards sustainability so far appears to have been quite poor and the vast majority of humanity still lack access to basics such as clean water, adequate sanitation, electricity and so on. And this is in the backdrop of an increasing amount of wealth in fewer hands.
Given that previous international meetings on sustainable development seem to have had little effect on the world's majority, the Johannesburg Summit was considered by some to appear quite ambitious to say the least and many were skeptical as to whether anything of importance would even come of this summit.
A broader agenda than the Rio Summit in 1992, the summit in Johannesburg also included a huge number of delegates representing nations, business interests and non-profit environmental and development/citizen/social justice groups. Various key issues were addressed, including:
- Water quality and availability
- Cleaner energy
- Good governance
- Production and Consumption
- Oceans and Fisheries
These are just a sample and were all discussed in varying degrees. Other related issues such as globalization, women's rights were also discussed.
Some understandably criticized the summit as over-ambitious to try and talk about so many issues. Yet, true or not, it shows that there is at least an apparent growing recognition that sustainable development (admittedly a somewhat overused word) means a myriad of inter-related issues, not something solely in the realms of environmentalism, but also deep into economics (which governs how resources are used), and a variety of sociopolitical issues.
Outcome of the Summit
There were a number of outcomes in the summit's 'Plan of Action', on key areas (though many marred with controversy, or praise, depending who you heard it from!). Some of them include the following:
Water and Sanitation:
- Governments agreed to halve the number of people lacking clean drinking water and basic sanitation by 2015.
- This agreement was perhaps the most positive outcome of the Summit.
- Governments agreed in principle to take action to help the poor gain access to affordable energy
- Yet, there were no specific targets on things like boosting renewable and "green" sources such as solar or wind power, just wording to "substantially increase" the global share of renewable energy.
- Various Oil-Producing and Exporting Countries (OPEC) nations and the United States opposed targets while Europe and various environmental and development organizations wanted them.
- Definition of renewables also caused a stir because some wanted nuclear and hydro-electric power to be included in this definition while others did not.
- Environmental organizations in particular did not like the outcome.
- The agreement referred to the need to ratify the Kyoto Protocol, though various organizations and nations were hoping for more concrete plans.
- Russia and some other nations announced they would ratify the Kyoto Protocol. This was seen as positive, because earlier some had implied that they might not.
- Had they not, with the U.S. already rejecting the protocol, Kyoto might have headed for collapse.
Biodiversity and Natural Resources:
- Nations agreed that by 2010, the rate at which extinctions of rare plants and animals are occurring should be cut.
- There was commitment to restore fisheries to their maximum sustainable yields by 2015;
- To establish a representative network of marine protected areas by 2012;
- To improve developing countries' access to environmentally-sound alternatives to ozone depleting chemicals by 2010.
- While these were on the positive side, World Wildlife Fund, one of the world's leading conservation organizations felt the Summit didn't do enough.
Trade/Global Economic Related Issues:
- This was a thorny issue for some because it was argued that the WSSD was seen mainly as a place to iron out World Trade Organization issues, and not really tackle sustainability.
- Some WTO wordage changed specified (or implied) that environment shouldn't be secondary to trade, which is a positive development.
- There was no new commitment or timetable to the E.U. and U.S. farm subsidies or the crisis in commodity prices.
- Nothing changed in terms of aid, or debt relief.
- Oxfam, for example, described this as a wasted opportunity, only offering crumbs for the poor.
- AllAfrica.com reports that "Several African delegates are known to be angry at the way that the World Trade Organization's Doha agreements have dominated much of the discussion - and particularly at attempts to give the WTO resolutions primacy over the WSSD's own agreed positions. Africans also blame rich countries for the failure to make progress on the ending of agricultural subsidies to their own producers, seen as restricting developing countries' access to markets."
- Attempts to link women's rights and health services to human rights was opposed by some nations and religious groups.
- There was agreement that recognition that access to healthcare be consistent with human rights, and "cultural and religious values".
- Various groups criticized the U.S., the Vatican and some developing countries that tried to oppose this stronger linkage due to issues around women's rights, abortion issues, etc.
- Countries agreed to phase out, by 2020, the use and production of chemicals that harm human health and the environment.
- There was recognition that corporate accountability must be increased.
- Environment News Service commented that the U.S. attempted to "circumvent efforts to develop new, binding international rules on environmentally irresponsible corporate behavior" and wanted it to apply only to existing international agreements. However, country delegates in the end rejected this and "conference delegates prevented the United States from evading a commitment to corporate accountability for environmental crimes."
- The World Development Movement (WDM) were disappointed on the overall outcome of the summit but on corporate accountability commented that, "The only glimmer of hope is that for the first time proper regulation of multinational companies has been placed on the agenda. The NGOs and developing countries that have achieved this in the face of fierce opposition from rich governments deserve massive credit. But it will be a long struggle to get a binding, enforceable agreement."
There were various other issues that had been discussed as well. In a lot of cases, there were only agreements to do something, without any specific targets or action plans. It is easy for any nation, or organization or business to say they support something, but as various organizations have argued, this summit became an arena for nations and businesses to say they will do things, while often avoiding actual obligations. In addition, because the sanitation agreement was the only really concrete agreement, development and citizen groups saw the summit as a failure.
Various organizations, some leaders and delegates from developing countries were critical on numerous aspects of the world system, especially on the agendas and interests of the richer nations. The World Development Movement, for example, felt the summit was a failure for the world's majority, and that "much of the failure can be attributed to the two major world powers - the US for active obstruction and the EU for pursuing the politics of self-interest." (See their article (PDF format) for the full report.)
The following from AllAfrica.com raises the issue that on the whole all the effort spent on reinforcing past commitments meant little substance in implementation issues or efforts towards new commitments:
There were various controversies over issues of governance, influence, power and politics, and lack of truly democratic processes at the international level. For example, numerous developing country leaders commented on the interest and agendas of rich nations and multinationals as having a detrimental impact on the poor, increasing and causing poverty, and that the legacy of colonialism was still being felt hard. (Indeed, some such as Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe made scathing attacks on Britain's Tony Blair, for example. While he might have had some fair points about the impacts of colonialism -- to which many in the audience applauded or approved -- his ruthless actions are hardly a positive alternative.)
As another example, many accused the U.S. of attempting to water down any final agreements. On the final day of speeches, many protestors (including many Americans) and even delegates from countries around the world, jeered U.S. Secretary of State, Colin Powell as he delivered his speech in the closing part of the Summit (President George Bush was not in attendance). The actions of the U.S. have been highly controversial during the Summit. Even U.S. protests groups have been vocal and dismayed at their leaders. AllAfrica.com, detailing some of this criticism on U.S. actions, even reports that "Following the [NGO] press conference [on the final day of the Summit], members of NGOs from the United States pinned a large U.S. flag to the wall outside the briefing room, On it they had written: "Thank you, President Bush, for making the U.S. so hated."".
The above-mentioned WDM article also highlighted another emerging trend: the growing subordination of government responsibilities to their citizens to multinational pressures and interests. Many businesses were also at the Summit, some with these additional agendas, some with hopes to participate in the drive towards sustainable development. But, the interests of powerful nations and certain large influential businesses and industries did have an impact on the summit, as they have in all international talks and agreements.
For more on the outcomes, including perspectives/opinions, the following offer some views (links at the end of this section to other web sites also provide more information in general):
- The official Plan of Action. (Link is to a PDF formatted report.)
- From the BBC:
- Summary of Contentious Text (PDF) from the Centre for Science and Environment, in India, summarizes paragraph numbers and text that has been contentious. The compilation also lists which nations supported or opposed the contentious text, together with some commentary.
- WSSD press releases and briefings from WDM.
- World Wildlife Fund (WWF) WSSD news section
- Sustainable Development: An Expensive Trip To Nowhere? by Radha D'Souza, 4 September 2002, looks at the structural problems and institutional level issues around the U.N. itself.
- World Wire Special Coverage provides a number of articles from around the world.
- Global Development Plan A Flop, say Activists by Thalif Deen, Terra Viva, Inter Press Service, 4 September 2002 also provides some summary.
The remainder of this section introduces at some of those issues relating to business interests, governments, non-governmental organizations, etc.
Public-Private Partnerships, Corporate Interests and Globalization
A much-talked about issue during the build up to this summit has been the multinational corporate interests and influence.
Transnational businesses are major entities in global affairs. Some have considerable resources at their disposal. Business partnerships with governments, at national and local level is increasing in many parts of the world, as it is recognized that business processes can bring positive benefits. Compared to the Rio Summit (and others such as the Kyoto meeting on Climate Change in 1997), a number of businesses came to the Summit appearing to support sustainable development.
However, at the same time, especially in the developing world, but also in the industrialized nations, business interests at the expense of people has led to a lot of concern about transnational corporations' (TNC) influences in international meetings and summits.
The above quoted article, for example continues that, despite various big businesses turning towards sustainability, "The criticism, however, has continued, and some groups believe the United Nations has become too cozy with big business. "What we're worried about is that many businesses are draping themselves in the blue of the United Nations in order to get themselves some brownie points to look good to governments, to look like they're doing the right thing around the world, when in fact their actual practices on the ground may be very different to those they profess on paper," said Matt Phillips of Friends of the Earth in an interview with the BBC." In addition, "Most of the business projects, not surprisingly, are proposals that will expand the reach of the business community while also - at least in principle - improving sustainability."
In addition, the shift towards voluntary commitments rather than obligatory ones is highlighted by some as an indication of business interests highlighting the willingness to appear to do something but without being confined by those obligations:
But the move towards voluntary actions is also criticized as an excuse for governments, as well as businesses to shun away from commitments as well.
While this summit saw delegates from all over the world attending, including most world leaders, the most powerful leader in the world, U.S. President George Bush did not attend.
The decision for Bush not to attend also seems to have some business-oriented reasons behind it, amongst other factors.
Some of the more right-wing oriented big business-backed think tanks and others have urged and applauded George Bush's decision not to attend in person. Certain big businesses have long been afraid of making costly commitments to reduce environmental burdens. Some of the free market "fundamentalist" think tanks believe that any form of regulation on them would have a negative impact on the economy, while others fear a sort of "global government" agenda. (Side NoteIndeed, there has been a bit of controversy over a letter from lobbyists and others to George Bush saying that "We applaud your decision not to attend the summit in person. ... Your presence would only help to publicize and make more credible various anti-freedom, anti-people, anti-globalization, and anti-Western agendas." Many who signed on to this letter were from corporate-funded think tanks.)
Evolutionary economist and author, Dr. Hazel Henderson, is quite scathing on the Bush position (and it also puts the onus on U.S. delegates there to defend that position):
Yet, arguably, if it were even possible for the Summit to have produced some binding outcome that could be regarded as positive, it would likely be that the perceived costs of making such changes would have a negative impact on the wealthy, who currently benefit from the current global system as it is structured. While potentially addressing (or at least highlighting again) the concerns of the poorer around the world, the hope was that this summit may provide one small (maybe quite tiny) step towards protecting their rights and their environment from external factors that they have little control or say over. (Side NoteAs has been detailed on this site's section behind consumerism and consumption, one of the major factors of environmental problems, as well as other issues such as poverty and hunger, lie in the inequalities around the world and the interests of power and big business. Any changes to processes that are beneficial to those entities is of course likely to generate discontent at the least and opposition. Hence, some businesses that are in attendance may well have genuine concerns and desires to help in this area, but for others there are more opportunities at profit. These two agendas could overlap and be positive, but they could also clash, as will be discussed a bit further down this page.)
No doubt that from these business interests and free market ideology, there is some valid criticism as well. Some environmental "extremists" may unwittingly be suggesting policies which might hamper long term economic development for poorer nations. Yet, at the same time, points are made for example that economic growth leads to better environmental qualities. But, this is an ideologically based oversimplification, because it ignores those very same political factors and influences surrounding economic growth, development and the environment that have been pushed by and turned out to be beneficial for various business interests at the expense of these other issues.
For example, economic growth of the wealthy countries has been at the direct cost to poorer nations (for centuries controlling, extracting and using much of their resources), and more recently, by things like exporting pollution to the poorer regions, which makes the wealthier nations' environment appear even cleaner while regions in the South get even dirtier. Graphs and charts might show a nice correlation between economic growth and environmental health, but they doen't necessarily capture these political decisions. (This, while the U.S. for example is still the world's largest polluter, as highlighted in various discussions and global meetings regarding climate change.) Years of devastating structural adjustment in much of the third world by the rich nation-heavy IMF and World Bank has meant that the third world nations have been opened up for easier exploitation of labor and environment.
As another example of an ideological comment, the above-linked article about some valid criticism, from the corporate-funded American Enterprise Institute, mentions that at the Summit, "the undemocratic influence of nongovernment organizations (NGOs), the radical fringe's agenda of global environmental governance, and the socialist-redistributionist impulse will all be on display. On the other side of the ledger, however, are signs that the sustainable development project may be turning away from its Malthusian roots toward a broader and more productive view of the relationship between economic development and environment quality."
Rhetoric aside, this passage above ignores interests from other ideological camps, such as "undemocratic" business interests (which wield considerably more power and influence than NGOs and have contributed to a lot of the world's environmental and social problems, while at the same time being largely unaccountable). (Side NoteIn fact, a highlight of the ideological bias in the above statement depends on how the latter part of the quote is understood -- the applause at recognizing economic issues (which is critical) appears to be framed in a way so as to applaud business interests as the better way -- that is, "undemocratic NGOs" etc have a negative impact on the environment by fighting for environmental policies, but on the other side of this is big business who have a better understanding. Yet, for decades, many NGOs from the South especially, and increasingly more "development" and "social justice" NGOs of the North, have also highlighted the economic and political roots of todays problems which have included influences and problems caused by various multinational corporations. Of course this is an oversimplification as much as the above quote is, but it gives an idea.)
In addition, the claims that NGOs are non-democratic is only in the sense that it is assumed that sovereign governments are democratic in their real actions (as opposed to rhetoric). As mentioned on this site, for example on the NGO page, there have been numerous problems that are also at the hands of certain types of NGOs. While there are no doubt problems with many NGOs, many, from the third world especially are highlighting issues that their leaders and other leaders and elites around the world are unwilling or unable to address for a number of reasons.
- Many NGOs are beginning to work with people in local and grassroots situations more effectively, often when governments don't.
- From a business interest perspective, many NGOs are indeed critical of transnational corporate interests. In that context then, NGOs are seen by them as "undemocratic", when they are just as legitimate a part of civil society as businesses are.
- Furthermore, the business interests being spoken for are not exactly democratic themselves.
- The power wielded by just a handful of corporations is enormous, more than many nations, compared to NGOs and other segments of society.
- Business lobbies and related groups do not have even the theoretical accountability to the public at large but to their industries and companies. Their resources and influence are immense.
Furthermore, the rising number of NGOs could be regarded as relating to failures of state and markets to provide all the requirements of society. It is worth bearing in mind the sheer size of global inequality, to give an idea why there are so many NGOs popping up. An aspect of this inequality and some associated problems is highlighted by the United Nations here:
Yet, ignoring the ideological biases, there is some valid criticism of such agendas, such as the Malthusian perspectives (as also discussed on this site's population section.)
Population issues, for example, and various agendas and perspectives on the issue between different types of NGOs were apparent in the last summit as the following highlights:
It should be noted that when big business weren't at Rio or other such meetings as much, they were criticized by many for not caring. Now, when they were present, they have been criticized for being there! However, that argument doesn't in and of itself negate the criticism, based on their interests, influence, power and past actions in other international meetings and summits. No doubt, there are many in industry and even some business interests that may be regarded as genuinely attempting to meet some of these challenges. Private corporations can provide many resources to tackle these issues, and are often driven by the incentive to profit, which can be a big driver to push for development quickly. Of course this has led to the often justifiable criticism or observation that this drive for profit can be counter to the drive for sustainability. Yet, if it were possible to manage all this well, this can also be potentially a beneficial arrangement, which is where the appeal for public-private partnerships can come from; the so-called win-win situation. However, as nice as that sounds, as various international meetings have shown, from Kyoto and other global warming meetings, to various World Trade Organization summits, etc, there has been genuine concern about big-business interests that are harmful to the third world (and people of the first world even). These are serious issues that can't just be ignored.
For a while now, U.N. partnerships with certain major multinational corporations have been quite controversial because some of the major corporations it has partnered up with have been major human rights violators, or major contributors to environmental degradation. In many international agreements in recent years, corporate interests and strong influences have been criticized by many, especially from the developing world. It is therefore not surprising that this summit has also received criticism in relation to corporate interests.
Christian Aid highlights a similar concern to the above from the Third World Network, that while companies increasingly play an important role in investment and long term development, technology and skills transfer and job creation, "a company's prime motivation is to make a profit, not to educate a nation or provide clean water for every village." In addition,
Governments and Political Leaders: failing people and the environment?
As well as business interests, both positive and negative, national interests too were a major (the biggest) factor in how the Summit ended and what was in (and out) of the final Plan of Action.
It has been pointed out by many (and also discussed on many sections on this web site) how business interests and governments of some of the industrialized countries have often gone hand in hand, from lobbying, to mega donations, shared ideologies, pressure for government and political leaders to meet business demands else face the prospect of losing jobs as companies can easily relocate, etc. In that context, there have been a number of criticisms about various Northern governments as well leading up to this Summit.
As an example of the concern of differing agendas, a European Union and United States negotiating document advocated using the Earth Summit to promote trade liberalisation and corporate-led globalisation, while not proposing legally binding mechanisms to protect the environment or vulnerable communities, as Friends of the Earth reveals. And this was while ideas about some sort of World Environmental Organization, similar in idea to the World Trade Organization, (but to balance it out as well) is also given a cold shoulder.
Friends of the Earth also criticized the European Union (EU) regarding its position on trade and globalization related issues discussed at the Summit, saying that,
As another example, "Canada's negotiators to the WSSD admitted [to] the federal government's support of the private sector's control of human rights and environmental outcomes of this conference." according to the Council of Canadians.
Transparency International criticizes both rich and poor nations, pointing out that "Corrupt political elites and unscrupulous investors kill sustainable growth in its tracks" as it released its 2002 Corruption Perception Index. In addition, the chairman of the organization pointed out that, "Political elites and their cronies continue to take kickbacks at every opportunity. Hand in glove with corrupt business people, they are trapping whole nations in poverty and hampering sustainable development. Corruption is perceived to be dangerously high in poor parts of the world, but also in many countries whose firms invest in developing nations."
Thus corporate-oriented but rich government-led globalization has been a major factor in environmental issues, social and economic issues, especially for the third world due to the impacts and influence they have in international bodies such as the WTO, IMF, World Bank, and on agreements and negotiations, as discussed throughout this web site. The right to sovereignty is affected and people have even less ability to make appropriate decisions for their own communities, also highlighted in part by the following:
As mentioned above, Non governmental organization, ranging from international to local grassroots groups were present throughout the summit. Their issues and interests ranged from environment, development and poverty, social justice and other single and multi-issue campaigns. While some business interests argued that NGOs are undemocratic, as mentioned above, a lot of business interests could be considered undemocratic and unaccountable, and even more of an issue considering the enormous global impact that various industries have, in terms of power, influence and wealth. That aside, NGOs were recognized participants of the Summit, by the United Nations. Various NGOs have long been recognized as legitimate 'third' entity of society (the other two being nation states and corporations.)
But, NGOs are not one group, or even a lose group bound by a common set of goals. Hence, there were diverse range of opinions, ranging from being against the Summit in total, to supporting and campaigning hard to pressure governments for harder and more concrete agreements.
Anuradha Mittal from Food First, taking part at the Summit, describes how some NGOs on the opening day were not able to attend the meetings:
Some groups have argued that human rights is also a central component to sustainable development. That giving people more rights to make more decisions for themselves is key. Mary Robinson, U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights and former President of Ireland, has added that aspect of accountability that human rights should bring, also adding that, "the private sector is getting 'too much emphasis without accountability'," in an interview with Inter Press Service (31 August, 2002).
Some of the more grassroots-oriented organizations are often on the streets with ordinary people staging protests and the like. These have occurred for decades on all sorts of aspects of globalization.
As with other international meetings and summits, this one too saw many protests. To accompany it, there was a police crackdown with more accusations of heavy-handedness. The police claims security alerts that activists are planning violent protests, yet, a peaceful march of activists that included children and elderly was dispersed using percussion grenades to make loud sounds and produce smoke, to intimidate people.
(See this site's section on protests around the world for more about protests that have occurred for years on all sorts of global issues and the violence that has accompanied it, usually mostly from the authorities.)
As corporate globalization in the past few years has seen an increase in poverty, inequality and environmental degradation, ordinary citizens composed of activists, scientists, academics, intellectuals and others have formed various groups and non-profit organizations to try and highlight these inequalities from a human/environmental perspective.
This has also come at a time when a lot of governments around the world, from the most powerful to many of the poorest are seen cosying up or caving in to monied and corporate interests. Business-backed think tanks may claim such NGOs as undemocratic and unaccountable, and in the West where a large number of us benefit and live in comparative luxury, it might be hard to look inward to find a contributory cause to the world's problems. Of course due to the wide variety of NGOs many are not united by any common goals (in comparison, some basic business interests are common across industries). Some NGOs are indeed quite hostile on some issues while ignoring others. Yet, many more are popping up, with broader and multi-issue agendas and goals. These are often the ones being more critical of both governments and businesses.
When NGOs and others from around the world try to highlight this, it can be easy to shake off and dismiss as special agendas, and having other interests. In addition, when governments and businesses are failing people, NGOs offer additional voices (which are often more participatory and involving wider society, though not always) that add to the debates, which participatory democracy should be all about.
The magnitude of this event means that there is a lot more that can be discussed, from a variety of perspectives. Hence, for some additional sources of information about the WSSD, you could start at the following web sites:
- Official web site for the World Summit.
- OneWorld.net Special Report: Earth Summit 2. OneWorld.net provides extensive coverage from a broad and diverse set of organizations from around the world. (Due to the immense size of the OneWorld.net site, visit their home page as well for highlights of many other oneworld.net WSSD-related subsections and sites.)
- World Wire Special Coverage. World Wire provides news sources from around the world on various global issues. This special coverage is their section on this Earth Summit.
- IPS Terraviva from Inter Press Service provides many news articles about the summit.
- Center for Science and Environment WSSD section from the Delhi-based organization provides some additional perspectives.
- Malaysia-based Third World Network provides a number of sections on their web site that have a collection of in-depth articles and analysis:
- World Development Movement provides a lot of information.
- Food First at the World Summit on Sustainable Development: 2002 is from the Institute for Food and Development Policy (also known as Food First)
- World Watch Institute WSSD section.
- EarthSummit.info has a lot of links to articles and audio interviews.
- South Centre, an organization of a number of developing nations, provides a number of articles.
- AllAfrica.com provides coverage of the Summit.
- Guardian Special Report World Summit 2002 provides many news articles from the British paper.
- World Development Summit from the BBC provides a number of articles and on-going coverage.
- Corpwatch provides articles from the angle of corporate interests.
- International Forum on Globalization has links to a number of resources and analysis.
- Leadership for Environment and Development International (LEAD) is a global network of individuals and non-governmental organizations, working on sustainable development issues.
- A Mobile-Eyes Special Report: Sustainable Development from FreeSpeech.org provides many links and streaming audio articles on this topic.
- Sustainable Development Introduction
- Addressing Biodiversity Loss
- Rio+20 UN Conference on Sustainable Development
- Poverty and the Environment
- Non-governmental Organizations on Development Issues
- Foreign Aid for Development Assistance
- Water and Development
- Corporate Social Responsibility
- Energy Security
- Brain Drain of Workers from Poor to Rich Countries
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