One year on, the complete failure of the Johannesburg Earth Summit is obvious. But should activists therefore give up on UN Summits altogether? Daniel Mittler of Friends of the Earth Germany doesn´t think so.
When I got on a plane one year ago to attend the biggest ever UN Summit, the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg, I was under no illusion that this Summit would have any chance of being a giant step for mankind. It had become all too obvious in the long and ardeous preperatory process - involving some 8 weeks of day and night meetings of bureaucrats from all over the world - that there was no desire by those who call themselves our leaders, to address the root causes of global inequality and unsustainable development.
Earth Summit Johannisburg
The symbol of this lack of vision was the fact that those negotiating the text on the crucial issue of trade, kept referring back to the text of the WTO Doha Ministerial, which took place in November 2001. Johannesburg was thus bound to represent an attempt to rebrand the WTO´s free trade agenda as sustainable development.
The responsible Ministries – usually the Environment and International Development Ministries - were clearly not there to use this Summit to challenge the neoliberal dogma that dominates trade and finance ministries worldwide.
Calls, such as one signed by several hundred NGOs from all continents, that governments should establish that Mulitlateral Environmental Agreements, such as the Kyoto Protocoll, always take precedent over WTO rules, were thus bound to fall on deaf ears.
It was almost routine when the summit ended, and we stepped in front of the cameras calling the Summit “a betrayal”, the “World Summit of Sustained Disappointment” – or even of “Sustainable Destruction”. The world community had sent thousands of government officials to Johannesburg to agree little more than two new targets (on halving the number of people without access to sanitation by 2015 and reducing harmful fishing practices and establishing marine reserves). Everything else was weasle words and, at best, good intentions. The use of harmful chemicals, for example, is to be reduced “if possible”.
All this was not worthy of something called a World Summit. Worse, in some areas, such as the status of the “precaustionary principle”, that urges us to err on the side of caution, when, as in the case of climate change, there is a danger of grave harm, but not yet absolute scientific proof, that this harm will really come to pass, governments even fell behind the commitments made at the Rio Earth Summit 10 years previously.
On the crucial issue of expanding renewable energy worldwide – the “axis of environemental evil” led by the US, had succeeded in preventing any progress. And so on.
Ironically, though, I was much less depressed at the end of the Johannesburg Summit itself than I had been after the last two preperatory meetings. Low expectations were one reason, no doubt. But also the fact, that we had, despite everything, achieved more than I had dared to hope when I got on the plane. For one, the NGO “shit detector” had worked well – and resulted in some successful damage limitation exercises. At one sad moment, for example, Johannesburg was about to officially declare that WTO rules always take precedent over social and environmental rules. When NGOs got wind of this, they immediately conducted a bit of absurd theatre outside the negotiating room. Everybody who is anybody in the global environment and development NGO scene stood outside a dull convention centre room with a piece of A4 paper stating simply that the offending line in the Jo´burg document should be deleted. It might have looked absurd – but it worked!
The dynamics of the negotiations changed after the NGO intervention and when Tuvalu, Ethiopia and others started criticising the offending line others followed – and the statement was dead. An achievement, if not a big one.
In the end, the Johannebsurg Summit referred the issue of how multilateral environmental agreements and global trade rules interact, back to the WTO – not exactly a neutral deciding body on the issue. And another example of Johannebsurg simply endorsing what trade ministers had already agreed at Doha!
But there was also one more substantial success: Since the Rio Earth Summit the power of multinational companies has increased massively. Through trade liberalisation they have been granted many more rights. However, social and environmental duties for corporations are still lacking at a global scale. Rights for communities to, for example, sue multinationls that have ruined their health or livelihoods are missing. Reason enough for a global coalition of NGOs and trade unions to call for the Johannesburg Summit to establish binding rules for bid business. Needless to say, business did not want to talk about this issue. But with the help of Enron and WorldCom, NGOs managed to make the issue of corporate accountability and liability one of the main media stories about the summit. This public pressure – Friends of the Earth also collected many thousand messages on this issue around the world – succeeded. In the end governments agreed at Johannesburg that global rules for business should be developed. The White House did not like this. They tried to sink the agreement through a formality – but NGOs exposed their dirty tactics and successfully foiled this attempt. An opening for global rules for big business has been established.
This success was only possible because of the large coalition of groups (from Christian Aid to WWF and international trade unions) that worked hard on this issue in the run up to and at the Summit. But this success also depended on this issue being very prominent in the media. Enron and WorldCom helped make the massive media interest in the need for business regulation possible. But it was also evident, that the media saw NGOs in the Johannesburg process as legitimate agenda setters. Journalists called me and other activists up to ask what the decisive issues were and what we would like to see happen.
When I left Johannesburg, therefore, I was not too depressed. Yes, the Summit was a desaster. The Summit failed to set social and environmental limits to economic globalisation, as is urgently necessary. There is no obvious event any time soon that provided even as much as a chance for these social and ecological rules to be advanced. But all that, sadly, was expected. And we had done all that we could, limited the damage, and got one concession at least.
However, governments over the last year have been failing to move forward – even on the things that they claimed were great successes at the Summit. There, for example, is still no money to move towards achieving better sanitation for more people globally. Governments at various meetings since Johannesburg, have made it clear that they are simply keeping their fingers crossed, that business will further invest in this area. On corporate accountability, several steps backwards have been taken. At the G8 Summit in France in June this year, for example, the US refused to even sign up to anything that suggested voluntary moves towards greater business transparency and accountability. And at the WTO Ministerial in Cancun in September there is a real danger that the opposite of global social and environmental rules for big business is set on the rails – if the WTO starts negotiating a WTO investment agreement giving further protection to investors (mainly big companies) and endangering social and environmental rules.
So not only did the Summit achieve little, even those minute achievements have proved to be lame ducks. Were they, then, worth the massive effort that Friends of the Earth and others put into the Summit?
Many activists have concluded that UN Summits achieve too little and deliver even less. They thereforeurge us to give up on them. They say that, instead, we should concentrate on building alternative coalitions at events such as the World Social Forum. After two years of frustrating work inside the UN machine, I sympathise. And I certainly think it is vital for us to build alternative coalitions for a different world through our own events. I myself have made sure that Friends of the Earth Germany has participated in the World Social Forums – and organised a meeting on “how to move on after Johannesburg” at the first European Social Forum in Florence last year. We must not get sucked into the UN and consider lobbying there as the be all and end all of our existence. Of course! But despite the World Summmit of Sustained Disappointment – and the lack of movement by governments since then, I still think we must not give up on UN processes entirely. We must not see “movement building” and fighting at the UN level as opposites. If we give up on the UN, we are also damaging ourselves.
Why? First, because such events allow us to do our own agenda setting. Because of Johannesburg, we managed to achieve a global debate on the lack of social and environmental rules for multinationals. This was partly because we were seen as legitimate agenda setters as the Summit was about “development and the environment”. Contrast this with a WTO Summit. Yes, we can make it apparent that there is a massive global opposition to the free trade agenda being pursued at the WTO. But can we do more? Can we force our own issues on the agenda? Not in my experience. When journalists call me in the run up to a WTO Ministerial, they do usually not ask my opinion. They just want a quote about why we are against whatever the WTO is proposing. The massive positive media coverage about OUR agenda, that UN Summits do provide the occasion for, is thus one reason to stay involved with them. We can use them as hooks to force debates on our own goals. One reason, I would submit, why we have not managed to get any further movement from our governments on the issue of corprate accoutnability since Johannesburg has been that – with a hook like Johannesburg missing – it has been more difficult to keep the issue of corporate accountability alive in the press worldwide. At events such as the G8 Summit, so many other issues (Iraq not least among them) crowd the agenda, that our pronouncements on any thing but the “flavour of the month” topic are routinely ignored.
At the UN we also, in my experience, have a greater ability to do damage limitation than at other global institutions – such as the WTO or the World Bank. Had Johannesburg been Doha or Cancun, for example, I doubt we would have managed to achieve anything substantial with the “absurd theatre” that sank the offending statement on WTO rules and the environment in Johannesburg.
Finally, there is the thorny issue of the United States. Despite the fact that the US has shown in the case of Iraq (among others) that it is not, when push comes to shove, to be stopped in its power ambitions by the UN, the UN still provides a forum to, at the very least, cause the US unease. The fact that the US tried so hard to stop the Johannesburg agreement on corporate accountability is one indication for this. The sad fact that the US has since the Summit worked very effectively to convince other governemnts not to do anything about the Johannesburg commitment is, in a way, another case in point. I do not want to overstate the ability of the UN, with all its faults and inflexibilities, to constrain or even annoy the US juggernaut. But if there is an existing institution that can provide any alternative at all to US hegemony, then I am afraid the UN is the only one I can think of. And as long as that is the case, you will occasionally find me at the “Vienna Café” inside the UN building – though you will also, of course, find me, at the Social Forums and the counter-summits to be held in Cancun in two weeks.
Johannesburg did not justify the many million airmiles the many 10,000 participants clogged up for it. The Summit itself was a failure – and the follow up process has been worse. But to give up on UN Summits entirely would be throw out the baby with the polluted bathwater. UN Summits provide an opportunity for NGO agenda setting; for damage limitation; and for annoying and, at least verbally, constraining the mighty United States. It ain´t much. But it´s better than nothing. And so, instead of leaving the UN arena to others, we should regroup and find a way to string up our governments with their own rhetoric. We should continue our movement building and force governemnts to deliver on what they promised in Johannesburg: Rights for people, rules for big business.
Daniel Mittler is Head of international campaigns at Friends of the Earth Germany (BUND - http://www.bund.net).
From 2000-2002 he was the Earth Summit Coordinator for Friends of the Earth International, the largest grassroots network of environmental organisations worldwide. Daniel Mittler is a Fellow of the Centre for Human Ecology, Edinburgh and a Member of the Sustainable Europe Research Institute, Vienna.
Further information at Bund:From Rio to Johannisburg; Friends of the Earth: earth summit