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Wednesday, 21 August, 2002, 16:42 GMT 17:42 UK
Analysis: Do world summits work?
Policemen rest their dogs, near the Convention Center in Johannesburg, which is the venue for the World Summit on Sustainable Development
The Summit has come under attack before it has begun

The World Summit on Sustainable Development is the kind of huge diplomatic event that attracts criticism, even ridicule.

A woman stands outside her home made from materials found at a dump in Etipini township.
The Summit will consider how to end poverty while rescuing the environment
Aid organisations and environmental campaigners complain that Western governments and big companies are trying to make sure it achieves nothing meaningful.

Right-wing commentators say it is another lavish talking shop that will benefit only the officials and special interest groups taking part.

The 10 days of talks in Johannesburg are a follow-up to the first Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro 10 years ago.

That was a UN conference that produced tangible results, including international conventions on climate change and bio-diversity.

Since then, emissions of greenhouse gases heating up the world have increased and natural resources have been further degraded - but campaigners say there was nothing wrong with the commitments, only with the failure of governments and others to carry them out.

The targets set by the summit have become even more vital.

American unilateralism

But the prospects today are less promising. The withdrawal of the Bush administration from the Kyoto treaty on global warming demonstrates how crucial American involvement is to international action.
George Bush
American involvement is crucial to international action

This time there is no specific convention being negotiated. Many environmental and development groups wanted agreement on international rules to control the behaviour of big companies.

But given the opposition of the United States and other Western countries, what is more likely to emerge are voluntary initiatives - partnerships between business, NGOs and governments.

There seems to be almost equal cynicism about them as about supposedly binding agreements that are not enforced.

Another characteristic problem is the vastness and vagueness of the subject of the conference: sustainable development, or how to end poverty while rescuing the environment.

It threatens to engulf the participants in endless wrangling over the wording of the final communique. To take just one example: everyone agrees renewable energy is good, but should the definition include nuclear power or hydro-electric dams?

'Splitting hairs'

This kind of thing is normal.

In 1993 in Vienna, the UN Human Rights conference agonised over whether human rights were universal.

A year later, the Population conference in Cairo spent days splitting hairs with the Vatican about abortion, and last year, delegates to the Racism conference in Durban lost their tempers on the question of whether Israel's policies towards the Palestinians were racist.

Many believe such exercises are pointless or worse. But the issue is worth a closer look.

UN official, Shashi Tharoor
Shashi Tharoor: Talk is the necessary precursor for action
In Vienna, China and a few other states tried to argue that there were no absolute human rights and freedoms - that they were subject to the particular political and cultural systems of different societies.

The conference did not accept that view, nor the Chinese assertion that any criticism of a country's human rights record from outside was an infringement of its sovereignty.

Nine years on, several western countries have a permanent dialogue on human rights with China, even if the results are uncertain. The Vienna conference also recommended that the UN appoint a Commissioner for Human Rights. That did happen, and Mary Robinson has visited China.

Climate of opinion

The conference asserted at a global level the equal rights of women. Those rights were amplified at subsequent summits in Cairo and Beijing.

Meetings of this kind, so often scorned, may thus contribute to changing the climate of opinion in the years that follow. The texts so tediously arrived at do not disappear - they are dug out by campaigners as ammunition.

And words are important: that is why governments often try to make commitments vague so that they cannot easily be held to them.

As one senior UN official, Shashi Tharoor, put it: talk is the necessary precursor for action.

And even if action is slow in coming, world summits can establish international norms and standards that are increasingly accepted.

They represent progress of a kind, even if it is never better than two steps forward, one step back.


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See also:

20 Aug 02 | Science/Nature
19 Aug 02 | Wales

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