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What the Government failed to tell us about WSSD

A high-powered government delegation, led by Environment Minister Marian Hobbs, recently returned from the Earth Summit in Johannesburg with a Programme of Action for sustainable development that presents economic globalisation as a solution. Professor of Law Jane Kelsey puts the summit under the microscope and finds it decidedly flawed.

What the Government failed to tell us
about the Earth Summit in Johannesburg

Having recently attended the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (MFAT) briefing on the World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) in Johannesburg, I was appalled at how sanitised it was.

The briefings glossed over the strong challenges presented inside and outside the Summit to the idea that sustainable development requires even more globalisation.

The summit was meant to provide the next steps forward, based on the progressive agenda of the Rio Earth Summit a decade ago. Instead of Rio + 10, the summit became known as Doha + 10, a reference to ten months since the launching of a new round of free trade negotiations at the WTO ministerial meeting in Doha (Qatar).

There was nothing progressive about the process or the outcome. The people for whom sustainable development is a matter of life and death – poor and small island countries, indigenous nations, peasant farmers, local communities– were marginalised throughout the summit. So were their demands for debt relief, genuine agrarian reform, rights to food security and clean drinking water, enforceable controls over trans-national companies, protection of indigenous rights over biodiversity, an end to dumping of GE-grain on countries facing starvation and much more. Even the powerful Western environmental lobby was sidelined at a venue miles from the main meeting.

Delegations representing poorer countries objected that the UN’s relatively open processes had been subverted by the kind of bullying, manipulation and backroom dealings that pervade the WTO. Venezuela’s President Chavez, speaking for the Group of 77 poorer countries, called the Summit a ‘dialogue of the deaf’, complaining that most heads of state and governments had no influence on the Plan of Implementation.

Predictably, those who dominated were the major powers, especially the United States, EC and Japan, with strong support from Australia and New Zealand on issues of globalisation. Sponsors, such as BMW, Hewlett Packard and Daimler Chrysler, provided an up-market corporate image. The business end of ‘civil society’, re-branded through such alliances as the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, and even Mining, Minerals and Sustainable Development, proclaimed their conversion to social responsibility.

The epitome of corporate ‘green washing’ was a report from the Chairmen of DuPont, Shell and Anova Holdings: ‘Walking the Talk: The Business Case for Sustainable Development’. Their solution was ‘to mobilize markets in favour of sustainability, leveraging the power of innovation and global markets for the benefit of everyone – not just the developed world. This means a further liberalization of the market – a move that would be condemned by anti-globalization protestors'.

Indeed. The Summit’s location in post-apartheid Johannesburg underscored this paradox. Some 20,000 people marched from the depressed township of Alexandra to the summit venue at elite Sandton to be met by some 8000 police, plus tanks, helicopters and barricades. At the fore were a group from Soweto where privatisation of water and electricity had already seen terminations for non-payment and outbreaks of disease, such as cholera. The official delegations were quarantined from this ‘uncivil society’ and oblivious to their warnings about global apartheid.

The champions of the WTO, including New Zealand, emerged victorious. Abundant evidence that links global free markets to deepening inequality, environmental destruction, corporate corruption, collapsing infrastructure, social crises and political chaos was swept aside with the blanket assertion that trade liberalisation enhances sustainable development. Views ignored include those of bodies like the World Health Assembly, UN Commission on Human Rights and UNCTAD who fear the social impacts of WTO agreements on ‘development rights’ to education, water, health care and medicines.

By endorsing the Doha agenda, the Summit effectively sanctioned proposals to extend the power of major corporations over core services and guarantee rights to foreign investors, with no corresponding legal responsibility. This was confirmed by the shift in focus from Type-I treaties that are binding under international law to so-called Type-II outcomes of ‘stakeholder partnerships’. Notionally these ‘partnerships’ include indigenous peoples, local governments and (corporate-friendly) non-government organisations. In practice, they are designed to forge the bond between governments and corporations that Walking the Talk proposed. The Summit’s targets on energy, water and food all assumed private provision by profit-driven transnational companies. An obvious alternative – to cancel the unpayable and often unconscionable debt – had already been ruled out at the Conference on Financing of Development in Monterrey in March 2002.

Sustainable development became code for corporations assuming more control over resources, not less. At a time when corporate corruption dominates the headlines and self-regulation is visibly failing internationally, and in New Zealand, this is an extraordinary coup for big business. Already a ‘Walking the Talk’ forum in Auckland has discussed ‘the implications for business – and the opportunities’ arising from the Summit. More are scheduled, presumably with support from a Third Way Government committed to light-handed regulation and public/private infrastructure projects.

I’m not opposing the idea of businesses becoming socially responsible. But New Zealanders should not be seduced into believing that companies like Waste Management and Shell have been reborn as responsible corporate citizens. Their power needs to be wound back and their actions regulated, not expanded further in the guise of sustainable development and social responsibility.

Text ends: 844 words

Jane Kelsey is a Professor of Law at Auckland University and a member of the Action, Research and Education Network of Aotearoa (ARENA). Further information about the WSSD, and the effects of globalisation on New Zealand generally, is available by contacting ARENA at www.arena.org.nz


Submitted: Don Polly, media liaison, ARENA, 905-8595, donpolly@clear.net.nz

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