FEATURE - South Africa summit risks worsening North-South rift
OSLO - The \"Earth Summit\" meant to save the planet is in danger of backfiring by deepening rifts between rich and poor countries.
Governments are scrambling to salvage next month\'s gathering, billed as the largest U.N. meeting in history with more than 100 world leaders and 60,000 delegates, even though U.S. President George W. Bush plans to stay home.
The World Summit on Sustainable Development, to be held in Johannesburg from August 26-September 4, is far behind schedule in working out a blueprint to safeguard the environment while promoting economic growth to meet a U.N. goal of halving the number of people living on less than $1 a day by 2015.
On a gargantuan agenda, summit goals include finding ways to curb consumption of fossil fuels, slow down deforestation, fight diseases from AIDS to malaria and provide clean drinking water to a billion people who lack safe supplies.
Preparatory talks ended in deadlock in June, raising fears of a fiasco in Johannesburg with the developing world accusing the United States and other rich countries of setting worthy long-terms goals that never get turned into action.
\"Failure would be a failure for the whole world,\" said John Hirsch of the International Peace Academy in New York. \"There is a mutual need for success. The alternative is a widening gap between the developing world and the developed world.\"
Many governments want more streamlined and less amorphous agendas for U.N. meetings - the draft declaration for Johannesburg is 77 pages long with scant mention of new timetables or cash.
FIGHTING OLD BATTLES
\"What we seem to be doing at almost all U.N. conferences is to defend old commitments rather than make headway on new challenges,\" said Norway\'s Development Minister Hilde Frafjord Johnson.
\"We don\'t think it is extremely beneficial to continue with these kinds of conferences. We have to make sure that this is Rio plus 10 rather than Rio minus 10,\" she said.
The Johannesburg summit is meant to build on the Rio de Janeiro Earth Summit in 1992, the first environmental summit after the Cold War.
Rio\'s agreements included pledges to fight global warming in a deal since undermined by a U.S. pullout. Many other promises at Rio have not been kept.
And Johannesburg faces criticisms that it is trying to solve too many of the planet\'s problems in one go - an almost inevitable recipe for failure.
U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan says it will address five priority areas - water, energy, agricultural productivity, biodiversity and health.
It will also seek to meet U.N. goals of cutting poverty by 2015 and will chart new partnerships between governments, businesses and civic organisations as a basis for development. About 1.2 billion people live on less than $1.0 a day.
FAR OFF, FAR-FETCHED?
Roberto Bissio, director of the Third World Institute in Uruguay, said poor countries were angered by the willingness of the rich to set development targets for 2015 when they will be out of office and no longer accountable.
\"If you agree to halve poverty by 2015 you should also set targets for 2005 and 2010,\" he said. \"That would show that developed nations are taking this seriously.\"
Mats Karlsson, World Bank vice president for U.N. affairs, said summits focused attention on environmental problems even if they failed to live up to their ambitious billing.
\"If we make progress against poverty by 2050, for instance, we would have a world economy that\'s three to four times the size of today. You cannot consume four times as much water. You don\'t have the technology to consume four times the amount of energy.
\"If you need 77 pages to describe that problem then so be it,\" he said, referring to the summit draft. \"This is extremely complex. We\'re discussing the world\'s future.\"
All agree that summit planning is running dangerously late even though a flurry of meetings since the last preparatory talks in Bali, Indonesia, have eased some of the gloom.
\"At least there\'s a will to negotiate. We have to avoid disaster,\" said Kim Carstensen of the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) after meetings including in New York, Stockholm and Rio.
Even so, a draft declaration had been agreed about two months before a U.N. development summit in Mexico in March. And in May 1992, negotiators agreed the plan to fight global warming a month before the start of the Rio conference.
\"SHELL OF PROTECTIONISM\"
Failure or toothless accords at Johannesburg could aggravate North-South as the main faultline in global politics after the end of the East-West divide that was celebrated in Rio.
\"The North is entering its shell of protectionism,\" said Indian Commerce Minister Murasoli Maran. \"They want to prevent the South from using the only competitive advantage they have: abundant labour.\"
Poor countries are told to protect rain forests or endangered species with the lure of aid and freer trade. But many say that an end to farm subsidies in rich nations, shutting out exports from cocoa to apples, would be better.
The United Nations estimates that rich nations pay their own farmers about $1 billion a day in subsidies - six times aid payments to the developing world.
Despite discord in Johannesburg, all agree that summits will continue as the only way to focus leaders\' minds.
Since trade talks in Seattle collapsed amid anti-globalisation violence in 1999, international leaders are increasingly aware of the dangers of failure.
\"At the food summit in Rome (in June) the accusation was \'they went to big hotels, ate a lot and talked about hunger\',\" said Will Day, head of CARE International UK.
\"But to get the right people in the room with a clear purpose is always better than e-mail and phone calls.\"
Story by Alister Doyle
REUTERS NEWS SERVICE
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