17 July 2002

Africa: Foreign Minister Seeking Pre-WSSD Summit 'Consensus'

Washington, DC — Tough, unresolved issues keep the United States, European Union, Canada, Japan and Australia far apart from developing nations, a month before an "Earth Summit" formally called the World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD), that will bring some 100 world leaders and 60,000 participants to Johannesburg. South Africa's foreign Minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma will chair an "informal" New York meeting of representatives from 25 countries today in an effort to bridge the gap of differences.

Last Friday, she met with U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, who in a statement said he plans to attend the WSSD and stress partnerships involving governments, civil society and the private sector. "We will also carry the message that sustainable development must begin at home, with sound policies and good governance," said Powell.

Today's New York meeting, being held at the request of South African president Thabo Mbeki, grew out of discussions between Mbeki and UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan during the G8 summit in Kananaskis, Canada last month, according to a United Nations press release. It "is part of intensified behind-the-scenes [efforts] aimed at building a framework for finding agreement on the remaining outstanding issues."

According to U.N. Undersecretary-General Nitin Desai the meeting will not be a negotiating session but an effort to come up with an "approach" that will aid negotiations expected to take place at the WSSD in Johannesburg. Mbeki, said the South African Mission to the United Nations in a statement, "remains convinced that a focused political discussion of the outstanding issues could result in an approach that can help expedite the process in Johannesburg."

Desai says negotiators from nearly 200 countries have reached agreement on 75 percent of the development blueprint for the next decade - including giving priority to water and sanitation, energy, health, agriculture and biodiversity.

But he acknowledges that the most difficult issues remain to be settled:

* Whether there should be timetables and targets for action on issues ranging from providing proper sanitation to increasing the use of renewable energy and phasing out toxic chemicals, and if so, whether they can be linked.

* What action to take on issues such as climate change before there is complete scientific certainty - and should countries have different responsibilities to act on such issues?

* How to tackle the broad issues of trade, finance, good government and access to technology for developing countries

Developing nations want summit agreement on ending unfair trade terms, especially protective agricultural subsidies which many poor nations complain prevent their farmers from selling to the markets of wealthy nations, and an "action plan" tied to a timetable for providing money for development and programs aimed at fighting poverty.

South Africa's Mbeki is pushing for the WSSD to adopt the New Partnership for African Development (Nepad) as the program for sustainable development on the African continent

The U.S. and EU fear this agenda reopens and begins to rework what they consider the broad agreements that have been reached at past meetings such as the World Trade Organization meeting in Doha, Qatar and the summit on financial development held in Monterrey, Mexico.

The fourth WSSD "Preparatory Conference" that ended in Bali, Indonesia last week collapsed in disagreement over these issues. "This is a battle," said the chair of that meeting, Indonesian Environment Minister Emil Salim, afterward. "There is still considerable divide between the developing and developed world."

South Africa does not want the meeting it will host to collaspe in such disarray. Already some voices are suggesting that if a meaningful response to the concerns of developing nations can't be found, perhaps the WSSD should be called off. "At some point when things are not really moving, it's better to have a failure than a foul compromise," Greenpeace Executive Director, Gerd Leipold told Reuters News Agency on Monday.

That is out of the question, said South African Environmental Minister Valli Moosa before flying out to the New York meeting. "Everyone wants this meeting to succeed."

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