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
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
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
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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, email@example.com