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One month after the Johannesburg Summit

by V. P.
04/10/2002

In 1992, the “Earth Summit” in Rio, the first of its kind, defined concepts, established some principles and launched three Conventions: climate change, biodiversity and desertification. At the time, the end of history and the planet’s end, the United Nations had achieved a great success without too much expense. The hardest part was yet to come.

Indeed, ten years later, in a much more pessimistic and chaotic world, the Johannesburg Summit could go wrong: North-South confrontation against a backdrop of resentment of all kinds (the 2001 Durban Summit, in worse); radicalized protests and security repression (the Genoa Summit the same year, in worse too); a clear failure to apply the Rio principles leading to the lasting discredit of the United Nations, and also multilateralism, threatened elsewhere (the failure of Seattle in 1999, in worse). However, there was no blockage or major crisis.

Another scenario, perhaps the darkest in its long-term consequences, foresaw a Summit for nothing: insignificant progress, self-satisfaction of negotiators and leaders, dialogues of the deaf between States, NGOs and companies: 100 Heads of State and Government, 45,000 participants and nothing has changed on Earth and for its peoples. That wasn’t the most unlikely thing.

One month after the Summit, can we say that this scenario written in advance has come true? Not necessarily. Against these expectations, Johannesburg has achieved some real results and we have seen a new atmosphere, perhaps even a change of method. But the Summit also leaves a huge unanswered question today: what to do from now on?

Results of the project

On the eve of the Summit, the state of positions had blocked the negotiations. Europeans, champions of sustainable development, had set themselves the mandate to achieve quantified targets, with dates, in a whole series of areas: access to water and sanitation, renewable energies, fish stocks, biodiversity, chemical pollution, etc. From their point of view, these targets are good for the environment, not too complicated to achieve in Europe and very multilateral. For good measure, it was necessary to add sufficient social standards, democracy and human (and women’s) rights.

The problem was the opposite for the United States: the protection of the global environment is a relative concept for them, which must in no way call into question the American way of life or involve any multilateral constraint. Their objective was to limit the results to good intentions and to leave the field to voluntary initiatives.

Thirdly, the developing countries, which do not like this type of negotiation too much: combining growth and the environment costs them more, and the rich countries had nothing more to offer; the multilateral can be useful, unless of course the standards are defined elsewhere, especially in social and democratic matters, and if the Americans do not agree; they are still the ones who best control the two crucial institutions for development (the World Bank and the IMF).

As a result, Europeans, unable to justify the interest of their ideas, were caught in a scissor-kick. As we have seen, the Americans, followed by their deputies, have not refrained from denouncing their inconsistency (commercial) and arrogance (environmental)… To avoid failure, the negotiations should have gone straight to a non-aggression pact: no commitments; no multilateral rules; no new financing or trade openness.

However, this logic was broken at the end of the process in Johannesburg, at a time when several developing countries, particularly Africans, rallied to some of the European proposals. The momentum was then reversed, isolating the Americans and the most intransigent from developing countries. The outcome of the Summit finally reflects many of Europe’s ideas on the environment and international regulation, and incorporates the financing promised at the Monterrey Summit (in March) and the trade prospects opened up in Doha (last November).

Several lessons could be drawn from this reversal, in particular on the possibility of creating dynamics by taking public opinion as a witness. In Johannesburg, the entry into force of the Kyoto Protocol (greenhouse gases) has thus become possible.

Beyond what remains despite everything a compromise of experts, Johannesburg confirms at the same time the turning point of the past 2-3 years: the doctrine of the 1990s – liberalization-privatization-structural adjustment-deregulation and state erasure – is being undermined, at least on paper. A new consensus is gradually emerging, less ideological, based on a few new principles: the appropriation by each country of its own policies; the renewal of the role of the State, democratic but strong enough to enforce the rules; the recognition of common interests between rich and poor countries.

The time is therefore ripe for institutional capacity building, rule making, partnership building, a kind of underlying multilateralism of rules, objectives, policies and means. Europeans find their way around. The IMF and the World Bank feel the tide turning. The Americans are divided. The Bush administration is once again wearing the wrong player’s clothes.

A new atmosphere

At the same time, the relationship between governments and civil society is maturing. Civil society, if this expression is to be used again, is increasingly reluctant to be seen as a vast catch-all, defined initially by everything that is not the State, assimilated just as primitively to everything that is against the State and against globalization. Some of the NGOs are increasingly refusing to be mixed up with the less transparent and legitimate ones. In this way, they express a real responsibility beyond mere formal protest.

For their part, companies are gradually becoming involved and have begun to participate in processes that they have hitherto considered it in their interest to bypass. On the hidden side of civil society, they see an advantage in getting involved….

Finally, the States, at least the most advanced, are rationalizing their relations with NGOs (neither indisputable nor infrequent) and with companies (neither absolute models nor great satans of globalization).

In the opinion of the participants in Johannesburg, this shift from contestation and mistrust to cooperation was reflected everywhere, in the general atmosphere, in the working methods and in the initiatives put in place.

The most critical minds will see the institutionalization of NGOs, the privatization of sustainable development and the hypocrisy of States. But they must recognize that it has become sterile to proclaim indeterminately that there is a united “civil society” (as there is a united “international community”), that declaring oneself anti-globalization is a hollow posture and that globalization means nothing if it is not applied to particular areas.

These are painful revisions for those who hoped for a global civil society parliament that would abolish global inequalities by decree. Recognizing the complexity of the world and engaging in solving its problems is less comfortable but more ambitious.

Civil society is not democracy. She is all the more precious because she is aware of it.

A huge question

However, the Johannesburg Summit will have produced nothing more than intellectual satisfaction if it is not followed by measurable effects. However, the experience will not be repeated any time soon because there is a general fatigue of the world’s great masses.

The essential issue of Johannesburg is therefore before us:

. How can political leaders be held accountable for the commitments they have made? How to monitor the implementation of these commitments? How to pursue partnerships between governments, NGOs and private companies? How can public mobilization on the key issues that have been discussed be preserved?

The debate has already begun, at the United Nations, in the Bretton Woods institutions, in the G7, in the profusion of micro and mini-institutions that have accumulated over the past 50 years. It is not clear that the existing institutional system is up to the task. In fact, we know it: he won’t succeed if he doesn’t change. Everything has yet to be invented.

For the coming years, several key questions will have to be answered. As an example:

– How to ensure the participation of all countries in the management of global issues?

This first question in turn raises three issues: the effectiveness of policy-making and decision-making in 190 countries; the balance between numbers (the vast majority of countries are poor) and means (held by a minority); and the legitimacy of governments that represent peoples.

– Is there a need for a democratic counterpart, complementary to that of governments, for NGOs and companies, which are often already structured at the global level?

– How to define issues of global interest?

– What should be the share of rules, objectives and policies defined at the global level?

Europeans, if they regain their capacity for institutional innovation, have a say in all these issues. They can talk to everyone. They will have to find ways to convince the Americans to commit to it…

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