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World Sustainability Hearings

US Mask Slips in Bali

World Sustainability Hearings

During the recent negotiations at the Bali UN pre-conference leading up to the World Summit on Sustainable Development this fall, conference Chair Emil Salim of Indonesia put his hand over his microphone. Leaning to a colleague, he asked in semi-jest, "What are we going to do about the USA?" The question summed up the consternation felt by many who had gathered in Bali. They'd come from around the world in hope of making genuine progress on the most critical issues of our time: poverty, clean water, sanitation, climate change, forests, fisheries, and the shift to sustainable global resource use and economics. But they found that the US was an unwilling partner. Repeatedly, the US blocked detailed language that would establish funding, or set specific target goals and dates.

The US administration is focused on an approach to world problems that relies on "free trade" and volunteerism rather than international agreements. The basic idea is that enhanced trade and international business investment should be the fundamental driving force to address global environmental and social justice issues. The Bush administration also appears to favor what the UN calls "Type 2" agreements - voluntary pacts among businesses, government and civic groups - as a replacement for binding international agreements at the upcoming World Summit.

But the US position is not being accepted so far by a majority of governments and other participants in the Summit negotiating process.

Many believe that genuine, detailed, funded international plans must be the outcome of the Summit if the global challenges it focuses on are to be properly addressed. They don't believe that it's helpful to postpone setting target dates and goals, or that Type 2 approaches alone will be effective. The sweeping rhetoric of the 1992 Rio Earth Summit and its Agenda 21 program made it a watershed event ten years ago. For the first time, UN member states agreed to address critical global issues like climate change, bio-diversity and resource loss, poverty and the need to shift to a sustainable economic model. However, because the Rio commitments were not backed up by detailed and funded implementation plans, the Global Environmental Outlook report issued May 22, 2002 indicates that little progress has been made on key global issues, and that in many areas, deterioration is accelerating. Most delegates, therefore, don't believe that business driven interests will address the issues. They have often been part of the problem rather than the solution.

Developing nations also don't find the Bush administration's "free trade" stance to be trustworthy. The Bush administration has touted the WTO and free trade philosophy to them, and even conditioned $30 billion in increased US aid recently pledged to developing countries on their willingness to open their markets to US goods.

But at the same time, Bush recently signed huge subsidies and tariffs to protect US agriculture and steel markets. The hypocrisy of this position wasn't lost on most countries at Bali. Nor was the fact that the $30 billion additional aid being offered is a sixth of the total subsidies for agriculture in the rich nations. The mistrust generated by these inconsistencies has contributed significantly to difficulties in negotiations on the Summit, and may ultimately generate major problems within the WTO as well.

Thus, when Chairman Salim gaveled the Bali negotiations to a close on June 8th, something unexpected had happened: The Summit agreement was not completed. The common wisdom had been that, weak or strong, a Summit agreement text had to be approved at the Bali conference of ministers in order to assure a successful "Earth Summit 2" this August in Johannesburg. Everyone knows that world leaders don't really negotiate agreements, they just show up, give speeches, take credit, and sign them, right?

Not this time. This time, the key disputed issues have been passed forward to the Summit itself for resolution - or for a final burial in a sea of rhetoric. And so George Bush and his administration, and the other power brokers within the UN membership have been left with a decision. Will they come to Johannesburg and show visionary leadership on the key world issues of our time, or will they send their minions to pursue unenlightened self-interest in the full glare of World Summit media?

What are we going to do about the USA?
It's time Americans ask their government for a more constructive US international policy.

We need to ask the Bush administration to take a cooperative, constructive role in addressing crucial global issues at the upcoming World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg. A war on terrorism and a carte blanche for international business doesn't represent an adequate response to the historic problems now at hand. If we fail to act, it's not difficult to project a path of increasing trade and military tension as divisions between the rich and poor increase, and as vital systems dependent on climate, fresh water, soil, forests and fisheries continue to deteriorate and fail. If the US takes the lead with intelligent, enlightened self-interest, it can create international momentum for a cooperative, healthy and sustainable planet that will benefit us all.

What you can do:

  • Write to President Bush and Secretary of State Powell today. Ask that the US join cooperatively with other nations at the crucial World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg this August. Tell them we need effective, binding global agreements on climate, clean water, renewable energy, ecosystem management, world health, desertification, and corporate accountability. Tell them to keep the promises we made at the Rio Earth Summit ten years ago.

    White House fax: 202-456-2461 or

    Secretary Powell fax: 202-261-8577 or

  • Help get out the real story on the global crises we now face - Donate to and support The World Sustainability Hearing in Johannesburg. The Hearing is being organized in collaboration with concerned groups and citizens everywhere as an event that will run for seven days in parallel to the Summit. Each Hearing day will focus on a separate Summit issue. Environmental specialists, religious and civil society leaders will act as a grand jury to hear expert local testimony from grassroots and local people from around the world. Together, they'll tell Summit delegates and world media what the real state of the world is. They'll assess what has and hasn't been done by local people, governments and corporations. For information, to help or donate, go to or send to the World Hearing, Earth Island Institute, 300 Broadway, San Francisco, CA 94133. $30 brings you e-mail, audio and/or video reports during the Hearing & Summit.


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