Tuesday, 27 Aug 2002

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa

The World Summit on Sustainable Development opened yesterday with the election of South African president Thabo Mbeki as titular president of the proceedings. In a reference that could have been aimed at the U.S. and its apostasy on the Kyoto Protocol on climate change, Mbeki said, “It is no secret that the global community has, as yet, not demonstrated the will to implement the decisions it had freely adopted.”

Thabo Mbeki opens the summit.

Photo: IISD

International concerns were at stake, but local newspapers chose to emphasize the issues more immediate to the conference: worries about possible disruption by protesters and unhappiness among delegates about the restricted access to the conference center. Some 25,000 people hold valid passes to enter the center — where attendance is limited to 6,000. One woman from the Sudan told the Star newspaper that her village had worked for eight months to get together the money to send her to the summit and now she couldn’t get in. On the protest front, published reports say that Saturday’s big demonstration will feature President Mbeki, Fidel Castro, and Yassir Arafat. The police are nervous.

Meanwhile, jockeying continues over a wide variety of issues, from attempts to hold corporations accountable for their activities to whether the so-called “precautionary principle” will survive. (Must a technology be proved safe before being put to use or is the burden of proof on the worriers?) Another major issue is whether the summit should endorse what are being called Type 2 agreements: voluntary partnerships between businesses and governments with no formal or enforceable oversight or control. These agreement are seen by many civil society observers as an abdication of government responsibility in favor of the voluntary policies favored by the Bush administration — as in the recent “Clear Skies” initiative put forward by the U.S. EPA. Clear Skies would supplant many enforceable deadlines and programs of the Clean Air Act and replace them with voluntary, unenforceable programs.

Finally, security is tight as a tick for the summit. In part, that’s because of all the inviting political targets soon to arrive here — but everyday life in Johannesburg is no picnic, either. Here are the headlines from one page of Monday’s issue of the Citizen, a Jo’burg daily:

Couple Hacked to Death Killed for a Loaf and Booze Man Burns Down Six Houses Head and Corpse May Be Linked Alleged Cop Killer Still at Large Tip-Off Leads to Arrests Cop Kills Himself Zimbabwe Trio Up for Corte Shooting Metro Cops Hurt in N1 Accident

Makes Detroit sound positively serene.