Thursday, 29 Aug 2002

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa

We are in the dog days of the Earth Summit here in Johannesburg. The excitement of the opening ceremony has passed, and three days of nongovernmental organization testimony by experts and activists — on water, energy, health, agriculture, and biodiversity — has concluded, while the real horse-trading continues on behind closed doors far into the night. A massive horde of reporters is swirling about, looking for something to report, and myriad groups are only too happy to supply new books and reports and studies at press conferences and receptions. News flashes and event announcements pop up on my email every few minutes, or so it seems.

Left to right: Charles Nicholson, British Petroleum; Achim Steiner, IUCN; Remi Parmentier, Greenpeace; Bjorn Stigson, WBCSD.

Photo: Greenpeace.

One such news flash that garnered considerable attention last evening was a joint statement by Greenpeace and the 160-member World Business Council on Sustainable Development. The latter group includes some companies generally considered environmental scofflaws — Royal Dutch Shell and British Petroleum being the most prominent — and it has had a difficult relationship with the environmental community since its founding several years ago. But the overwhelming desire of most of the nations of the world to get a handle on global warming and to persuade the U.S. and the few other holdouts to ratify the Kyoto Protocol (or something like it) caused the council to join forces with Greenpeace and push for decisive action. Both groups acknowledge their differences and insist this is a single-purpose marriage of convenience. And both groups see the humorous side of the alliance. Remi Parmentier of Greenpeace ended the announcement with an appeal to the group’s new business partners: “Next time you see one of us climbing one of your chimneys or unfurling a banner, call me instead of the police.”

In other news, Yves Lador, who represents Earthjustice at the U.N. Human Rights Commission in Geneva, is currently in Johannesburg to try to rescue a couple of key paragraphs in the declaration the summit will adopt some time next week. The paragraphs in question reiterate the U.N.’s commitment to the proposition that a livable environment is a basic human right. This seems too obvious to argue about, but the implications of such language are pretty harrowing to some conference-goers, apparently. The good guys in this struggle are the European Union, Norway, Great Britain (whose position has changed 180 degrees in the past few years), New Zealand, and a few others. The G-77 (developing countries and China) is trying to block any mention of human rights in the final document. The hard-liners are led by an unholy alliance of Iran, Venezuela, Nigeria, China, Egypt, Algeria, and a few other countries that consider human rights a license for outsiders to meddle in their affairs.

Yves says that he and his human-rights allies are trying to crack the G-77 solidarity and think they may have found an opening. The U.S., once again, is a stumbling block; it seems unwilling to push for the necessary language. The risk here is that if the summit does not at least make reference to human rights, a great deal of essential work in Geneva and around the world will be lost.