Tuesday, 3 Sep 2002

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa

One hates to be downbeat, one really does. One likes to seek silver linings, lights at ends of tunnels, that sort of thing. But damn if there’s much to praise coming out of this ponderous mess of a conference.

By way of comparison, in Stockholm 30 years ago, there was zeal, passion, fire, hope. Delegates seemed genuinely to care, and observers came to promote their own causes whether they were on the conference agenda or not: Vietnam, nuclear power plants, whaling. In fact it was at Stockholm where the crusade that eventually led to the moratorium on commercial whaling began; the momentum generated there eventually overwhelmed the International Whaling Commission. It’s hard to imagine anything remotely close coming out of Joburg.

The final touches were put on the “Plan of Implementation” yesterday. The best single element of the plan, perhaps, is a pledge to halve, by 2015, the number of people lacking clean drinking water or sanitation. A noble goal, but 2015 is a long way away and much will change by that time. Other suggested goals — a decisive move toward renewable energy, a recommitment to the precautionary principle, a move away from subsidies for agriculture and nonrenewable energy systems, a rethink of free trade, a reaffirmation of the link between human rights and the environment, and many others — were lost or watered down beyond recognition in the final text of the plan.

The plan has yet to be approved by world leaders, and it will be interesting to see what happens. As Eco noted today, the grand speeches delivered yesterday by various heads of government (HOGS, to the snide and in-the-know) and continuing this week (Colin Powell is on tomorrow) bear very little resemblance to the actual words in the plan those same leaders are about to sign. There’s some chance the declaration will be improved, I suppose, but I wouldn’t bet on it.

Mary Robinson.

Photo: IISD.

Still, to try to end on that silver lining I despaired of starting with, I’ll mention the human rights workshop I went to Sunday morning. My fellow workshoppers included, among others, the outgoing U.N. High Commissioner on Human Rights, Mary Robinson. Robinson, a former president of Ireland, is a compelling and dynamic woman who has just been forced from her position under pressure from — you guessed it — the United States. She (and many others) is worried that human-rights language may disappear from the summit declaration that’s still being haggled over. But she added one note of hope, saying that she’d been to lots of these conferences and has learned that it is not unusual for things to turn around at the last minute. We’ll cross our fingers.