JOHANNESBURG – The United Nations World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) opened on Aug. 26 here. Over 20,000 participants are expected to attend.

South African President Thabo Mbeki, at the gala opening of the summit, welcomed the world’s delegates to Africa, the “birthplace of humanity.” Mbeki outlined the heavy responsibility on the U.N. meeting to overcome the failures of the Rio Earth Summit 10 years ago. The Summit he said offered a chance to end what he called “global apartheid” between the world’s rich and poor. The president said, “Out of Johannesburg and out of Africa must emerge something that takes the world forward, away from the entrenchment of global apartheid, to the realization of the goals of sustainable development. A global human society based on poverty for the many and prosperity for the few characterized by islands of wealth surrounded by a sea of poverty is unsustainable,” he said.

The outcome of the Summit remains uncertain as debates rage on Johannesburg between poor and rich countries over accountability and enforcement of the event’s decisions. In the view of many, the Rio Summit failed precisely over the failure to define a mechanism to implement most of its essential decisions. The 1992 Summit developed an Agenda 21, a program for Sustainable Development, which attempted to link economic growth with environmental protection. Governments pledged to cooperate to achieve those ends.

The governments of the United States, Canada and Australia are said to be leading the opposition to time-bound environmental decisions and targets, with one U.S. State department official calling them “ludicrous.” The Bush administration is also opposed to a proposal from the European Union (EU) with broad support from the Third World and Non-governmental Organizations (NGOS) to establish a World Environmental Organization (WEO). Some hope a WEO would act as a counterforce to the WTO.

Trade unions, and community groups participating in the Sustainable Development Civil Society Process or NGO component of the event claim the WTO and transnational corporations have hijacked the agenda of the conference to serve big business needs.

Additionally, issues of international trade policy between developed and poor countries remain key sticking points, with the developing world complaining bitterly against protectionist policies from the imperialist West who at the same time insist they open their markets to free trade and privatization.

The Johannesburg summit takes place against backdrop of growing environmental and economic crisis worldwide. Major issues being discussed are the depletion of the world’s fresh water supplies, deforestation and the growth of deserts, HIV/AIDS, biodeversity, intellectual property rights and genetically modified foods. Over half of the planet’s wetlands were depleted in the last 50 years and the process is continuing. In some countries, access to potable water has reached crisis levels. With the advent of globalization, there is a growing economic crisis as well. Unemployment in Latin America at the time of the Rio Summit was 4.6 percent. By 1990, it had almost doubled to 8.6 percent.

A trade union meeting organized by the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU) stressed there is no sustainable development without ending poverty. In their view, sustainable development must be built around three pillars: social, economic and environmental. The trade union meet will focus on poverty reduction, gender equality, working women, the disabled and AIDS. The achievement of sustainable development in the workplace and core labor agreements are key in this regard.

However, NGOs participating in the conference feel shut out of the event. Most have been denied access to the heavily guarded site. As of this writing, after requests from the South African government, the U.N. has agreed to expand access. Groups representing “civil society” are planning big protests on Aug. 30-31. Some are planning Seattle and Genoa-type actions aimed at shutting the event down.

At the heart of the frustration is the feeling that the corporate neo-liberal agenda has completely dominated the U.N. process. “The World Summit of Sustainable Development is a contest between those who want to own and subjugate the earth and those who want to live by her laws and protect her wealth to be shared by all today and saved for future generations,” said Dr. Vandana Shiva, physicist, author and anti-globalization activist. “This is the real clash of civilizations that needs to be addressed.”

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