Earth summit falls short of Swiss hopes

Aiming too high? - the summit left many disappointed Keystone

Swiss negotiators at the Earth summit in Johannesburg say they are disappointed with the conference's outcome.

This content was published on September 4, 2002 - 18:04

The summit's action plan, adopted late on Wednesday, has also been criticised by environmental groups for failing to address the urgent needs of the planet.

Serge Chappatte, chief Swiss negotiator in Johannesburg and deputy director of the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC), said the action plan fell far short of Switzerland's expectations.

"I am satisfied that we did at least arrive at a result," Chappatte told swissinfo, alluding to fears during the first week of the summit that the conference might end without international accord on a plan to redress the imbalance between rich and poor.

"But comparing the result with the expectations of the Swiss delegation, I must say that we are disappointed because the glass is only a bit more than half full."

Summit priorities

The adopted plan covers a broad range of issues, including water and sanitation, energy and biodiversity.

Governments agreed to a deadline of 2015 to reduce by half the number of people without access to proper sanitation, but failed to reach consensus on a timetabled commitment to increase the use of renewable energy.

Non-governmental organisations (NGOs) accuse politicians of ignoring the future of the planet by refusing to sign up to commitments to reduce poverty and conserve the earth's resources.

René Longet, who represented Swiss NGOs in Johannesburg, said the plan needed to be translated into concrete action on the ground as soon as possible.

"Sustainable development," Longet told swissinfo, "should not just be a literary document or a well-crafted poem: it is a struggle."

Chappatte says the summit's greatest achievement has been to put the issue of sustainable development back on the international political agenda.

"Having spent 12 days and nights in negotiations, I can tell you that the odds on reaching an agreement were enormous.

"And it's a miracle that we have been able to get even this modest result, when you consider the policies and points of views of some of the big players."

Civil society groups have accused many countries - including the United States - of failing to take responsibility for those issues which they say will shape the future of the planet.

Brokering accord

International agreement on the final wording of the action plan was only reached in the early hours of Wednesday morning, when a dispute over the chapter relating to health policy was resolved.

"The chapter on health is the worst in the action plan," Chappatte said.

"But even there Switzerland was able to play a positive role... and we were able to ensure that [the concept of] human rights was included in a text about access to health care for women," he said.

A last-minute row over part of the text - which states that people should have access to medical services consistent with the "cultural and religious values" of the country they live in - was averted only after Switzerland, together with others including Canada and the European Union, insisted on an additional reference to "human rights and fundamental freedoms".

Switzerland objected to the original text on the grounds that it could have led to women living in countries ruled by strict religious leaders being denied access to key health services.

"Without the addition of this phrase, we would have been leaving the door open to the 'Talibanisation' of health care for women," Chappatte said.

Praise for Swiss

The Swiss negotiating team has received praise for working to resolve differences between international delegations both on the issue of health and throughout the summit.

"We are happy with the role that Switzerland has played here, and it is clear that the size of the country does not necessarily determine whether you can be an effective broker," said Claude Martin, director of the Swiss-based environmental organisation, WWF.

"Switzerland played a very positive role, for example, when it came to the issue of energy," he added.

"It always adopted a proactive stance on energy questions, and I think their negotiators have done a good job."

Legacy of Johannesburg

Philippe Roch, director of the Swiss Environment Agency, admits the World Summit on Sustainable Development has not captured the imagination of the public in the way that the world's first Earth summit did a decade ago in Rio de Janeiro.

"Rio was effectively the historical summit, and in ten years we will be looking back 20 years after Rio," he said.

"Johannesburg is just a step - an important one - but it is not innovative and it's not a summit that will really make its mark in history."

Martin believes the 2002 action plan brokered in Johannesburg will do little to address the environmental problems the earth is facing.

"We already see severe effects on ecosystems from the Arctic to the Tropics," said Martin, "with forest fires and melting ice caps, and there will be more such effects in the next 50 years to come."

"So it's not so much a question of whether we're too late or not too late - it's a question of how much suffering humanity is prepared to go through."

swissinfo, Ramsey Zarifeh, Johannesburg

Key facts

Agreement was reached to halve the number of people who lack access to proper sanitation from two billion to one billion by 2015.
The text calls on governments to significantly reduce the loss of biodiversity by 2010.
States which have not yet ratified the Kyoto Protocol are urged in the text to do so "in a timely manner".
Governments have agreed to increase the use of renewable energy - but on the insistence of the United States, no deadlines have been set.

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