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Tough negotiations ahead at Earth Summit

Over 65,000 delegates and 60 heads of states are expected to attend "Earth Summit II" swissinfo.ch

A decade after the first United Nations Earth Summit in Rio, world leaders are heading for South Africa to pick up where they left off.

This content was published on August 26, 2002 - 09:47

The Swiss foreign minister, Joseph Deiss, says he is confident the summit will not end in failure.

"We have to be optimistic, even if there remain great problems to be solved," Deiss told swissinfo, " because it wouldn't be fair to go to Johannesburg with a pessimistic frame of mind."

The United Nations World Summit on Sustainable Development - dubbed "Earth Summit II" - is expected to be the largest and most expensive conference of its kind.

More than 65,000 delegates from 100 nations are due to attend the official conference in Johannesburg, while thousands of environmental activists and representatives of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) are also meeting at a parallel event close to the main summit site.

The Swiss delegation at the official summit - headed by Deiss - consists of high-ranking government officials together with representatives from the twin worlds of business and industry and officials drawn from a coalition of Swiss NGOs.

Deiss says he recognises his task as head of the delegation is likely to prove a challenging one.

"There is still a great deal to be done, because you have to understand that when you are negotiating with so many countries, it's very difficult to find solutions which are acceptable to all of them," Deiss commented.

"Take the example of climbing a mountain: it's the slowest person who sets the pace, and not the fastest, and it's very important we try to keep together all the countries gathering in Johannesburg," he added.

Taking stock

Delegates aim to take stock of what - if any - progress has been made since the adoption of the so-called "Agenda 21" at the Rio summit in 1992. They also intend to draw up a wide-ranging action plan to fight poverty and disease, and to provide clean water and sanitation to billions of people in the developing world.

Environmental groups - including the Swiss branch of the WWF - have warned that the summit's action plan is in danger of being watered down to the extent that it will fail to address any of the issues on the negotiating table, while others believe the conference is likely to end without any agreement.

But the director of the Swiss Environment Agency, Philippe Roch, says he is optimistic about the outcome of the summit.

"I am sure the text will reaffirm the political will to head in the direction of sustainable development," Roch told swissinfo.

"And I hope that in Johannesburg we will be able to give a kick to several processes to get the concrete involvement of both the government and private sector," he added.

Low expectations

Georg Schwede, programme director of WWF Switzerland, is less upbeat about the chances of success in Johannesburg.

"I am pessimistic, because I think the preparatory meetings have shown how far apart the different parties are," Schwede said in an interview with swissinfo.

"We have the developed world saying one thing [and] the developing world something else. The NGOs also have something to say, as does the corporate sector, so it's very difficult to reach any agreement. I am sceptical about seeing any concrete results at the Johannesburg summit," he added.

Swiss presence

The Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC) will also be present at the summit, mounting a series of workshops and seminars under the title "Sustainable Switzerland" at Ubuntu Village, the main exhibition site of the conference.

Walter Fust, SDC director and deputy head of the Swiss delegation, says heads of state attending the summit need be aware that little progress has been made in the decade since they headed home from Rio.

"The international community must recognise that the situation today is worse than it was in 1992," Fust said.

"Of course it's not possible to solve all the Earth's problems in Johannesburg, but it is possible to make the delegations more aware of the problems facing the Earth," he adds.

US intransigence

The United States, which earlier this year announced it would not ratify the Kyoto Protocol designed to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions, has been criticised for its reluctance to take a leading role in preparations for the summit.

The US president, George W Bush, has made it clear he will not be attending the conference, and is instead sending his secretary of state, Colin Powell, to head the country's delegation in Johannesburg.

"I really regret that the US is not getting more involved in the process," said Roch.

"In Rio, the US was very reluctant to be progressive and continues to be so almost everywhere else in environmental negotiations. Washington is not willing to submit to multilateral agreements and they prefer to rule the world themselves," he added.

"But I hope that they will change their minds and become more aware of their responsibility, because even if they are the mightiest in the world, they still have to learn from others."

Schwede says world leaders should not abandon attempts to reach agreement on a common policy for sustainable development if the US decides to stay on the sidelines.

"We should not just wait for the US. Of course they are a very important player, but if they continue their policy of refusing to engage with those questions which concern the future of our planet, then we will have to find other international partners."

by Ramsey Zarifeh

Key facts

The Swiss intend to focus on five main themes: water and sanitation, food security, energy, health and biodiversity.
More than 65,000 delegates from 100 nations are expected to attend the summit.
The Swiss delegation will be led by the foreign minister, Joseph Deiss.

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