Pressing on: environmental campaigners and UN summits

About the author
Daniel Mittler is the Political Director of Greenpeace International. He is leading a global team of specialists working on issues ranging from sustainable fisheries management to delivering progressive policies that protect our climate. He and his team are responsible for internal strategy advice to campaigns and external representation at global political and business fora. He is also a member of the senior management team of Greenpeace's global forest campaign. 
When I got on a plane one year ago to attend the biggest ever United Nations summit, the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg in August 2002, I was under no illusion that it would have any chance of being a giant step forward for mankind. It had become all too obvious in the long and arduous preparatory process that there was no desire by those who call themselves our leaders to address the root causes of global inequality and unsustainable development.

The symbol of this lack of vision was the fact that those negotiating the text on the crucial issue of trade kept referring back to the text of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) Doha ministerial, which took place in November 2001. Johannesburg was thus bound to represent an attempt to re-brand the WTO’s free trade agenda as sustainable development. The responsible national ministries – usually those of environment and international development – were clearly not there to use this summit to challenge the neo-liberal dogma that dominates trade and finance ministries worldwide. Demands – such as the one signed by several hundred NGOs from all continents – that governments establish the precedence of Multilateral Environmental Agreements (like the Kyoto Protocol) over WTO rules – were thus bound to fall on deaf ears.

Read the responses by Patrick Bond and Felix Dodds in openDemocracy’s discussion forum

So it was almost routine when the summit ended and we stepped in front of the cameras to denounce it as “a betrayal”, and called it the “World Summit of Sustained Disappointment” – or even of “Sustainable Destruction”. The world community had sent thousands of government officials to Johannesburg to agree little more than two new targets (on halving the number of people without access to sanitation by 2015 and reducing harmful fishing practices and establishing marine reserves). Everything else was weasel words or, at best, good intentions. The use of harmful chemicals, for example, was to be reduced “if possible”.

None of this was worthy of something called a World Summit. Worse, in some areas, such as the status of the precautionary principle governments even fell behind the commitments made at the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro. On the crucial issue of expanding renewable energy worldwide in order to avoid dangerous climate change – the “axis of environmental evil” led by the US, had succeeded in preventing any progress. And so on.

Small mercies

Ironically, though, I was much less depressed at the end of the Johannesburg summit itself than I had been after the last two preparatory meetings. Low expectations were one reason, no doubt. But it was also because we had, despite everything, achieved more than I had dared to hope at the start.

For one thing, the NGO “shit detector” had worked well, and limited some of the damage. At one moment, for example, Johannesburg was about to declare officially that WTO rules always take precedence over social and environmental rules. When NGOs got wind of this, they immediately conducted a bit of absurd theatre outside the negotiating room. A lot of well-known people in the global environment and development NGO scene stood outside a dull convention centre room with a piece of A4 paper stating simply that the offending line in the Johannesburg document should be deleted.

It might have looked absurd – but it worked! The dynamics of the negotiations changed after the NGO intervention and when Tuvalu, Ethiopia and others started criticising the appalling line others followed, and the statement was dead.

This was an achievement, if not a big one. In the end, the Johannesburg summit referred the issue of how multilateral environmental agreements and global trade rules interact, back to the WTO – hardly a neutral decision-making body on the issue, and another example of Johannesburg simply endorsing what trade ministers had already agreed on at Doha!

But there was one more substantial success. Since the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992 the power of multinational companies has increased massively. Through trade liberalisation, they have been granted many more rights. At the same time, social and environmental duties for corporations are still lacking at a global scale, and there are no rights for communities to (for example) sue multinationals that have ruined their health or livelihoods.

This was reason enough for a global coalition of NGOs and trade unions to call for the Johannesburg summit to establish binding rules for big business. Needless to say, big business did not want to talk about this issue, and the White House did everything it could to slow progress. But with the ‘help’ of Enron and WorldCom, NGOs managed to make the issue of corporate accountability and liability one of the main media stories about the summit.

We established an opening for global rules for big business
We established an opening for global rules for big business.

Such public pressure – Friends of the Earth, for example, collected thousands of messages on this issue around the world – succeeded. Governments agreed at Johannesburg that binding global rules for business should be developed.

This success was only possible because of the large coalition of groups (from Christian Aid to the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) to international trade unions) that worked hard on the issue in the run up to and at the summit. It also depended on prominent media coverage that viewed NGOs as legitimate agenda-setters in the Johannesburg process. Journalists called me and other activists up to ask what the decisive issues were and what we would like to see happen.

So when I left Johannesburg I was not too glum. Yes, the summit was a disaster; it had failed to set social and environmental limits to economic globalisation, as is urgently necessary. There is no obvious event any time soon that provides even as much as a chance for these social and ecological rules to be agreed. But all that was expected. And we had done all that we could, limited the damage, and got at least one concession.

One step forward, two steps back

But over the last year, governments have failed to move forward even on the things that they claimed were great successes at the summit. For example, there is still no money to move towards achieving better sanitation for more people globally (governments have made it clear that they are simply keeping their fingers crossed, that business will further invest in this area).

On corporate accountability things have gone backwards. At the G8 Summit in Evian, France in June 2003, the US refused even to sign up to anything that suggested voluntary moves towards greater business transparency and accountability. At the WTO ministerial in Cancūn in September 2003 there is a real danger, if the WTO starts negotiating an investment agreement giving further protection to investors (mainly big companies), of the exact opposite of what we fought for in Johannesburg.

Many activists have concluded that UN summits agree on too little and deliver even less. They therefore urge those of us who put a lot of effort into them to give up. They say that we should concentrate on building alternative coalitions at events such as the World Social Forum instead. After two years of frustrating work inside the UN machine, I sympathise. And I certainly think it is vital for us to build alternative coalitions for a different world through our own events.

I myself have made sure that Friends of the Earth Germany has participated in the World Social Forums – and organised a meeting on “how to move on after Johannesburg” at the first European Social Forum in Florence in 2002. We must not get sucked into the UN and consider lobbying there to be all and end our existence. Of course!

Don’t give up

Yet, despite the World Summit of Sustained Disappointment and the lack of movement by governments since then, I still think we must not give up on UN processes entirely. We must not see building a global movement and fighting at the UN level as opposites. If we give up on the UN, we are also damaging ourselves.

We must not see building a global movement and fighting at the UN level as opposites.
We must not see building a global movement and fighting at the UN level as opposites.

Why? For three reasons. First, because such events allow us to set the agenda. Thanks to Johannesburg, for example, we managed to achieve a global debate on the lack of social and environmental rules for multinationals.

Contrast this with a WTO summit. Yes, we can make it apparent that there is a massive global opposition to the free trade agenda as it is being pursued at the WTO. But can we do more? Not in my experience. When journalists call me in the run-up to a WTO ministerial they usually want a quote about why we are against whatever the WTO is proposing. Our own ideas do not get a look in.

The massive positive media coverage about our agenda – which UN summits do provide the occasion for – is a good reason to stay involved with them. We can use them as hooks to force debates on our own goals. One reason, I would submit, why we have not managed to get any further progress from our governments on the issue of corporate accountability since Johannesburg has been that – with a hook like Johannesburg missing – it has been more difficult to keep the issue of corporate accountability alive in the press worldwide. At events such as the G8 summit, so many other issues (Iraq not least among them) crowd the agenda, that our pronouncements on any thing but the “flavour of the month” topic are routinely ignored.

Second, at the UN we also have a greater capacity for ‘damage limitation’ than at other global institutions such as the WTO or the World Bank. Had Johannesburg been Doha or Cancūn, for example, I doubt we would have managed to achieve anything substantial with the “absurd theatre” that sank the offending statement on WTO rules and the environment in Johannesburg.

Third, there is the thorny issue of the United States government. Although the American administration has shown in the case of Iraq (among others) that it is not to be stopped in its power ambitions by the UN, the UN still provides a forum to cause the US administration unease. The fact that the US tried so hard to stop the Johannesburg agreement on corporate accountability is one indication of this.

That the US has worked very effectively since the summit to convince other governments not to do anything about the Johannesburg commitment is a case in point. I do not want to overstate the ability of the UN, with all its faults and inflexibilities, to constrain or even annoy the US juggernaut. But if there is an existing institution that can provide any alternative at all to US hegemony, then I am afraid the UN is the only one I can think of. And as long as that is the case you will occasionally find me at the “Vienna Café” inside the UN building – though you will also, of course, find me, at the Social Forums and the counter-summits to be held in Cancūn on 10-14 September.

The Earth Summit was a failure, and the follow-up process has been worse. But to give up on UN Summits entirely would be throw out the baby with the polluted bathwater
The Earth Summit was a failure, and the follow-up process has been worse. But to give up on UN Summits entirely would be throw out the baby with the polluted bathwater

Johannesburg did not justify the many million air miles the many tens of thousands of participants clogged up for it. The summit itself was a failure, and the follow-up process has been worse. But to give up on UN summits entirely would be throw out the baby with the polluted bathwater. UN summits provide an opportunity for NGO agenda-setting; for damage limitation; and for annoying and, at least verbally, constraining the mighty United States.

It ain’t much. But it’s better than nothing. And so, instead of leaving the UN arena to others, we should regroup and find a way to string up our governments with their own rhetoric. We should continue our movement building and force governments to deliver on what they promised in Johannesburg: rights for people, rules for big business.