June 13, Bali -- "What are we going to do about the United States?" It's a blunt question for a UN diplomat, but it's on the minds, the lips, and in some cases the T-shirts, of many of the thousands of delegates who recently gathered here for last preparatory meeting before the World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) to be held in Johannesburg in late August.
The World Summit process, the follow up to the Rio Earth Summit of 1992, has been an embarrassment. That is largely due to the U.S. role, according to critics. As with the Rio Summit 10 years ago, the shadow over the conference is whether President George Bush will even attend. Bush the Father did attend, after keeping the world in suspense, but then decided not to sign the Convention on Biodiversity. Bush the Son will no doubt follow suit and keep us wondering, but he has already ended some of the suspense by deciding not to sign the Kyoto Protocol, which is supposed to protect the climate.
Threat of U.S. veto has watered down a great deal of the negotiating text. The U.S. has "bracketed," that is to say objected to, all text relating to new financing for enviro-friendly projects in developing countries. Nor does the U.S. take kindly to dissent. When Norway followed its progressive stances on many issues, including the Kyoto Protocol, with a stirring speech the U.S. State Department called the Norwegian Ambassador to the U.S. in for a dressing down. The U.S. is seen as a schoolyard bully, resented, feared, snickered at, and disrespected behind it's back.
Shortly after September 11th, Americans were told by their leaders that "They hate us for our freedom." "They" meant Al Queda. But here "They" is, well, almost everyone. They hate us for our arrogance, and for usually getting our way.
The U.S. does have some company. On June 5th, World Environment Day, Australia celebrated the occasion by announcing it would not ratify the Kyoto Protocol. The announcement came after Australia had joined other countries insisting on watering it down. This news came out at a mega-cocktail party at one of the fanciest hotels in Bali, when the enraged Political Director of Greenpeace, Remi Parmentier, scheduled to speak in support of the UN Environment Programme instead used his time to warn Australian Prime Minister John Howard that he had "a lot of explaining to do." UNEP Director Klaus Toepfer scolded Parmentier afterwards, saying his confrontational presentation had been inappropriate for a cocktail party. Parmentier replied, "They scrapped the Kyoto Protocol, I scrapped my speech."
That Australia could take this step during the Bali meeting is just another sign that it's business as usual at the Summit, with emphasis on the word business. Despairing of being able to regulate international business, the UN has invented a new phrase, "Type 2 outcomes," to describe the partnerships with business they hope will be launched in Johannesburg. (Type 1 outcomes refer to traditional multilateral agreements such as international treaties; type 2 partnerships are ad-hoc and purely voluntary.) With these partnerships, the UN hopes to steer business toward sustainability. Remember, these are the same businesses that have worked so diligently to weaken UN environment and development agreements, and to weaken the UN itself.
Another UN is Possible
Led by Friends of the Earth, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have been pushing instead for a Framework Convention on Corporate Accountability to put some teeth into the UN's approach to corporate behavior. When the Bali meeting started there was a proposal to develop a framework on corporate accountability, but by the end the draft was watered down, calling on governments "to promote" corporate responsibility.
The corporate capture of the WSSD has put the global justice movement in an awkward position. Most of the NGOs and people's movements support UN goals, and many are involved in the process itself. Yet the opening ceremony of the Indonesia People's Forum, organized as a parallel event to the formal Bali meeting, was interrupted by the strange chant of "Boycott Prepcom." Midway through the second week, the IPF voted to boycott, though it was not clear exactly how one actually boycotts a Prepcom, especially as police kept protestors penned in an amphitheater out of sight of the meeting venue.
The ambivalent attitude toward WSSD is likely to intensify in Johannesburg, as are security arrangements for a meeting with dozens, perhaps well over a hundred, Heads of State in attendance. Civil society groups are split of whether to protest the meeting or try to strengthen it, or some combination.
For the anti-corporate globalization movement, the target will be clear. Business Action for Sustainable Development, a collection of global corporations, will be there in full force to push the message that they are part of the solution. Unlike the People's Forum, they will have a venue near the official meeting, where they will give out Awards for Sustainable Development Partnerships.*
Sadly, the UN Environment Programme will co-sponsor these Awards, effectively putting itself in the line of protestors' fire, even though many of those protestors would like to see a more robust and powerful UNEP. The UNEP of the future, they believe, should monitor the environmental behavior of these global corporations, instead of pandering with voluntary partnerships and awards.
For now, the U.S. and big business are calling the shots, which puts the global fox in charge of the planetary henhouse.
* The Greenwash Academy, to which CorpWatch belongs, will be handing out its own Awards, known as the Green Oscars, to companies acting green, but not behaving green. To nominate your favorite company for a Greenwash Award, please visit www.earthsummit.biz
This article is first in a series leading up to the Johannesburg World Summit on Sustainable Development set for the end of August.
Kenny Bruno coordinates CorpWatch's UN and Corporations Project.
- 101 Alliance for a Corporate-Free UN