Deep tensions between Britain and the US have emerged ahead of the Earth Summit
in Johannesburg, which remains shrouded in pessimism ahead of its official start
The summit is aimed at reducing world poverty through promoting environmentally
sustainable growth, and although it is seen as the most important world summit
for years, there are growing concerns that virtually nothing significant will
As the gloom deepened in the corridors, it seems many delegates are staying
away. Although 65,000 delegates had been predicted to turn up, the UN has downgraded
its expectations to just 40,000, and by yesterday only 9,000 delegates and journalists
had been accredited.
Last night it also emerged that inspite of the extra 8,000 police on duty,
that a shot had been fired at a Swiss delegate in an attempted robbery in a hotel.
It followed the earlier robbery on Saturday night of another delegate in a nearby
The UK has backed calls from developing countries for targets to reduce the
number of people who don’t have access to drinking water, sanitation or electricity.
The UN has warned that unless real progress is made, the world will be increasingly
divided between haves and have nots, fueling global terrorism.
However, the US yesterday made clear that it does not want any new targets
and will not provide any new money to reduce poverty or help protect the environment.
The head of the US delegation John Turner said yesterday: “We don’t see the need
for any new targets.”
Although 100 world leaders have said they will attend the summit, President
Bush has said he will not attend. The head of the British delegation, the Environment
Secretary Margaret Beckett, yesterday showed growing frustration with American
intransigence, which could derail the summit. She said: “It’s true that the American
government is not doing as much as we would all like to see it do, but that’s
doesn’t mean there aren’t lots of people in America who take these issues just
as seriously as they deserve”.
“We very much want to see targets on issues like sanitation. We hope to persuade
our American friends to agree to some of the targets” she added.
After a year of talks, no agreement has been reached on more than a quarter
of the negotiating text, and there is concern that positions are now so entrenched
that it will be impossible to reach any meaningful agreement in the ten days of
the summit. One UN official warned that failure to resolve outstanding issues
could render the summit useless, and said they were not optimistic about progress.
“We hope to make some headway by the start of the summit. So far, what we forsee
is a complete disaster” he said.
South Africa’s deputy foreign minister Aziz Pahad, insisted that while he was
confident that common ground could be reached, “it would be romantic to assume
that there would be absolute consensus at such a large-diverse conference.”
Tony Juniper, director-designate of Friends of the Earth, said that there was
now little chance of the summit achieving anything significant. “I think it’s
looking like we’re going to get a pretty modest set of outcomes. It’s clear that
we’re going to get no legally binding targets” he said. Friends of the Earth has
been very critical of Tony Blair’s decision to attend the summit for just one
Mr Blair also came under attack from his most senior environment adviser, Jonathan
Porritt, who said he didn’t give environmental issues the priority they deserve.
Yesterday Mrs Beckett defended the Prime Minister, saying he had been fully involved
in the summit. “The idea that all he brings to the summit is the time he spends
here is crazy. He’s been working on it for 18 months - he’s been engaged and involved
in it all the way through” she said.
Mrs Beckett also insisted that it would be a disaster if the delegates let
the growing row with Zimbabwe’s President, Robert Mugabe, to overshadow the summit.
Mr Blair had been facing calls to boycott a speech by Mr Mugabe, who will be attending
the summit at the same time as Mr Blair. “The most important and crucial thing
is to make sure the summit is not dominated by the issue of Robert Mugabe. There
is nothing President Mugabe would like better than to think a whole world summit
has been hijacked by his behavior and his concerns” said Mrs Beckett.
The start of the summit has already been overshadowed by the highly televised
clash between protestors and police in the center of Johannesburg. Activists claimed
that police, who fired stun grenades at a candle-lit demonstration which included
children, were being heavy handed. However, Johannesburg’s Police Director Happy
Schutter defended their action, saying that the marchers had not obtained permission.
“We had to show them we wouldn’t let this happen during the summit. If they want
to march they must get permission” he said.
The South African government has been worried that the summit could be as disrupted
by protests as earlier summits such as Genoa, and have drafted in tens of thousands
of police from surrounding areas. The Sandton City shopping and hotel complex
has been cordoned off to outsiders, with incredibly tight security both surrounding
it and inside. The organizers have been worried about actions by terrorists since
this is the first meeting of world leaders since September 11th, and is taking
place just before the anniversary of the attack on the US.
Copyright 2002 Times Newspapers Ltd.