Johannesburg, Aug. 26 (Reuters): With a call for an end to the “global apartheid” between rich and poor ringing in their ears, delegates to the Earth Summit in Johannesburg began talks today aimed at relieving poverty and healing the planet.
As rooftop sharpshooters and battalions of police and troops shielded them from the risk of angry protests, host president Thabo Mbeki of South Africa told the representatives of nearly 200 governments that it was time to scrap a world order based on the “savage principle of the survival of the fittest”.
“A global human society based on poverty for many and prosperity for a few, characterised by islands of wealth, surrounded by a sea of poverty, is unsustainable,” he told the opening session of the World Summit on Sustainable Development.
Delegates crowded the plush Sandton convention centre, just a short walk from some of Africa’s most squalid slums. Inside, idealistic campaigners showed off the benefits of solar cooking stoves while outside the South African armed forces put on an impressive display of hardware to discourage violent protests.
Mbeki, who said yesterday that “global apartheid” must go the same way as White minority rule in South Africa, criticised the failure of governments to act on pledges made 10 years ago in Rio de Janeiro to pursue environmentally friendly prosperity.
But after preparatory talks at the weekend, negotiators still face an uphill struggle over the next 10 days to narrow a gulf between poor nations seeking more aid and fairer trade and wealthy powers led by the US and European Union, who want to see better government in the Third World in return.
One focus for dispute could be Robert Mugabe, President of neighbouring Zimbabwe and a target of bitter Western criticism over human rights abuses and seizures of White-owned farmland.
World leaders are due in Johannesburg next week, hoping to sign a broad “implementation plan” that the UN organisers hope will revive the spirit of Rio on a wide range of issues, from improving healthcare to saving rainforests and fish stocks.
“This is not a conference to solve every single problem. But this is a test — we have to come out with credible commitments for action,” the summit’s UN organiser Nitin Desai said.
But critics point out that, as in Rio, the texts under discussion are vague and not legally binding.
US President George W. Bush does not even plan to attend, prompting fury among critics already dismayed by his rejection last year of the Kyoto accord to cut the air pollution blamed for global warming.
There has been little sign of the sort of mass street protests that have marred international meetings in Seattle, Genoa and elsewhere. But Johannesburg police, still shaking off an apartheid-era reputation for brutality, are taking no chances, clamping down hard on small protests.