avatar
My lesson from the WSSD: no more UN summits, thanks


As a Johannesburg resident since 1990, and an academic who teaches environment and development in a public policy school, the WSSD was an enormously important educational experience for me, and also for our local social movements. They decided, notwithstanding an undeclared state of emergency and vicious repression by the government of host president Thabo Mbeki, to march a 12 kilometre route – initially banned by the government — from the impoverished township of Alexandra uphill to confront the elites in Sandton.

The demand by the 20,000+ demonstrators-most from Johannesburg townships-last August 31 was, simply, for the money-eating bureaucrats and fat-cats to close up shop and leave, before doing more damage to nature and people.

Can this position be taken seriously? Here are some of the reasons why a ‘nix it’ not ‘fix it’ stance against the WSSD was appropriate:

* According to Vandana Shiva, ‘What happened in Jo’burg amounts to a privatisation of the Earth, an auction house in which the rights of the poor were given away.’

* Third World Network’s Martin Khor concluded, ‘With such small results for such a heavy expense in personnel, time and resources, it will be quite a long time before a convincing case is made for another world summit of this type.’

* The NGO Energy and Climate Caucus complained, ‘The agreement on energy is an outright disaster, with the dropping of all targets and timetables.’

* The Gaia Foundation called the final summit document ‘an incredibly weak agreement.’

* Even centrist Oxfam called the WSSD ‘a triumph for greed and self-interest, a tragedy for the poor and environment.’


Monthly Review magazine co-editor John Bellamy Foster asked why the WSSD ‘went down in history as an absolute failure,’ and his answer is worth citing at length:


‘The first reason is perhaps the most obvious, at least to environmentalists. The decade between Rio and Johannesburg has seen the almost complete failure of the Rio Earth Summit and its Agenda 21 to produce meaningful results. This has highlighted the weaknesses of global environmental summitry.

‘Second, the US refusal to ratify the Kyoto Protocol and the Convention on Biological Diversity–the two main conventions evolving out of Rio–has raised questions about the capacity of capitalism to address the world environmental crisis. The United States, as the hegemonic power of the capitalist system, further signaled its rejection of global environmental reform by announcing that President Bush would not be attending the Johannesburg summit.

‘Third, both the rapid globalisation of the neoliberal agenda in the 1990s and the emergence of a massive antiglobalisation movement in Seattle in November 1999 have highlighted the system’s antagonism toward all attempts to promote economic and environmental justice.

‘Fourth, the capitalist world economy as a whole is experiencing global recession. Hardest hit are the countries of the global South, which–thanks to neoliberal globalisation–are caught in worsening economic crises over which they have less and less control.

‘Fifth, we are witnessing the growth of a new virulent wave of imperialism as the United States has begun a world war on terrorism in response to the events of September 11, 2001. This is taking the form of US military interventions not only in Afghanistan but also potentially against Iraq, along with stepped‑up US military activities in locations throughout the third world. Under these circumstances, war is likely to trump the environment.

‘Sixth, South Africa, which nearly ten years ago became a symbol of human freedom with the overthrow of apartheid, was chosen mainly for that reason as the site of the second earth summit. It has now come to symbolise for many something quite different: the rapacious growth of neoliberalism and the refusal to address major environmental and social crises.’


For Amsterdam-based Corporate Europe Observatory, a central problem was the fusion of corporate and multilateral agency power: ‘The corporate agenda dominates the political process of the WSSD to an extent unseen before. Nitin Desai, secretary‑general of the Johannesburg Summit, has whole‑heartedly embraced the world’s most powerful corporate lobby groups such as the International Chamber of Commerce and the World Business Council on Sustainable Development. He has truly followed the lead of former secretary‑general of the original Rio Summit, Maurice Strong, in making business his closest ally.’

Hence when Daniel Mittler gives three reasons for maintaining optimism about UN events like the WSSD, I must object:

’1) 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.

’2) 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.

’3) the UN still provides a forum to cause the US administration unease.’

The opposite could be argued just as coherently. First, in reality, the neoliberal bloc set the WSSD agenda, with their orientation to public-private partnerships (a euphamism for privatisation) and opposition to binding commitments that would slow, halt and reverse catastrophic eco-social processes.

Second, the ‘damage limitation’ project too quickly turns into institutional legimitation. By that, I mean that the neoliberal factions within the UN (e.g. Mark Malloch Brown’s UNDP and the Global Compact, not to mention all the smaller agencies pursuing commodification-oriented strategies) can, with this logic, artificially distinguish themselves from Bretton Woods and WTO values, with the help of the more moderate and opportunistic NGOs. In reality, virtually all the substantial UN agencies (with the odd exception like Unctad) comply with and even lubricate neoliberalism.

Third, yes, the UN did, indeed, momentarily cause the Bush regime some unease, at the 2001 World Conference Against Racism (where low-level US and Israeli delegations walked out in anger), the WSSD, and the security council prior to the invasion of Iraq. But in Durban, the US was nicely protected by South African president Thabo Mbeki and the EU delegation, who together prevented the crucial issue of reparations for slavery, apartheid and colonialism from gaining credence (in spite of endorsements from not only NGOs and anti-racist activists but also African heads of state). A year later, aside from a few chants against Colin Powell, the official WSSD proceedings were so tame that the US could not complain.

And the UN’s handling of the war is most telling, because the potential inter-imperial rivalries that forced a breakaway US/British ‘coalition of the killing’ quickly ebbed. Soon, the UN’s real merits were displayed at a May 22 post-invasion vote, as explained by Tariq Ali in the New Left Review:

‘Unsurprisingly, the UN security council has capitulated completely, recognised the occupation of Iraq and approved its re‑colonisation by the US and its bloodshot British adjutant… The UN has now provided retrospective sanction to a pre‑emptive strike. Its ill‑fated predecessor, the League of Nations, at least had the decency to collapse after its charter was serially raped.’

Tragic and reprehensible as the recent Baghdad attack on the UN headquarters was, it is hard not to be reminded that the UN enforced sanctions against Iraq over a dozen years that killed an estimated million people.

But could a better UN emerge from these events, one informed by the original values which make the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights such a compelling document? (‘Everyone has the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favourable conditions of work and to protection against unemployment. Everyone, without any discrimination, has the right to equal pay for equal work. Everyone who works has the right for just and favourable remuneration… Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself [sic] and his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security… Motherhood and childhood are entitled to special care and assistance,’ etc etc.)

Arguing for a more deliberative mode of ‘cosmopolitan democracy’ via a reformed UN, several major intellectuals have worked through these issues in recent years. For example, in her 1990 book Inclusion and Democracy, political philosopher Iris Marion Young grounds a pro-UN argument in the work of Richard Falk, Erskine Childers, Brian Urquhart and Chadwick Alger, John Rawls and David Held. She recommends closure of the Bretton Woods Institutions (which ‘do not even pretend to be inclusive and democratic’) so as to pursue a ‘reasonable goal’: reform of the UN, ‘the best existing starting point for building global democratic institutions… As members of the General Assembly, nearly all the world’s peoples today are represented at the UN.’ Moreover, the UN is a site where imperial powers ‘seek legitimacy for some of their international actions’ and where states ‘at least appear to be cooperative and interested in justice.’

But as we have seen, appearances are deceiving. With a revitalised analysis of imperialism (not the distraction of a so-called ‘Empire,’ as popularised by Hardt and Negri), which we all now require, it is impossible to see the UN as anything much more than a US puppet, with its own organic day-to-day neoliberal tendencies.

And until the international balance of forces can be changed through more events like 15 February and more fundamental challenges to elite legitimacy, the most worthwhile approach to building an embryonic global state is principled opposition. Our movements-and international environmental NGOs, as well-should favour instead the decentralisation of power to nation-states (which, one day soon, revolutions will again make relevant) and local initiatives.

Economically this would mean ‘deglobalisation’, as Walden Bello terms it in his recent book of the same name: ‘I am not talking about withdrawing from the international economy. I am speaking about reorienting our economies from production for export to production for the local market.’

Socially, it requires the hastening of our internationalist networking, but with the self-consciousness to realise that nation-states-not some regulatory apparatus from on-high-are, unfortunately, the only substantive units of political contestation that can defeat the forces of corporate capital.

What the UN might have offered, had our movements affected the balance of forces prior to 1997, was a site for genuine solution-searching in cases of global public goods and ‘bads’ (indeed there is a dedicated UN unit with this objective). But the most important opportunity, the Kyoto global warming negotiations, failed miserably. As the emerging carbon market illustrates, the UN’s codification of ghastly World Bank and oil industry carbon-trading pilot projects (such as timber plantations in Brazil and a toxic waste dump in Durban) only strengthen the commodification process. We will soon see the UN endorsing the privatisation of the air, which is the logical outcome of a Kyoto Protocol put together under circumstances of massive corporate power and US imperial arrogance. It’s actually worse than no treaty at all, when one examines the devils in the detail (as the international network Carbon Trade Watch is doing so well).


Mittler concludes, ‘to give up on UN Summits entirely would be throw out the baby with the polluted bathwater. Instead of leaving the UN arena to others, we should regroup and find a way to string up our governments with their own rhetoric.’

Who says leave the UN arena to others? We are the Other, and our position should be consistent delegitimation of the UN and relentless protest at its neoliberal and militaristic drift.

Not because it can be reformed, but because these protests are part of changing the balance of forces. Not in order to have a more harmonious global state with regulatory functions over capital-a utopian goal given the balance of forces-but because changing global power relations is a necessary aspect of opening up space for the kinds of opportunities that the global justice movements are pointing to.

Such a formula is represented by internationalism but not United Nationsism. It entails the deglobalisation of capital and the globalisation of people. It requires a universal ‘no’ to the UN’s commodification of everything, but likewise a universal yes’: the decommodification of those essential goods, services and our ecological inheritance that we dare not leave to the market, or its friends on the East Side of Manhattan.


(Patrick Bond – [email protected] — is professor at the University of the Witwatersrand and visiting professor at York University, Toronto, and author of the book Against Global Apartheid, whose updated edition was published this month by Zed Press and University of Cape Town Press.)

Leave a comment