Earth Summit Opens in Johannesburg

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa, August 26, 2002 (ENS) - The World Summit on Sustainable Development opened this morning at the Sandton Convention Centre as South African President Thabo Mbeki welcomed delegates from 184 nations home "to the place that is recognized as the cradle of humanity." But the world is "in crisis," Mbeki said, "a world in which our resolve to bequeath to future generations a sustainable and viable future has been found wanting."

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Flags of South Africa and the United Nations fly at the Sandton Convention Centre (Photo courtesy ENB)
The United Nations summit is the 10 year follow up to the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, when, Mbeki reminded the delegates, South Africa was still held in the grip of apartheid and could not even attend that earlier summit.

Today South Africa is free, Mbeki said, "because driven by the spirit of human and international solidarity, you, the peoples of the world took a stand and said that apartheid in South Africa will not pass!"

"We see a world that is ailing from poverty, inequality and environmental degradation, despite the agreements at the Rio Earth Summit," said Mbeki.

The world today is riven by "global apartheid" he said. "This is a world in which a rich minority enjoys unprecedented levels of consumption, comfort and prosperity, while the poor majority endures daily hardship, suffering and dehumanization."

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South African President Thabo Mbeki (Photo courtesy Office of the President)
South Africans know of "the depletion of the resources of the giant oceans that meet along our southern coast," Mbeki said. "They experience the pollution of the earth, the air, the rivers and the seas, caused by human activity. They know of droughts and floods. They experience the environmental suffering borne by slum dwellers and others immersed in poverty."

"We have all converged at the Cradle of Humanity to confront the social behavior that has pity neither for beautiful nature nor for living human beings," said Mbeki. "Out of Johannesburg and out of Africa, must emerge something new that takes the world forward away from the entrenchment of global apartheid, to the realization of the goals of sustainable development."

At least 105 presidents and prime ministers, along with an estimated 65,000 government representatives, NGOs and business leaders, are participating in the summit and the parallel events taking place throughout Johannesburg.

Over the weekend, informal consultations have been underway at the convention center. Chaired by Ambassador Dumisani Kumalo of South Africa, key nations and negotiating blocks and have focused on the outstanding issues in the Johannesburg Draft Plan of Implementation. Official negotiations began immediately after the opening session.

In a departure from traditional conference practice, special plenary sessions taking the form of "moderated conversations," will be held starting today dealing with issues where the summit is expected to bring results.

These crucial issues are increasing the number of people who have access to clean water and proper sanitation, increasing access to modern energy services, improving agricultural productivity, and ensuring the protection of the world's biodiversity and natural ecosystems.

At the opening session, Secretary-General of the summit UN Undersecretary Nitin Desai of India said it is time to "rachet up the engagement of civil society. What is important is not just what takes place in Sandton, but what takes place in all the other venues."

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Delegates at the Sandton Convention Centre (Photo courtesy ENB)
He too spoke of defeating "global apartheid," with a "sense of urgency" driven by the fact that every year three million people die of air pollution, and five million die because of water borne diseases.

Desai said that today we need the same sense of solidarity and responsibility that enabled South Africa to banish apartheid.

Officials appeared unperturbed by reports of pessimism that the summit can culminate in a meaningful global agreement on sustainable development by September 4.

"We expect all of the outstanding matters to be resolved by the ministers. The atmosphere is fine," officials said.

Klaus Toepfer, executive director of the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), told the opening session that, "We are able, we are committed to bridge our differences, to find agreement."

"We are not entitled to disappoint the millions of poor people around the world. We must be successful and we will be successful," he said.

"The atmosphere is very constructive," said Danish State Secretary Carsten Staur of the European Union Presidency. "The Union is positive to the new texts that have been put forward as a basis for negotiations in the areas of financing, globalization and trade, which are more advanced than the texts from the preparation meetings in Bali in June."

The EU, the developing countries in the G77 group, Japan and the United States have been active players in these efforts and the EU hopes the Summit will to proceed on this basis, said Staur.

European Commission Environment Director-General Catherine Day said, "The start of the World Summit has been promising and the EU is optimistic about obtaining a Plan of Implementation that would be satisfactory to the Union by the end of the Summit. However, there are still areas where a lot of work has to be done. The Union believes that a way of showing real commitment is to set quantifiable targets, implementation timetables and monitoring mechanisms in the Plan of Implementation."