World Summit Atmosphere Thaws at Friends Meeting

NEW YORK, New York, July 18, 2002 (ENS) - Countries edged closer toward agreement on the toughest issues blocking consensus on the outcome of next month's World Summit on Sustainable Development. The talks concluded late last night with indications that convergence is near on many of the most contentious issues - trade and finance, and the setting of new targets and timetables for progress in poverty alleviation and environmental protection.

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South African President Thabo Mbeki has been building friendships in advance of the Summit. He hosted Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien in Pretoria on April 7. (Photo courtesy 2002 G8 Summit)
United Nations officials said a new feeling of agreement was reached at a special "Friends of the Chair" meeting convened at UN Headquarters Wednesday by South African President Thabo Mbeki as chairman of the Summit, set for Johannesburg from August 26 to September 4.

UN and South African leaders want a common approach to be found before the Summit, so that government leaders arrive in Johannesburg with a clear idea of how the negotiations can succeed and launch concrete initiatives there.

UN Secretary General Kofi Annan told the high-level delegates from 27 countries that "Johannesburg is a test for multilateralism and for the international community. It is a test for all leaders who profess to care about the well-being of our planet and its people."

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UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan in Khartoum, Sudan on July 10. (Photo by Eskinder Debebe courtesy UN)
"Johannesburg must send a message of solidarity and concern, and must produce real change, on the ground in people's lives, where it matters most," Annan said.

"Six clusters of issues hold the key to agreement on a Plan of Implementation," Annan told the delegates, "the Rio principles, finance and replenishment of the Global Environment Facility, globalization and trade, good governance, time-bound targets, and technology transfers."

Progress since the last big UN confererence on environment and development - the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro - has been "slower than expected," said Annan, "and - more important - slower than what was needed. A setback now would be a tragic missed opportunity."

Annan called for "flexibility and mutual understanding," so that the group of "friends" could find a common approach that can bridge the differences and produce a broad-based agreement."

About three-quarters of the implementation plan was agreed upon at the last preparatory meeting for the Summit in Bali, Indonesia in June.

Wednesday's meeting was not a negotiating session, which must be open to all UN Member States, but an exchange of views among delegations to find common ground so that countries could bridge their remaining differences quickly in Johannesburg.

The 27 countries invited by President Mbeki to attend the meeting as Friends of the Chair include Argentina, Brazil, Canada, China, Denmark, Egypt, France, Germany, Ghana, India, Indonesia, Italy, Jamaica, Japan, Jordan, Mexico, Nigeria, Norway, Russian Federation, Samoa, Senegal, Spain, Sweden, Uganda, United Kingdom, United States and Venezuela. Many other countries also attended as observers.

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Ambassador Dumisani Kumalo at his desk at UN Headquarters (Photo courtesy South African Permanent Mission to the UN)
South African UN Ambassador Dumisani Kumalo said the 27 countries were selected based on geographical representation as well as "their common interest in the pending issues, and their overall commitment to the success of the Johannesburg Summit," Kumalo said the leaders of the G8 were among the first to accept President Mbeki's invitation.

"There is more hope now than there was at the end of Bali," said South African Minister of Foreign Affairs Dr. Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma as the meeting concluded. "I do not see major differences in the positions of the delegations. It should not take long to get an agreement in Johannesburg."

Zuma added that it is important, for the success of the Summit, that all world leaders attend. She said, "We want to see everyone in Johannesburg."

European nations have all pledged to be in Johannesburg, but U.S. President George W. Bush has still not indicated whether or not he will attend the summit. In the most recent indication he has given, on June 20, a week before the G8 meeting, President Bush told a dinner audience in Washington, "We look forward to advancing all of our development priorities with African countries at the upcoming World Summit in Johannesburg."

To ensure the success of the negotiations, proposals by Annan and Mbeki are being considered to add two extra days for consultations before the Summit officially opens.

"There was a real change in attitude and atmosphere here," Johannesburg Summit Secretary-General Nitin Desai commented as the meeting ended. "Countries have shown a great willingness to move forward and seek convergence. There was a good deal of movement - it isn't tangible yet, but the progress is perceptible."