Summit on Sustainable Development Johannesburg

In 1999, the UN General Assembly, recognizing the arriving tenth anniversary of the Earth Summit, called for a 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD), to enable countries to review and follow-up on many of the initiatives initially orchestrated in Rio 10 years earlier. The WSSD was to be an opportunity to see what progress had been made since Rio, and an opportunity to explore new directions that should be charted for global environmental activity.

In developing the designs for WSSD, the conference organizers provided for NGOs many more opportunities to interact with official delegations than occurred in Rio—thus, initiating a framework for even greater interaction and roles for NGOs than had been experienced before. Nongovernmental organization representatives were able to present their proposals during the preparatory meetings, attend some negotiations, and present some of their positions on the floor of the Johannesburg meeting. They were able to lobby WSSD authorities and government delegations in support of proposals that NGOs wanted to include in (or exclude from) the official plan for implementation, stage public and media events to put pressure on the official process regarding specific demands, and conduct broader campaigns to direct the attention of the public and media onto social issues. Much of this activity was a direct result of an acknowledgement, largely from the lessons of Rio, that NGOs were a growing force in environmental and other human development areas.

Following the models set for Stockholm and Rio, there was a 2 year run-up process that included national, regional, and thematic meetings and four international preparatory conferences. The run-up process to WSSD, however, ran behind schedule and was, in comparison to the run-up process for Stockholm and Rio, poorly organized. The UN secretariat was unable to gain support for its draft documentation, however, and by the time the delegations assembled in Johannesburg, the draft plan was full of bracketed text still being debated by participants. In one of the final preparatory meetings, held in Bali, several of the NGOs involved threatened to boycott the Johannesburg conference, due largely to much of the dissatisfaction they felt regarding progress toward any tangible resolution for the upcoming Johannesburg meetings.

In 2002, the WSSD was held in Johannesburg from August 26 to September 4. This event was a major milestone in terms of NGO participation, as measured by the number of NGOs that had representatives attend. The conference attracted a large number of NGOs—about 800 were accredited for attendance. However, many NGOs were not totally satisfied with the outcomes of the summit as they viewed it as a "ministerial conference," with little outcome other than wide ranging pronouncements by government officials who they feared would have minimal follow-up. They complained of being able to wield less influence on major issues and also being sidelined by business groups from the private sector. Much of this dissatisfaction was a spillover from the dissatisfaction from some of the preparatory conferences.

Much of the dissatisfaction also probably stemmed from the lack of general receptivity from many of the more powerful global forces to the conference. From its beginning, most participants in WSSD confronted difficult odds with the declining global economy, the lack of support of the Bush Administration for environmental issues, and an international political agenda that was dominated by issues revolving around terrorism.

Despite these obstacles, Johannesburg generated two key documents: the Johannesburg Declaration on Sustainable Development and the Plan of Implementation. The Johannesburg Declaration on Sustainable Development was similar to the Declarations of Stockholm and Rio in that it spelled out broad goals and challenges associated with sustainable development. It also specified a number of general commitments such as the promotion of women's empowerment and greater democratic participation in sustainable development policies.

The Plan of Implementation is a longer document that identified goals for the summit and its aftermath, such as eradicating poverty, challenging consumption and production patterns, and protecting the earth's natural resource base. Much of it revolved around priority areas of water, health, energy, biological diversity, and agriculture.

Johannesburg also established a mechanism for engagement on sustainable development known as Type II Partnerships. These partnerships initially were touted as the innovation that would bring about significant commitments by NGO stakeholders. They were structured largely as a mechanism to engage not only actors within the public and nongovernmental sectors, but also a mechanism for engaging actors within the private for-profit business communities in environmental discourse and action.

Interestingly, this engagement of business reflected two dynamics. First, a development of support for a potential role of business as a partner with NGOs on environmental issues emerged, as exemplified by relations between organizations, such as Greenpeace that began to work with such traditional adversaries as the World Business Council for Sustainable Development. It also reflected a movement of social responsibility within businesses, as expressed in their goals. It also, however, represented a point of concern, as some NGOs viewed such partnerships as mechanisms for government to merely absolve itself from various responsibilities it might face regarding environmental matters.

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