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Background: U.N. Summit

August 26, 2002 at 12:00 AM EDT


TOM BEARDEN: As the world summit on sustainable development opened in Johannesburg, South African President Thabo Mbeki told delegates the gap between rich and poor countries had only grown since a similar meeting in Rio de Janeiro a decade ago. He decried what he called a system of “global apartheid.”

PRESIDENT THABO MBEKI: The time has come to reflect anew on the state of the world today. None of us cannot but be dismayed at what we see. We see a world that is ailing from poverty, inequality, and environmental degradation, despite the agreements at the Rio summit. 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.

TOM BEARDEN: The ten-day summit is the largest in the history of the United Nations. Nearly 50,000 delegates and 100 world leaders are attending under heavy security. Leaders are hoping to agree on specific plans for improving the economies of the developing world. At the same time, the summit is equally focused on protecting the world’s environment and natural resources. By holding the summit in Johannesburg, the UN is showcasing a city that is home to many of the problems of poverty that leaders will be talking about.

The United Nations has several key goals, including reducing by half the number of people without access to clean water and proper sanitation; more than one billion have no access to clean water, more than two billion are without real sanitation; cutting in half the number of people living on less than a dollar a day; and creating a timeline for protecting the environment, lessening pollution, and slowing global warming. Developing countries have other goals, including more aid.

They are asking wealthier nations to allocate 0.7 percent of their annual Gross Domestic Product for aid. The European Union has pledged to give about 0.4 percent annually by 2006 and the U.S. is providing about 0.1 percent of its annual GDP. The elimination of tariffs and trade barriers on agricultural goods from poorer countries: Wealthier countries say they already have increased aid. They also say developing countries need to improve their own political and economic performance before aid increases. But protesters and many leaders are concerned that too much of the summit’s broad agenda will end up leading to a lot of talk without much action. Whatever resolutions pass will be non-binding.

JAN PRONK, United Nations: We cannot leave Johannesburg without an agreement to implement and a commitment to implement. Not just a new text. We should not be interested in new words and new texts. We should only be interested in a firm commitment to implement, and that also means that we have to discuss how to do it.

TOM BEARDEN: When he was in the White House, President Bush’s father attended the Rio Summit in 1992. But the current President Bush declined to go to Johannesburg. President Bush is the only G-7 leader not to attend. Secretary of State Colin Powell will attend next week instead.