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Johannesburg Summit 2002

by on April 13, 2013

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Multilateral diplomacy has grown in relevance over the last few decades. In the past most multilateral organisations or meetings were set up to prevent or stop war. Nowadays it is becoming the dominant form of diplomacy and it is used to deal with the growing problems which exist in the world today. Many issues now need to be dealt with on a global or regional level, and multilateral diplomacy is the most efficient way to get all the concerned parties together rather than through separate bilateral negotiations. Issues such as global warming, migration and drug/human trafficking are problems which cannot be tackled by two countries but need the cooperation of all countries to achieve success in reducing the problems. One problem with multilateral diplomacy is that of, how to get all the parties to agree on issues.  Too many actors’ leads to agreement on the lowest common denominator and it is often vague what these agreements actually mean. Another problem with these multilateral institutions is that the agreements are not legally binding. In the U.N. for example which is the main symbol of multilateral diplomacy, weak states that go back on agreements can have sanctions imposed upon them. However, the same rules don’t seem to apply to the stronger states such as U.S. and China, or some of their closest allies such as Israel. And it is often these stronger states which are a barrier to successful negotiations. Too many states aim to achieve the best for their national interest, and when it comes to the stronger states, they are less willing to give anything away in negotiations. With such a diverse set of national interests throughout the members of the U.N. it can be hard to achieve anything. Fortunately, unsolved negotiations in the general assembly can go through the Security Council to be passed although any of the permanent five members can use their veto to sabotage negotiations, either to benefit themselves or a friendly state. ( And in the end when negotiations have come to an agreement, it is often the case when these stronger states go back on the agreements and not have any consequences to deal with.

An issue which has not had much luck in the past when it comes to agreements in the U.N. is climate change. In 1992, the Earth Summit, or United Nations conference on environment and development(UNCED), was held in Rio di Janeiro. It was attended by government officials of 178 countries and tens of thousands of other officials, individuals, NGO representatives and the media. It was the first big step to tackle this growing problem. It was set up to discuss matters relating to climate change, poverty, war, growing inequality between countries and the promotion of sustainable development. ( A major problem with tackling these problems is that they don’t correspond well. In order to lessen the gap between developed and developing countries many more resources must be given to help developing countries. There are far more poorer states than rich ones and this would put a major strain on the environment. The promotion of sustainable and greener development needs to be the main priority, as many of the developing states get badly affected by growing problems as a result of climate change such as rising sea levels and drought, which result in famine and war. This is a cycle which is being constantly repeated in the developing world as the fight for resources becomes more desperate. These are problems which also affect the developed countries but they usually have the resources to minimize the effects, whereas the developing countries usually don’t. To achieve this sustainable development, it is necessary for the countries of the world to act collectively and the best way for this is through multilateral diplomacy. For multilateral diplomacy to work, it needs the collaboration of all the concerned parties and for them to agree on what is best for the world overall and not just what’s good for their countries.

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In 2002, the World Summit on sustainable development (WSSD) in Johannesburg was in line with the UNDEP initiative. UN secretary general Kofi Annan gave some guidance to the summit by introducing the WEHAB initiative and issuing the ten-point plan as a means to achieving the goals within it. WEHAB stands for water, energy, health, agriculture, and bio-diversity and eco-system management. These are many of the issues which would help reduce poverty, bring more equality, limit the effects of climate change and reduce the prospects for war. Within Annan’s ten-point plan, he explains how it is possible to achieve the aims of the WEHAB initiative. Suggestions like making globalisation work for sustainable development, providing poor people with more opportunities, to change unsustainable patterns of production and consumption, improve energy efficiency, manage ecosystems and biodiversity on a sustainable basis, improve freshwater supply management, and to strengthen international governance for sustainable development by promoting an integrated approach rather than a divided one where all countries only look out for their own interests. Many claimed that the WSSD was unrealistic. The realism which exists in this international system means that it would be impossible to achieve even a few of these suggestions as it is not in the interest of the stronger nations. Some of the problems with this summit were due to the run-up process which was behind schedule as it was difficult to gather support for some of the draft documents. (Schechter 2005)  Too many differences in opinion and interests are what make these summits almost useless and inefficient. Until states learn to act collectively rather than separately on global issues, not much can be achieved in summits as there are too many different actors to please. It is far easier to come to agreement in bilateral negotiations but this is simply insufficient to tackle global issues. It would be suggested that the biggest polluters should sit down to come to an agreement on reducing pollution and then other states could follow suit, but the UN can be a bit crowded to come to agreement on important issues. There was certainly less success than originally hoped but it did address critical issues as well as shining light on the problems facing humankind. Annan’s ten-point plan was certainly a guide to what needs to be done, albeit somewhat utopian in this international system of anarchy. 82 heads of state attended, other government officials, NGO’s, business’ and trade unions. However the U.S. and Russian president’s failed to attend and as always the U.S. dominated. (Schechter 2005) This is a major problem. There can’t be any one state dominate especially one which does not want to achieve the majority laid down by Annan’s plan and who consistently blocks agreements being made to tackle climate change. Also, other states who are hostile to the U.S. will not want to come to agreement on much while they are in charge. These summits are also very expensive. As Johannesburg has a lot of social and security issues, it was even more expensive to provide security to the thousands of delegates, heads of state, journalists and any other groups wishing to participate. It is efficient to have all the programmes like UNCED and WSSD within the UN working together to achieve similar goals. They find different ways to tackle problems but it will always be slow moving as long as states aim to maximize their interests in negotiations. Climate change has been a particularly slow-moving issue as to achieve gains in reducing the effects of climate change, states fear that their economies will suffer. And if one state puts their economy first, then all states will follow suit in fear of losing out. It is important to look at the internal structure of governments. How much can be done within the U.S. when energy companies have a huge say on policy issues. Without agreement by any one of the major states, nothing can be achieved.



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One Comment
  1. fzapparoli permalink

    I really like the way you portrayed the advantages of multilateralism and at the same time you presented the shortcomings of the practice that regard not only environmental issues but every aspect of multilateral negotiations and national self-interest.

    You have presented a extensive analyses of the UN propositions for the environment and the mechanisms states use to block or even slow the pace of negotiations

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