Powell Booed

Why disappointed ecomaniacs heckled the secretary of state


Johannesburg—"Shame on Bush," chanted 40 or so "delegates" from Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth as they attempted to disrupt United States Secretary of State Colin Powell's speech at the World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD). For those of us watching the speech in the Summit Media Center, it appeared through the distorted lens of TV as though some of the delegates representing national governments were actually heckling Powell; subsequent checking revealed that the hecklers were ideological environmentalists who had decided in advance they didn't need to hear his speech.

Powell pulled no punches. "The best formula for development is freedom," he declared. Powell turned to the growing famine in South Africa's northern neighbor, Zimbabwe. Drought and economic mismanagement are surely factors in the famine there, but he also pointed out, "The lack of respect for human rights and the rule of law have exacerbated these factors to push millions of people toward the brink of starvation."

Curiously, it was at this point that the activists started hooting and chanting. It is nearly beyond belief that any reasonable person would support the expropriation of farms by Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe, a dictator who is in power because he stole the last election; but the activists did just that. Even UN Secretary General Kofi Annan declared, "There can be no lasting solution to the current problems unless the Government of Zimbabwe implements a phased and fully funded land reform program." Annan added that any land reform program should be "run according to the rule of law."

Activist chanting crested when Powell noted, "In the face of famine, several governments in Southern Africa have prevented critical U.S. food assistance from being distributed to the hungry by rejecting biotech corn, which has been eaten safely around the world since 1995." Powell went on to underscore the link between good governance and economic development and further asserted, "Trade is the engine of development." Powell stated that the U.S. "has announced proposals to slash barriers to global trade in agricultural goods" which is a backhanded way of acknowledging that U.S. farm policies are hurting poor farmers in developing countries.

Predictably, Powell, like all of the other representatives from rich industrialized countries, went through the ritual of promising more aid to developing countries. He pointed to the $5 billion annual increase in development aid that President George Bush pledged at the Monterrey Development Summit last year. This would raise U.S. annual foreign aid to $15 billion per year. Meanwhile the United States buys more than $450 billion in products from developing countries each year, according to Undersecretary of State for Global Affairs Paula Dobriansky.

Immediately after his speech, representatives from several American non-government organizations (NGOs) gathered in the back of the Media Center to offer their instant analysis. Jack Scheer from the Natural Resources Defense Council told reporters, "Secretary Powell's speech makes it clear that the Bush Administration has written off the planet." National Environmental Trust's Phil Clapp, possibly unaware that the boos were from Greenpeace et al, deplored the fact that "no American Secretary of State was ever booed like he was by delegates today." I asked Clapp what activists would do now after this "disappointment." He noted, "The US Congress is delicately balanced right now. The upcoming elections offer us some opportunities." Friends of the Earth called Powell's speech "shameless." Tim Eichenberg, an advisor to the Oceana activist consortium wistfully confided, "Can you imagine how different this summit would have been if Gore had been president?" Yes, indeed I can.

The attempted disruption of Powell's speech was not the only performance by disappointed Greens. A group of notorious agitators including India's Vandana Shiva and Friends of the Earth Chairman Ricardo Navarro staged a summit "walkout" at the Sandton Square shopping center and later a "press conference" at the back of the Media Center. Wearing a badge that read: "NO MORE shameful SUMMITS" Navarro declared, "The leaders of the world have proved that they work as employees for the transnational corporations." Shiva added, "This summit has become a trade summit, it has become a trade show."

When President of the European Commission Roman Prodi was later asked at a press conference what he thought of the "walkout," he sniffed, "You can't come to such a meeting and walk out. Such a 'walkout' consists of four people and five cameras." Of course, the miffed activists strategically waited until the last day of the summit to stage their little bit of political theater. One wouldn't want to miss the dinners and speaking engagements now. During the European Union press briefing Hans Christian Schmidt, Minister of the Environment of the Danish EU-Presidency predicted that the Johannesburg summit would be the last UN mega-summit.

The last summit press conference of the political environmentalists was glum. Tony Juniper, Vice Chairman of Friends of the Earth called the Summit "a quite large disappointment." Jennifer Morgan from the World Wildlife Federation renamed the summit to the "World Summit of Shameful Deals." Fred Kalibwani, head of an African farmers group, said that he was "concerned that Johannesburg has not taken a firm stand against genetically modified crops." Meena Roman from the Third World Network called the Summit "very disappointing."

When told about the Schmidt's argument that it's not worth doing big summits anymore, Tony Juniper replied that Schmidt had probably meant, "it's the end of environmental summits. I'm sure he will be happy to go to WTO (World Trade Organization) summits." Andrew Hewett, executive director, Oxfam Community Aid Abroad, also defended the idea of mega-summits, "I don't feel like it should be the end of summits because that might mean the end of multilateralism." Meena Roman added, "The UN is the only forum we have as a counterweight to the WTO." Completely without irony Morgan said, "The problem is not summits; the problem is that special interests are driving policy, and that is especially true in the US." It apparently has never occurred to Morgan that the WWF might be an "interest group" too.

Whatever disappointments the political environmentalists suffered, the diplomats and politicians as usual congratulated themselves on their success. For example, the UN Secretary-General hailed the summit as a "major boost" for sustainable development and the European Union pronounced itself "satisfied with the outcome of the Summit." "Success" for international diplomats consists of getting every country in a negotiation to sign off on the same anodyne piece of paper. By that measure the World Summit on Sustainable Development was a great success. The Summit plenary had succeeded in getting 190 countries to adopt a Plan of Implementation and a political declaration at around 8 o'clock in the evening.

EU President Schmidt declared, "It is time for action, not summits." In the future most multilateral "action" will likely take place during trade negotiations at the World Trade Organization meetings. The WTO's Doha Trade Round, launched last year, is supposed to be a "development round"—that is, trade negotiations are to be aimed specifically at reducing the barriers to trade for the least developed countries. Goals that eluded the Johannesburg Summit, such as eliminating economically and ecologically ruinous farm and energy subsidies and opening markets to the products of developing nations, might be achieved by the WTO. The WTO, by offering the carrot of increased trade, may also be able to encourage good governance and adherence to the rule of law in developing countries. Finally, it is an open question whether the activists' failures at Johannesburg will spur them on. Or will Johannesburg mark the beginning of the ebb tide of ideological environmentalism's influence on world affairs?