President Bush Should Attend UN Conference on Sustainable Development

President Bush has a golden opportunity to help stem the anti-US sentiment that has been surging for the past several months. The President should join other heads of state who will meet in Johannesburg, South Africa from August 26-September 4 and attend the UN’s World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD).

Allies are vociferously complaining that the US is reverting to its arrogant unilateralist foreign policy that was prevalent prior to the 9/11 attacks. There is a very troublesome pattern developing: the majority of the world develops an international treaty, such as the International Criminal Court or the Kyoto Protocol,; the US does everything it can to derail it, even though it would benefit the US to support it; the US fails; the treaty becomes an international agreement; and in the process the US has irritated most nations and become even more unpopular. At times, it is commendable to stand on the “highway of principle”; however, in this case it is rather foolish and irresponsible to stand against on-coming traffic.

Secretary of State Colin Powell recently commented that the US was committed to the Conference and has three goals it will stress: 1) supporting sustainable development; 2) encouraging good governance, sufficient health and education for all people, and  strong economic policies promoting enterprise and entrepreneurial activities; and 3) developing a viable partnership among governments, civil society, and the private sector to mobilize development resources.

The summit will convene world leaders, environmentalists, business representatives, trade unions, and nongovernmental organizations to tackle the Herculean problem of developing a strategy to guarantee the planet Earth can be used to “sustain a decent life for all its inhabitants, present and future.” According to UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, there are five specific areas where existing technology can make a difference and progress can be made:

Water: Over one billion, of the six billion inhabitants of the Earth, lack clean drinking water and two billion people lack proper sanitation.

Energy: Over two billion people lack modern  energy services. Some solutions include curtailing over-consumption, encouraging  the use of renewable energy,  and ratifying the Kyoto Protocol  to confront climate change.

Health: Programs should focus on the effects of toxic and hazardous materials, diminish air pollution, reduce malaria, and eliminate the African Guinea worm.

Agricultural productivity: The main task is to reverse land degradation, which affects as much as two-thirds of the earth’s agricultural areas.

Biodiversity and ecosystem management: Over 50% of the world’s tropical rainforests have been destroyed, while 70% of the coral reefs and large numbers of fisheries are imperiled.

The WSSD Conference will be a bridge connecting several major UN conferences. A few examples include: the first UN Conference on Human Environment, held in 1972 in Stockholm, put the issue of environmental protection on the world’s agenda. One positive outcome was to create environmental agencies in some countries where there were none. The concept that environmental degradation did not recognize borders or boundaries was also discussed.

At the UN Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED), held in Rio de Janeiro  in June 1992, 172 countries discussed and approved international conventions on climate change and biodiversity. Also Agenda 21, an environmental-development outline often called the “Earth Charter”, was adopted. Sustainable development, a concept developed by the World Commission on Environment and Development (Brundtland Commission), in 1987 stressed that development could occur to meet current needs and natural resources could be used; however, strenuous efforts should be made not to destroy the environment but leave it habitable for future generations to utilize and meet their needs.

Two years ago at the Millennium Summit at the UN in New York, the 189 UN member states agreed to reach quantifiable goals within a reasonable timeframe. For example, extreme poverty should be cut by 50% by 2015.

In March, at the UN Conference on Financing of Development in Monterey, Mexico, President Bush made a bold–and unexpected–announcement that the US would increase its $10 billion foreign assistance budget to $15 billion by 2006, a 50% increase.

Some of the major lessons learned that, if not adopted, will assure defeat:

The US Senate should ratify immediately the Kyoto Protocol, which is very close to receiving the necessary ratifications from other nations to come into effect. Japan is on board, and Russia will do so later this year. It is conceivable that if the US sits on the sidelines and the Protocol comes into effect, US businesses may be excluded from  markets where their products do not meet minimum environmental/energy standards. The Bush Administration adamantly opposes the Kyoto Protocol ostensibly because it would damage the economy. Recently the US Environmental Protection Agency issued a report indicating that global warming was occurring and human activities were a major contributor.  Tragically, the Administration is running up the white flag of surrender and is arguing that nothing can be done to control this problem. To the contrary, much can be done.

Voluntary compliance of environmental regulations by businesses do NOT work either in the US or abroad. Financial incentives and penalties are far more effective in achieving a cleaner, more healthy environment. Klaus Toepfer, the UN Environment Program Executive Director, has confirmed that progress since the Rio Conference has been uneven. Although minimal successes have been achieved, there are worsening problems, such as global warming, loss of biodiversity, land degradation, and air and water pollution. Some businesses and communities are improving;  most are not.

Sufficient sums of financial and technical resources MUST be made available to achieve the goals, which are attainable. Now that the US is running large Federal deficits, the Administration and Congress may be tempted to ignore the President’s commitment made in Monterey.

Previous international conferences identified the problems and  some of the solutions to overcome them. The Johannesburg Summit will specifically identify how to accomplish the goals and implement the strategy. It will focus on the intertwining of environment and development. Additional information about the conference may be found at

In 1992, former President George Bush waited until the last minute before deciding to attend the Rio Conference. George W. Bush should follow in his father’s footsteps and make the courageous decision to go to Johannesburg. Although Colin Powell would be an excellent representative for the US, it is more important that the chief policymaker be  in attendance. What better way to show the world the US can be partner and not just an obstacle to creating a better world? Mr. President, there is still time to board  Air Force One and fly to South Africa.

William A. Miller, Past Chair of United Nations Association of USA, contributed above article to Media Monitors Network (MMN).