This year, in late August 2002, the United Nations will hold the World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD), an international conference in Johannesburg, South Africa, ostensibly to create a new model of sustainable development that integrates economic development, social justice, and environmental imperatives. WSSD is supposed to be a ten year follow-up and implementation conference to the 1992 Rio de Janeiro UN Conference on Environment and Development–thus, its other name, “Rio plus 10.” In the Preparatory Committee (PrepComm) meetings that have preceded WSSD, (the latest in Bali, Indonesia held in late May through early June) a common theme has emerged–the United States government is bound and determined to undermine, overthrow, and sabotage any international treaties, agreements, and conferences that it believes restrict its sovereignty in any way as the world’s rogue superpower.
By the second day of the UN’s Bali Preparatory Committee (PrepComm) for the World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD), most delegates from the Nongovernmental Organizations (NGOs) oscillated between disgust and depression. The “Chairman’s Report”–the summary language that all the world governments were trying to agree upon–was little more than a neoliberal anti-environmental agenda. Naty Bernardino of the International South Group Network called it “Rio minus 10.” As the governmental delegates were debating the language for the final declaration, an angry UN official, thinking his microphone had been turned off, was overhead lamenting, “What are we going to do about the United States?”
Within hours, creative NGO organizers had printed small paper strips that we pinned to our shirts, repeating that same question. Even that tiny protest was overruled by UN security. We were advised by UN staff that any protests inside the Bali International Convention Center (BICC) criticizing a specific government by name would not be permitted–especially one particular government. At the daily NGO meeting the next morning, we were warned by a high-ranking UN official that there was a rumor that t-shirts bearing the slogan “What are we going to do about the United States?” would be appearing, and anyone wearing them on the premises would be escorted out. Indeed, one of the organizers was able to have such shirts printed overnight. Now, many delegates had flown to Bali to advance very specific agendas, representing groups that had saved for such a trip, and while wanting to wear the t-shirts in protest, were afraid of risking expulsion. Yet forbidden fruit is always the sweetest. Most NGOs, when told they weren’t allowed to wear the t-shirts, decided they just had to wear one. The question then was how to advance the tactic–t-shirt civil disobedience? Our dynamic organizing committee, initiated by members of the women’s caucus, came up with a new tactical wrinkle. We would wear the t-shirts into the Conference Center, but would use masking tape to cover up the “United States” so the t-shirts now read: “What are we going to do about ——-?” Aesthetically and politically, the masking of the t-shirts drew greater attention to our message: the U.S. was running the show and our protest of its hegemony was being censored. The life and death fight with the policies of the United States had taken center stage at Bali.
Many groups had come to Bali to demand “water as a human right.” The U.S. refused; it argued that water is a commodity to be privatized.
Groups had demanded that the U.S. sign the Kyoto treaty, and that WSSD pass a proposal for a far more radical reduction in greenhouse gases than the 5% proposed by Kyoto. The U.S. refused to sign Kyoto altogether, and opposed any language linking fossil fuel combustion to global warming–opposing any efforts to save the small island states and the entire planet from ecological catastrophe.
NGOs, and even a few governments, had demanded binding language with specific timetables and goals, such as reducing world poverty by 50% by the year 2015. The U.S. opposed specific numerical goals, specific timetables, structures of accountability, or penalties for non-compliance.
NGOs–trying to impact the document by influencing governments–asked for strong and binding international language to restrict transnational corporations’ production of carcinogens, mining in indigenous communities, and expansion of oil production. The U.S. argued that any corporate behavior must be “voluntary,” that the principle of national sovereignty, not international law, should shape the Johannesburg meeting. Any agreements between governments and corporations, argued Washington, should be based on non-binding public/private “partnerships”–the ideological poison pill. But even on the issue of “protecting national sovereignty,” the U.S. was two-faced and hypocritical. The U.S. did propose international and binding rules by the World Trade Organization (WTO) against indigenous and Third World nations trying to protect their own industries and sovereignty from the penetration of oil, mining, and agricultural transnationals. The U.S. supported protective tariffs for its own steel industry, and supported massive subsidies to its agricultural multinationals in order to tear down the domestic industries of other nations. For the U.S. government, and its present incarnation in the Bush administration, there are no principles: international rules to regulate transnational corporations, no; international rules to advance neoliberalism, yes. It is simply a question of which formulation best advances its imperial interests.
Worse, the U.S. would tolerate no dissent. It was known to be bullying every government in private “green room” shakedowns–even demanding the Norwegian ambassador to the U.S. censor the courageous Norwegian UN ministers at Bali who were fighting for international treaties to control transnational corporate abuses and to support indigenous peoples’ rights. And every time governments put forth progressive language, the U.S. puts the statements in “brackets,” the UN procedure for contesting and trying to remove policies with which you don’t agree. For these and many other reasons, the question remained: “What are we going to do about the United States?”
On Wednesday afternoon, May 29, more than 50 of us went to the Greenpeace ship docked at Bali harbor. In front of some local media, we finally ripped off the masking tape from the X-rated t-shirts, exposing the “United States.” Several of our spokespeople, including Canadian organizer Prabwa Khosla from the Women’s Caucus and Henry Shillingford from the Caribbean, talked about how the U.S. was sabotaging any positive outcomes for environmental justice at WSSD.
The U.S.–threatening each nation with economic, political, and if necessary, military retaliation–is imposing an anti-regulatory agenda on the conference. The governmental groups–from the European Union to the G77 & China (the nations of the global south)–are unable or unwilling to offer an organized opposition. The U.S. is working to undermine the Johannesburg summit by substituting worthless voluntary agreements for enforceable ones, continuing to impose business and trade dictatorships (pushed through by the U.S. at the Doha and Monterey world trade conferences over dependent nations) and formalizing the stealing of indigenous land, property rights, and cultures. Ask any person working at WSSD on any subject–human rights, water, biodiversity, energy, global warming, debt cancellation–and they will tell you the same thing: the U.S is “bracketing” our lives, ruling all progress out of order. How ironic that in the midst of all this heavy-handed repression, the main objective of the U.S. and UN is to come out of Johannesburg with an emphasis on “partnerships.” According to this argument, Rio in 1992 failed because it was too restrictive of corporate rights. Now, the U.S wants the delegates to denounce specific regulations to stop mining or oil exploration and instead propose “partnerships”–the grand illusion of our time–between NGOs and corporations like Shell Oil.
Our tiny t-shirt protest was well below the scope and scale needed to impact policy or any balance of power, but as a microcosm of what is urgently needed in Johannesburg and back in the U.S., it was an important beginning. Building on the important anti-globalization protests against transnational corporations, it focused on the U.S. government and its many henchmen–Japan, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand… oops there I go again mentioning governments by name. It broke with the sterile wordsmithing of UN conferences that would drive most grassroots organizers into years of psychotherapy. And because effective leadership groups are essential, it was great to be part of a multi-racial, international working group with such strong women’s leadership.
The dilemmas facing us and the world are almost too painful to confront. Many progressives are well aware of the reactionary role of many international agencies dominated by the U.S. and the G7–WTO, IMF, and World Bank. But don’t forget the U.S. army, NATO, and the CIA are also helping to turn the world into the dreaded “company store” of the Pullman railroad empire in which the workers grew “another day older and deeper in debt.” Under these global conditions, some grassroots organizers and NGOs are so disgusted at the results of Bali they are asking themselves what the value is of walking into a card game in Johannesburg where the U.S. is the dealer and the deck is stacked. For those of us who do plan to make a stand at Johannesburg, all of our work should be framed by one overriding objective–building an international movement that focuses on self-determination for the oppressed and dependent nations of the global South and that challenges the domination and abuses by America. At Johannesburg, if you focus exclusively on trying to amend the specific language of the final UN governmental document you will be bitterly disappointed, because the U.S. will get what it wants–that is a pre-determined outcome. But a significant anti-imperialist victory is possible. We need a major and public confrontation with the United States government and its free market madness in Johannesburg, and after that, we must organize long-term campaigns against corporate and superpower abuse. It is essential that the international press and our constituencies at home come to understand that WSSD is imposing a death sentence on billions of people through continued and even greater levels of pollutants and poverty. As we prepare for Johannesburg, you should ask yourself “What are you going to do about the United States?”