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Behind-the-Scene Efforts Seek to Bridge Differences Over Johannesburg Outcome: Summit Seen as Vital for Future of Multilateralism

New York, 9 July—Informal discussions between countries aimed at bridging the remaining differences in the outcome document for the World Summit on Sustainable Development have intensified since the end of the fourth and final preparatory meeting in Bali, Indonesia, and Summit officials are hopeful that the behind-the-scene efforts will pave the way for a successful Summit.

From the Group of Eight meeting near Calgary, Canada, to Rio de Janeiro, where Brazil passed the Earth Summit "torch" to South Africa, to the inaugural meeting of the African Union in Durban, the high-level talks have centered on finding an approach to resolve the remaining outstanding issues, which make up about a quarter of the outcome document.

At South Africa's request, high-level representatives of about 20 countries will meet in New York on 17 July to map out such an approach that will allow negotiators to find common ground on some of the most difficult issues, which include finance and trade issues along with disagreements over setting targets and timetables. The meeting will be led by South African Foreign Minister Dr. Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma and United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan. The meeting in New York will not be a negotiating meeting, as it does not involve the whole membership of the United Nations. Nevertheless the talks can provide the foundation for agreement at the Summit.

Interest is growing among Heads of State, according to Johannesburg Secretary-General Nitin Desai, who added the Summit was "getting some pretty big names. Part of the reason for increase in interest, Desai said, was that the Summit is now seen as a major test for the future of multilaterism. "Johannesburg should not be seen as only the follow-up for the implementation of the Earth Summit—it is also vital for the whole framework of multilateralism."

In addition, Desai said, the Summit should take multilateralism to the "next step" by including all the stakeholders, such as the corporate sector, the NGOs, and the science community to participate in implementation efforts.

According to Desai, many of the concerns of developing countries were "taken on board" at the World Trade Organization meeting in Doha, Qatar, and at the International Conference on Financing for Development in Monterrey, Mexico, where, he said, donor countries announced the largest increase in official development assistance that has ever been seen. And in Africa, Desai said the NEPAD initiative represented a positive step for multilateralism.

"In Johannesburg, we have to consolidate these gains," Desai said. "We have to take multilateralism to the next step. We have to connect the commitments made in Monterrey with the programme areas where the Summit is focusing. The whole climate of multilateralism has changed."

"The real test is whether we can convince the world that great world conferences can make a difference on the ground," Desai said.

Most of the text dealing with programme issues, such as water and sanitation, health, energy, agricultural production, and biodiversity, has been agreed upon, Desai said. The outstanding issues involve the differing ways people interpret various concepts from Rio, such as "common but differentiated responsibilities," which acknowledges that countries have different capacities and resources to act, and the precautionary principle, which asks people to take action before the risks are scientifically ascertained.

In addition, there are disagreements on finance and the follow-up of Monterrey, on globalization and trade, good governance, and on targets and timetables. But according to Desai, none of the disagreement is insuperable. Many disagreements, he said, involved the formulation of language and the placement of text.

For example, Desai said, there are competing proposals over whether to raise the share of renewable energy to 5, 10 or 15 per cent over the coming years. "Even if the phrase says 'substantially increase,' it is enough of a mandate to go forward."

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24 August 2006