UN Johannesburg summit opens, seeks to turn tide against poverty

UN Johannesburg summit opens, seeks to turn tide against poverty

Summit Secretary-General Nitin Desai and South African President Thabo Mbeki
Ten years after world leaders agreed to a landmark blueprint combining economic development and environmental conservation, delegates gathered in Johannesburg, South Africa, today to begin a key United Nations summit aimed at turning the tide against poverty.

More than 100 heads of States or Government, along with nearly 60,000 other participants, are expected to attend the World Summit for Sustainable Development over the next 10 days and agree to a new plan that revitalizes the actions needed to improve the lives of millions of people while protecting the environment.

In his opening address, South African President Thabo Mbeki, who was elected by acclamation to preside over the Summit, decried the lack of progress in the decade since Agenda 21 was adopted at the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, saying that "a global human society based on poverty for many and prosperity for a few, characterized by islands of wealth, surrounded by a sea of poverty, is unsustainable."

President Mbeki said the tragic result of this was the avoidable increase in human misery and ecological degradation, as seen in the growth of the gap between North and South. "It is as though we have decided to spurn what the human intellect tells us, that the survival of the fittest only presages the destruction of all humanity," he said.

For his part, the Secretary-General of the Summit, UN Under-Secretary-General for Economic Affairs Nitin Desai, asked the international community to fight the "global apartheid" described by President Mbeki with the same vigour as it had fought apartheid in South Africa. The same sense of solidarity and responsibility the world had shown then was needed today, he said. That would truly mark a change in the world - the elimination of the global apartheid between rich and poor.

Meanwhile, the Executive Director of the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), Klaus Toepfer, noted that the recent extreme weather events such as the drought in southern Africa and the floods in Europe and China only heightened the need for a global response. "We cannot afford to fail those millions of victims of unsustainable patterns of development," he said. "This is the opportunity for us to prove that the reinvigoration of international solidarity and partnership that we all talk of is not merely a pious wish."