World Summit ends with mixed feelings

Posted: 20 September 2005

Author: John Rowley

The UN World Summit, which ended at the weekend with the adoption of a formal document, has disappointed many non-government groups. Christian Aid said 'the UN has failed the world's poorest people by watering down pledges on key development issues'. Friends of the Earth criticised the summit for failing to agree any firm action on climate change. But others took hope from new global commitments.

Most positive was the reaction of the UN World Population Fund (UNFPA) which is delighted that world leaders have unanimously resolved to achieve universal access to reproductive health by 2015, and to promote gender equality and end discrimination against women.

This strengthens this aspect of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which aim to end poverty, reduce maternal death, promote gender equality and combat HIV/AIDS. Leaders are now specifically committed to putting universal access to reproductive health into national strategies in striving to reach their national goals. "Five years after the Millennium Declaration, the world has reaffirmed the need to keep gender equality, HIV/AIDS and reproductive health at the top of its agenda," said Thoraya Ahmed Obaid, UNFPA Executive Director. "This outcome is a success for millions of women, men and young people all over the world, whose appeals have been heard. We must now focus our energy on fulfilling the commitments made by world leaders." "The leaders' resolve to bring reproductive health to all has confirmed the vision of the agenda adopted at the 1994 Cairo International Conference on Population and Development," said Ms. Obaid. "UNFPA looks forward to working with governments to expand access to comprehensive reproductive health services such as family planning, skilled attendance at birth, emergency obstetric care and the prevention and treatment of sexually transmitted infections, including HIV/AIDS."

"We must act now on the commitments and empower the largest-ever generation of young people knocking on adulthood's door," said Ms. Obaid. "We cannot fail and consign them to lives of misery, ill health and unfulfilled dreams. The cost is too terrifying to contemplate."

Others, however, point to the latest setback from the US Administration which has once again blocked the $34m grant to UNFPA, and the limitations which are being put on HIV/AIDS and family planning services by the US Adminstration's cutbacks in funding for badly needed condoms in Africa and elsewhere, and its preference to promote abstinence as a means of family planning among young people.

Women's rights

On women's rights, the world's leaders agreed on paper to promote gender equality and eliminate pervasive gender discrimination with several measures. These would include:

  • Eliminating gender inequalities in schools;
  • Guaranteeing the free and equal right of women to own and inherit property;
  • Ensuring equal access to reproductive health;
  • Promoting women's equal access to work;
  • Eliminating all forms of discrimination and violence against women and girls; and
  • Promoting increased women's representation in government decision-making bodies.
  • Other commentators have taken heart from the fact that all 191 countries went along with a restatement of international law on the UN's right to overrule national sovereignty and to intervene to stop gross systematic violations of human rights as in Cambodia or Rwanda.

    The final document spells out the right of the international community to take military action in the case of "national authorities manifestly failing to protect their populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity." This, at least, removes one of the legal defences of those seeking to defend the sovereignty of such dictatorial regimes.

    Deaf ears

    For the rest, the conclusion of Charles Abugre, Christian Aid's Head of Policy that 'there are some glimmers of progress, but overall the tone of this summit has been bleak and depressing' seems to hit the mark.

    "It is hard to believe that the cry for justice issued by anti-poverty campaigners across the world earlier this year has fallen on such deaf ears. Never was there such a chance to improve the lives of millions; never was there such a mean spirited and self-interested response from the rich and powerful." Abugre said there were rays of hope from the summit that progress had been made on the Peace Building Commission, the Human Rights Council and the endorsement of universal access to HIV treatment by 2010. Apart from these, he said the main reason for any optimism was that 66 countries - including the UK - signed up to initiatives to 'plug the leak' of money leaving poor countries by tightening up on tax evasion.

    Key issues

    Christian's Aid sums up its view on the key issues like this: Peace-building commission: To be effective, it must be more than just an advisory body. People directly affected by war have most to offer in promoting a solution but they and the organisations representing them are not even at the table. Human Rights Council: It's potentially a step forward, but we are concerned that it may be held to ransom and prevented from taking effective action by states who are themselves human rights abusers, as in the case of the present UN Human Rights Commission. Aid: The commitment to the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which are widely accepted as international benchmarks, just crept in by the skin of its teeth. The rich country commitment to 0.7 per cent of GNP (Gross National Product) as aid first made in 1970 has failed to be renewed. An opt out allows countries - including the USA and Japan - who have not yet formally signed up to the 0.7 per cent target to avoid signing up to the pledge in future. This makes it less likely that the massive resource gap that exists for financing the MDGs will ever be closed. Trade: On trade, the UN offers no hope to developing countries being forced to liberalise their economies. While the G8 leaders at Gleneagles acknowledged that developing countries needed to have control over their own economic policies, the text simply reaffirms a 'commitment to trade liberalisation'.

    As usual, says Christian Aid, rich countries cannot take their own medicine. They have rolled back from an earlier version of the text, which promised immediate duty free access into developed countries' markets to all products from the poorest countries. Now they are just going to 'work towards' this - a promise made so often over the years that it is entirely meaningless. This is a tragic missed opportunity to send a signal to the World Trade Organisation's ministerial conference in December that the world is ready for trade justice. Conditionality: The document fails to go as far as the G8 in giving developing countries the space to decide, plan and sequence their development policies. It notes that developing countries must take 'primary responsibility' for their policies and development strategies, but then dictates what those policies must be. It is therefore much more ambiguous than the G8 communiqué on conditions attached to aid and debt relief. Debt: On debt, the UN's endorsement of the first steps taken at Gleneagles is positive but is a mere regurgitation of the G8 deal. While it pays lip service to the need for broader debt relief, it contains no new suggestions for the way forward and is a big missed opportunity to address the systemic question of the debt crisis for developing countries the vast majority of which do not benefit from current initiatives on debt cancellation. HIV/AIDS: The endorsement of the G8 pledge to provide universal access to treatment by 2010 is welcome. However, we are extremely concerned by the absence of any mention of the need for prevention and sexual education or the role that sexual and reproductive health services play in fighting HIV/AIDS. The recent shortfall in funds pledged for the Global Fund to Fight HIV, Tuberculosis and Malaria shows that governments need to match rhetoric with money.

    Climate change

    In separate comments, Catherine Pearce, Friends of the Earth climate campaigner said 'World leaders have clearly failed to face up to the urgent need to take action on climate change. This Summit was a golden opportunity for the UN to commit resources to and support some of the world's poorest countries that will face the harshest impacts of the world's changing climate'.

    The potential and capacity for renewable sources of energy to reduce poverty and improve sustainable development in developing countries was poorly acknowledged in the final Summit outcomes, she said.

    Friends of the Earth also criticised the final text for failing to recognise that the conservation and sustainable use of the natural environment is a pre-condition for poverty eradication and human well-being, as concluded by the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment.

    Related links:

  • Pressureworks, Christian Aid's campaigning website: here

  • The report of the Working Group on Climate and Development, Africa - Up In Smoke? published in July 2005 to coincide with the G8 summit, recommends that international efforts to combat poverty in Africa and other parts of the developing world can only be effective when combined with urgent global action on climate change.

    From our website, see:

    COMMENTARY:Summit challenge for world leaders