U.S. Secretary of State Booed, Jeered at Summit

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa, September 4, 2002 (ENS) - Interrupted by repeated heckling, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell attempted to convince heads of state and government and leaders of nongovernmental organizations today at the World Summit on Sustainable Development that U.S. policies are in the best interest of planet Earth.

Hecklers began to shout and clap as Powell defended U.S. food aid in the form of genetically modified corn which has been rejected by the starving nations of Zimbabwe, Zambia and Mozambique. Powell said the genetically modified corn "has been eaten safely around the world since 1995."


U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell addresses a packed summit plenary session. (Photos courtesy IISD/ENB-Leila Mead)
To a chorus of boos, Powell said, "Thank you. I have now heard you, now I want you to hear me." No other world leaders have been heckled during their speeches to the summit over the past three days.

Chants of "Shame on Bush," "Shame on You," rang through the hall, referring to the absence of U.S. President George W. Bush who declined to join his counterparts at the summit, and to U.S. policies which are viewed by some as destructive to the environment.

Yells and claps interrupted Powell's explanation that the United States is "taking action on global climate change," reflecting disapproval of Bush's rejection of the Kyoto climate protocol limiting the emission of greenhouse gases.

All other industrialized and large developing nations have ratified the protocol, or expressed the intention to do so, with the exception of Australia. The protocol is expected to enter into force in 2003.

Shouts greeted Powell's statement that, "Trade is the engine of development."

"There were probably groups from more than a hundred countries in there," said Greenpeace delegate Matt Gianni. "There were no organized plans to have a demonstration. But when Colin Powell chastised countries for saying "no" to U.S. genetically modified food, the room simply erupted in boos and catcalls. And when he tried to claim that the U.S. was defending biodiversity and promoting renewables, there was this incredible roar of disbelief - nobody was silent."


Banner shown during Powell's speech to the plenary session.
About 20 people were removed for chanting and booing. A woman who was taking photos was forcibly ejected, and five people holding up banners were also removed. One of the banners read "Betrayed by Governments."

An example of why countries and NGOs feel betrayed by U.S. actions at the summit occured this morning when conference delegates prevented the United States from evading a commitment to corporate accountability for environmental crimes.

The U.S. delegation demanded a Letter of Interpretation from the chair of the globalization and trade negotiations that would bind all countries to the U.S. interpretation. In an attempt to circumvent efforts to develop new, binding international rules on environmentally irresponsible corporate behavior, the U.S. wanted language providing that corporate accountability had to do only with "existing" international agreements.


U.S. negotiator Paula Dobriansky at the summit
When the Letter was read in open session this morning, countries objected on substantive and procedural grounds, and the 10 year framework document was approved without the U.S. interpretation.

The new partnership between governments, civil society, industry and the United Nations in areas such as corporate responsibility and environmental standards is "one very positive outcome," said Klaus Toepfer, executive director of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).

Toepfer, who during the summit has been a special advisor to UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, said, "This must be welcomed. The development of a 10 year framework with programs in support of sustainable consumption and production patterns, based on science-based approaches and life-cycle analysis, has been agreed.

"We now also have an initiative to encourage industry to improve their social and environmental performance, taking into account the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) standards and the Global Reporting Initiative in which UNEP has been involved," he said.


Klaus Toepfer, executive director of the United Nations Environment Programme, addresses the summit
As expected, world leaders today adopted The Johannesburg Plan of Implementation approved Tuesday - a global action plan to safeguard the environment and improve the lives of billions of the world's poorest people. The plan was adopted today during the summit's final plenary session in the Sandton Convention Centre.

United Nations and South African officials have hailed the summit a success and the document as a solid foundation for future actions to help protect the planet.

UN Secretary General Kofi Annan said, "I think we have achieved success and I am satisfied with the results. The summit has put sustainable development firmly on the world agenda."

Toepfer said the outcome will not please everyone, but some progress has been made. "At various moments during these negotiations we were facing a much weaker prospect for the environment and thus for sustainable development. I am satisfied that what has been delivered is a step forward," he said at the close of the 10 day summit he has worked for years to accomplish.

"While there will be disappointment that nations failed to agree global time tables and targets for boosting the level of renewable energy, it has been agreed that there is a need for regional and national targets for renewable energy. We also have a commitment to halve the number of people without access to sanitation," Toepfer said.