Punishing the brats

  • 14/12/1996

With the world getting more and more integrated, economically and technologically, the economic sovereignty of nations is getting eroded and new multilateral rules are emerging. Particularly so in the field of trade and environment, and efforts are being made to develop similar rules in other areas like investment, wages and labour conditions. Many in the South feel that these rules will be to the advantage of industrialised countries over the developing countries because the former are economically and technologically more powerful and have strong multinational industrial enterprises to take advantage of the new opportunities.

One issue which, however, needs to be discussed is how to deal with nations which refuse to accept the new rules. Because without that, we could easily find a nation fighting for one set of international rules which suit it but refusing to accept another which, it feels, for reasons valid or otherwise, goes against its interests. Even allowing for space for dissent, there should be some mechanism to force nations to accept these rules if the reasons are invalid. The us is seen as a nation pushing strongly for globalisation. Bill Clinton was delighted to tell his country how proud he was to get tariffs on information technologies reduced by members of the Asia Pacific Economic Council at their recent meeting in the Philippines in November, because it would greatly benefit us manufacturers.

But the third Conference of Parties which are signatories to the Convention on Biodiversity (cbd), which took place in Argentina in early November, said nothing about the us refusal to ratify the cbd. This is of considerable importance for international relations because firstly, the us is economically and technologically the most powerful nation on earth: a nation that has to lead others in a way that is just and fair and not just self-seeking. Secondly, it is the world's largest commercial exploiter of biodiversity. Such a nation cannot be allowed to play hooky or behave irresponsibly. Developing countries must develop a joint stand on this us refusal.

Just what is the problem with the us is not clear. The negotiation in the pre-Rio conference phase which led to the cbd brought out two areas of concern. The North, supported by all its environmental ngos, charged the South of being rich in biodiversity but destroying this valuable resource which will help humankind solve its future food and medicinal needs. The South argued, contrarily, that the North was exploiting its biodiversity and the knowledge of its communities for commercial gains but was not sharing any of these benefits with the Southern people. The cbd, as finally framed, tries to address itself to both these concerns.

The cbd negotiations led to a big debate in the us. President George Bush's refusal to sign it in Rio isolated the us in the conference. After Clinton became president, he signed the cbd with certain provisos but the ratification is still held up in the Republican-dominated us Senate. us ngos say that with Jesse Helms chairing the Senate foreign relations committee, the cbd will never get ratified. But what is bothering people like Helms? Some clauses of the cbd? Hard to swallow, because the cbd is as market-oriented as anything the Republicans can think of. No, that is not the case, as an iucn biodiversity expert who is also a us citizen explained to me recently at a workshop in Hanoi.

Under the cloud of confusion about cbd, farmers believe, he claimed, that the cbd would stop them from keeping sheep - though that is far from true. He, therefore, felt that public education is needed in the us. He argued that Southern ngos asking their governments to take a strong anti-us stand would only alienate the Republicans.

That may well be true. But I think the problem is deeper. us politicians believe that they are world leaders and don't like being told what should be done to make the world a better place to live in. And they have fed the same bilge to the us public. The us media has also largely played to this jingoism and only rarely questioned it. This brings out the worst hypocrisy possible in a nation. Globalisation is good when it suits the us but bad when it does not. Even leading lights of the us civil society like Ralph Nader fall prey to this hypocrisy. Nader is against the rules of the World Trade Organization (wto) because he feels they sabotage the sovereignty of the us to make its own consumer and environmental laws, which is not entirely true. And then, of course, there is the Earth Island Institute which believes that the us Endangered Species Act should be used to enforce environmental behaviour patterns across the world and argues against wto because it will not allow the us government to do that.

There is no doubt that we need to and should be fighting for good and sound global rules. But the civil society in the us should also be working together with those in other nations to get such rules. More importantly, it should be fighting its own politicians to respect international rules. us politicians cannot keep mouthing morality without learning the morality associated with global cooperation and coexistence. When will mega environmental groups like the iucn, World Wide Fund for Nature, Natural Resources Defence Council, Environmental Defence Fund or the Sierra Club wake up to this responsibility of theirs? At the moment, when told of their weakness, the immediate reaction is defensive. Sad, that the opinion-makers in such a powerful nation are so weak and docile to their political masters.