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US Delegation Works to Counteract Criticism at Johannesburg Summit - 2002-08-29

The U.S. delegation at the World Summit on Sustainable Development is trying to counteract widespread criticism of President Bush and U.S. policies.

Activists have been piling criticism on the United States all week. Some condemn President Bush's decision to go on vacation in Texas rather than attend the summit. Others blast U.S. policies that they see as harmful to the planet and to the summit agenda.

"All of the NGO's (non-governmental organizations) from the United States are very disappointed that President Bush is not here to lead the delegation," said Michel Gelobter who heads a Washington-based environmental advocacy group called Redefining Progress. "It is most disappointing because the U.S. plays such a predominant role in global environmental problems."

U.S. officials had been reluctant to speak to reporters on the record about anything related to the summit. But now, 12 members of the U.S. delegation have launched what they call "major partnership initiatives" aimed at expanding access to electricity and clean water, cutting hunger and saving natural resources in Africa, and fighting AIDS.

Paula Dobriansky is U.S. Undersecretary of State for Global Affairs. She dismissed allegations that the United States is not committed to sustainable development.

"Today we are launching our partnerships. And today I would like to add that the United States is the world's leader in sustainable development," she said. "No nation has made a greater contribution and a more concrete contribution to sustainable development."

She said the cost of the partnership initiatives could total more than $3.5 billion during the next four years. But another member of the U.S. delegation said privately that none of the money is newly allocated - it is largely a re-packaging of existing programs.

That fact is not likely to help the U.S. image at the summit. The United States is blamed for holding up agreement on the final summit declaration over several issues, including trade, globalization, agricultural subsidies and energy.

Earlier in the day, three Democrats from Congress held a news conference calling for the Bush administration to change its energy policy. They urged the president to re-join the Kyoto Protocol on climate change, a treaty he withdrew from last year.

Congressman George Miller of California said he is concerned that the United States is becoming an obstacle to meeting the goals of sustainable development.

"At a time when the United States is asking countries of the world to line up behind an agenda of this president, and our nation, dealing with terrorism, we have to understand that many of the items on the agenda of this conference are life and death items for those countries and those peoples," he said. "And we must be prepared to line up and participate in a very realistic and concrete manner."

The congressmen say the Bush administration's policies do not necessarily reflect the views of everyone in the country. They say they came to the summit to make sure the world knows that there is a dialogue going on in the United States over issues related to sustainable development.

U.N. officials are downplaying the significance of President Bush's decision not to come to Johannesburg.

A special envoy of U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, Jan Pronk, is the man moderating the main public debates at the summit. He says in the absence of the president, Secretary of State Colin Powell is the right person to attend.

"President Bush is not coming, it is a bad sign. I regret it," he said. "We have done a lot to really push for invitations to him. However, Powell is coming and Powell is the person in the administration who has shown throughout the last year, really more than perhaps a number of other politicians, a vision, which is oriented also toward sustainability. And that is a good sign."

The United States is not the only nation under fire for its attitude toward the summit. Australia and the European Union have also been singled out for criticism. Even the host country, South Africa, has been the target of several vocal protests by Greenpeace and other advocacy groups.