- The Washington Times - Friday, July 26, 2002

President Bush has not committed to attending next month's U.N. conference on poverty, development and the environment, the only leader of a major industrial power who has not yet pledged to go to the South Africa gathering, U.N. officials said.

Nitin Desai, U.N. undersecretary-general for economic and social affairs and point man for the summit that opens in Johannesburg Aug. 26, said conference organizers have received commitments from about 100 prime ministers and presidents to attend the "World Summit on Sustainable Development," billed as a 10-year follow-up to the 1992 Rio de Janeiro "Earth summit."

"So far, we have all the [Group of Eight] leaders but one," Mr. Desai said during a Washington visit yesterday.

He said Russian President Vladimir Putin, Chinese Prime Minister Zhu Rongji and Mexican President Vicente Fox are among the world leaders scheduled to attend.

U.S. officials say they are working hard to make the conference a success, but significant differences still must be worked out in the proposed Johannesburg "action plan," designed to set timetables and targets for participating nations in such areas as aid, health, trade barriers, energy use, environmental cleanup and economic development for the world's poorest nations.

A conference in June in Bali, Indonesia, designed to adopt the action plan broke up with a quarter of the final document still contested. Many environmental groups blamed the Bush administration for the failure.

Alan Hecht, associate director of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, said "no decision has been made" on whether Mr. Bush will attend.

"That's above my paygrade," Mr. Hecht said yesterday. "But there's no question that this administration knows the importance of this meeting. The administration takes [the summit] very seriously and you will see a good strong U.S. delegation there."

The United States has been resisting calls from developing countries for market openings and aid concessions in Johannesburg, saying it prefers to pursue free trade and increased aid through commitments already made in recent international summits in Doha, Qatar, and Monterrey, Mexico.

Developing countries also have opposed U.S.-led efforts to target future aid money to countries that pass market reforms and fight corruption. The administration was also leery that Arab governments might use the U.N. conference as an excuse to attack Israel for denying Palestinians access to water.

A senior State Department official, speaking on the condition of anonymity yesterday, confirmed that Secretary of State Colin L. Powell plans to travel to South Africa for the summit.

"So far, we have been successful in keeping the divisive issues out of agenda," the official said. "The secretary plans on going unless something derails it."

Mr. Desai said the atmosphere for the conference had improved in the weeks since Bali, with both developing countries and industrial nations pulling back from "deal-breaker" demands that could have undermined the summit.

The U.N. official said he saw the Johannesburg meeting as critical to completing the work begun at Doha and Monterrey, and said the focus would be "on getting things done."

Asked about the symbolism of the U.S. president's potential absence, Mr. Desai replied: "Ask me on September 5th" the day the summit concludes.

Ben Barber contributed to this report.

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