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23 May 2000

Some deadlocks hamper preparations for Geneva 2000

cf. WCC Press Update of 17 April 2000
cf. WCC Press Update of 10 April 2000
cf. WCC Press Release of 5 April 2000
cf. WCC Press Feature of 24 February 2000

Diplomats preparing a document for adoption at Geneva 2000, the 26-30 June United Nations meeting to review developments since the 1995 World Summit on Social Development in Copenhagen, remain deadlocked on many of the issues of special concern to the World Council of Churches.

The preparatory committee (prepcom) has moved so slowly that it held an inter-sessional meeting at UN headquarters in New York 17-23 May in an attempt to resolve as many difficulties as possible before the final prepcom meeting 14-20 June.

But Gail Lerner, WCC UN representative in New York, said the diplomats were engaged in a "slow and tedious process", and there was still no agreement on many points.

The WCC and the Lutheran World Federation brought an international ecumenical team to earlier prepcom sessions, where they presented statements and talked with delegates about issues their churches had addressed.

Although not participating in the inter-sessional meeting or the final prepcom, team members will gather again in Geneva to continue pressing the same issues there.

No major steps at Geneva?

From experience in the meetings they have already attended, the ecumencial team has concluded that Geneva 2000 will not likely bring any major steps towards the goals they consider especially important for social development in the poorer countries. But they have identified places where they believe there are promising incremental developments which would make their work worthwhile.

Team members expressed special interest in a proposal for study of a currency transfer tax, commonly called the Tobin tax after the American economist who proposed it in 1978. This tax is expected to aid the more vulnerable countries, both by placing some limits on the currency speculations that can devastate weak economies and by serving as a new source of funds for development.

Canada has recommended the study, and it appears that Germany and some other countries of the European Union have now indicated their support. But this item remains "in brackets", a reference to the UN practice of putting brackets around language that has been proposed but does not yet have the consensus acceptance sought for such UN documents. The same proposal failed to arouse enough support to get even a hearing in past years. If the language remains in brackets but finally gets attention in Geneva, even if it does not win approval, some will feel that progress has been made.

Heads of governments generally hope their representatives at the UN will work out acceptable compromises in advance, and leave as few matters as possible for negotiation when a document finally comes up for a vote. But top leaders commonly find they must resolve some of the more difficult questions themselves after the international meetings convene.

Bretton Woods institutions

Changing the international financial system to benefit countries struggling with poverty - another concern of the ecumenical team - remained in dispute at the inter-sessional meeting.

The group of developing countries called the G-77 (the group had 77 countries as members when it was formed in 1964; there are now 133) has proposed that Geneva 2000 call for "democratization of the Bretton Woods institutions" (World Bank and International Monetary Fund). But Mexico, the United States and the European Union are opposed, favouring more general language about "reforms" to produce "a strengthened and more stable international financial system".

Consensus has been reached on the second of three sections in the proposed document, that reviewing the 1995 Summit in Copenhagen. But large parts of the first section, a political declaration, and the last, further actions to be taken, remain in dispute.

However, from the standpoint of the church representatives even a "holding action" to reaffirm the principles accepted at Copenhagen rates highly enough to justify their efforts, Lerner said.

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The World Council of Churches is a fellowship of churches, now 337, in more than 100 countries in all continents from virtually all Christian traditions. The Roman Catholic Church is not a member church but works cooperatively with the WCC. The highest governing body is the assembly, which meets approximately every seven years. The WCC was formally inaugurated in 1948 in Amsterdam, Netherlands. Its staff is headed by general secretary Konrad Raiser from the Evangelical Church in Germany.