JOHANNESBURG, South Africa - Protesters chanting "Shame on Bush" interrupted Secretary of State Colin L. Powell yesterday as he tried to deliver a five-minute speech during the final day of the World Summit on Sustainable Development.
Powell, stopping and starting, struggled through remarks intended to demonstrate the United States' commitment to save the environment and help the poor.
"The United States is taking action to meet environmental challenges, including global climate change, not just rhetoric," Powell said before being cut off by the shouts of protesters in the back rows of a meeting hall packed with hundreds of delegates and government leaders. Some activists waved banners saying "Betrayed by governments" and "Bush: People and Planet, Not Big Business."
Their jeers began when Powell criticized Zimbabwe for its lack of human rights and the government's weakening of the rule of law, which he said had "pushed millions of people toward the brink of starvation." The heckling continued when he criticized Zambia, where millions of people are starving, for refusing to accept American genetically modified corn that has been safely consumed worldwide.
Powell told the protesters, "Thank you, I have now heard you. I ask that you please hear me."
South African Foreign Minister Nkosanzana Dlamini-Zuma banged her gavel to try to restore order as security officers forced some of the protesters from the hall.
Their heckling occurred on the final day of an environmental summit where delegates expressed frustration with U.S. reluctance to pledge to increase the use of renewable energy or to sign the Kyoto Protocol on reducing greenhouse emissions. By declining to attend the summit, President Bush drew criticism that the United States was not committed to environmental protection.
'Venting of anger'
During the 10-day meeting, U.S. officials showcased American-sponsored projects to improve water efficiency on farms, bring electricity to the poor and protect the forests of the Congo Basin. But the efforts did little to quiet the criticism that swirled around U.S. delegates and Powell.
"There was planned action, but also I think there was some venting of anger there," said Tony Juniper, vice chairman of Friends of the Earth International and one of the protesters during Powell's remarks. "Hopefully, the Bush administration will take something from this."
At a news conference later, Powell dismissed the protesters as unrepresentative of most summit participants. "Hecklers, activists always get attention, but I was more impressed by the reaction I received from my fellow ministers and when I was in my bilateral discussions as well as when I passed through the hallways," he said.
Among the agreements at the summit was a commitment to begin efforts to reduce by half the number of people who lack access to proper sanitation by 2015, to decrease the loss of biodiversity and to promote corporate responsibility.
Environmental groups said they considered the summit a failure. They complained that agreements lacked timetables and clear targets to address climate change and to eliminate agricultural subsidies that make it difficult for developing nations to compete in world markets. "This summit has been very disappointing and reflected a lack of political commitment," said Meena Raman, a spokeswoman for Third World Network.
The United States was routinely blamed for blocking stronger language and stronger commitments. The American delegation, for example, helped block a proposal by the European Union to set goals for using renewable energy.
Powell maintained that actions were more important than timetables and targets. "Plans are good. But only actions can put clean water in the mouths of thirsty girls and boys, prevent the transmission of a deadly virus from mother to child, and preserve biodiversity of a fragile African ecosystem," he said.
Powell also used the summit to build support for possible U.S. military action against Iraq. On the sidelines of the meeting, Powell met with United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan, Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen and other leaders. "I got a solid expression of support from everybody I spoke to on that basic premise that this challenge must be dealt with," Powell said.
Making views known
While hawks in the Bush administration, including Vice President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, have called for the removal of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, Powell has been largely silent on the issue.
Yesterday, however, Powell devoted much of the news conference to making his views known.
"There is a fundamental problem with regimes such as Iraq which entered into all these obligations, which said they would not have any weapons of mass destruction or capability and claim they do not when it is obvious they do," he said. "This is not something where you can turn your head and forget about it and look away."
"The whole world is now seized with this problem," he said. "It is no longer an option to do nothing about the criminal action of this Iraqi regime not complying with U.N. resolutions."
"This is an affront not just against the United States, but against the whole civilized world," he said.