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© Neena Bhandari, Inter Press Service

SYDNEY, Sep 5 (IPS) - As 21 world leaders representing three billion people living in the Asia Pacific Economic Forum (APEC) nations meet here, civil society groups are calling for an instant end to poverty, the war in Iraq, and immediate action on climate change.

Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs), already in the ‘Harbour City’ for a week of meetings among business and political leaders, have said they will settle for no less than stringent and immediate commitment to binding targets on CO2 emissions as the 2007 APEC meetings get underway this week. Several top leaders, including United States President George W. Bush, are already here ahead of the Sep.8-9 summit.

APEC 'member economies', include Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, China, Hong Kong, China, Indonesia, Japan, Republic of Korea, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, Peru, the Philippines, Russia, Singapore, Taiwan, Thailand, Vietnam and the U.S.

GetUp!, a progressive political group, unveiled Wednesday a hard copy of what is believed to be the largest petition on climate change, signed by half a million people around the world. GetUp! executive director Brett Solomon said: "We are sending our decision makers a message that this global problem needs a global solution."

The signatures endorse the message: "I want our governments to take sweeping action to dramatically cut greenhouse pollution, shift to clean energy and solve the climate crisis now."

‘Avaaz’, the global protest movement that began a worldwide online campaign in January, appealing for binding targets on greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and a shift to clean energy, is here with a petition that carries the message: "Global opinion is the new superpower.’’

Many of the low-lying Pacific island states are already facing the adverse effects from climate change. "We see people in Indonesia already suffering from increases in salinity due to rising sea levels. Coral reefs -- traditional fishing grounds -- are dying off, threatening food security and rising sea-levels are making homes of the most vulnerable," says Jack de Groot, chief executive officer of Caritas Australia, the Catholic agency of international aid and development.

Global warming is high on the APEC agenda with Prime Minister John Howard aiming for non-binding targets to be set on reducing GHG emissions. But British Prime Minister Gordon Brown has reminded APEC leaders that any discussions on climate change must be in the context of other international talks.

"There are three major conferences on climate change coming up and I think all of them have a role to play. I don't think there is any discussion that is going to be held on climate change that doesn't involve the issue of carbon emissions," Brown told Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) Radio.

Greenpeace is calling on APEC countries to reject Howard's efforts to undermine the Kyoto Protocol through his calls for 'aspirational targets'. "Australia's climate policy is to 'push export coal' and to hell with the consequences for the planet. Real action on climate change means moving away from coal and shifting to clean, renewable energy,’’ says Ben Pearson, Greenpeace energy campaigner.

According to Greenpeace, during APEC week, Australia will export more than four million tonnes of coal, resulting in over 11 million tonnes of CO2 emissions -- equivalent to the annual emissions from 800,000 average Australian households.

On Sep. 7, hundreds of Sydneysiders, families and local surfers will unfurl a massive 144 sq m banner calling for climate targets at APEC at the iconic Bondi beach. A human climate target will also form on the sand accompanied by a surfers' circle out at sea. The event will launch a series of replica events -- in Kyoto, the Great Barrier Reef and Melbourne.

Ice-sculpture heads of Howard and George Bush will melt in Sydney's sun as part of the ongoing anti-APEC protests. Organised by Make Poverty History -- a coalition of more than 60 aid agencies, community groups and religious organisations -- the protest will highlight failure of the two leaders to ratify the Kyoto Protocol.

Make Poverty History’s co-chairman Andrew Hewett said in a statement that climate change was not only an environmental and economic challenge, "but it is a moral challenge, because those least responsible for causing the problem -- the poorest people in the poorest countries of the world -- will overwhelmingly pay the highest price as climate change begins to bite."

As unprecedented security and a 3 m-high fence transforms Sydney's Central Business District into an impregnable fortress, about 500 school students, some accompanied by their parents, defied authorities and marched through Sydney and Melbourne on Wednesday.

A 16-year-old high school boy said, "We are protesting about the Iraq war, about too many innocent civilians dying for oil and power. Money spent on military could go to more useful things."

A 'Stop Bush Coalition' protest march has been organised for Sep. 8, when 20,000 people will run the risk of being arrested and put behind bars following a court prohibition order. Protest organiser Alex Bainbridge vowed, "Our protest will be going ahead".

Civil liberty groups feel the agenda of the current APEC meeting is not focused on supporting the millions in poverty. "There are more than 700 million people in the region living on less than one dollar per day. The Millennium Development Goals (MDG), a 15-year action plan to tackle poverty, are nowhere in site at this APEC meeting which is a great tragedy", said de Groot.

"We need urgent action on meeting poverty goals in our very own region and Australia needs to take responsibility for achieving these goals," he added.

Union Aid Abroad-APHEDA, the humanitarian overseas aid agency of the Australian Council of Trade Unions, is concerned that APEC is not placing labour rights and aid at the centre of discussions on economic development.

"APEC should be looking at fair trade not free trade," says Ken Davis from Union Aid Abroad-APHEDA, adding, "In Indonesia, workers are being forced to compete with wage rates in China. Indonesian factories, where even the minimal labour regulations that exist are not being enforced, are shutting down. In China, conditions are even worse -- there is use of slave and child labour and brutal suppression of workers."

Davis says, "If true prosperity is to be the goal of APEC member countries, then they should be upholding the internationally agreed target of 0.7 percent of GDP going to real aid and poverty alleviation and insisting on recognising labour rights as central to economic development."

Civil rights groups feel that while business promotion remains the dominant feature of the APEC agenda, the lost agenda items that can help achieve equitable and sustainable growth for the countries of the region are an opportunity missed.

Patricia Ranald, from the Australian Fair Trade and Investment Network, observed that APEC brought together ‘’only business and government, with no involvement of community groups, and no consideration of human rights, labour rights or real environmental protection’’.

Sydney-based aid and trade watchdog AID/WATCH and Manila-based Asia-Pacific Research Network have organised a three-day workshop beginning Sep. 4 called ‘To Oppose Free Trade Agreements: Making People Matter.’

Prof. Jane Kelsey from the Asia-Pacific Research Network says, "This workshop brings a warning and a promise -- civil society organisations are determined to act against free trade agreements, and together have the capacity to turn them around".

‘All People for Environment and Community’, a wide coalition of community groups, has come together to organise the People’s Alternative Festival in Sydney's Hyde Park on Sep. 7 to make it clear that they do not welcome APEC. The festival will promote the values of peace, security and harmony, and the use of diplomacy and dialogue to replace force as a means of resolving conflicts.

On Wednesday anti-war groups appealed in the Supreme Court in Sydney for removal of police barriers to Saturday's ‘Stop Bush Coalition’ march that will come up against a wall of steel and concrete erected around the city centre.

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