SOUTH African President Thabo Mbeki today urged world leaders to end the divide between rich and poor in the "global village" at the start of the Earth Summit in Johannesburg.
More than 100 world leaders - with the notable exception of US President George W Bush - are meeting for ten days to find ways of helping millions of people out of poverty without poisoning the planet.
Mr Mbeki opened the World Summit on Sustainable Development today in the Sandton convention centre.
There was a heavy police presence outside to shield delegates from crowds of demonstrators and sprawling, crime-ridden slums.
It is hoped the Summit will lead to agreements which will help more than one billion people without access to clean water and more than two billion without proper sanitation.
It also aims to develop specific plans for expanding the poor’s access to electricity and health care, to reverse the degradation of agricultural land, protect the global environment, save fish stocks and fight Aids.
Mr Mbeki told delegates at the opening session of the World Summit on Sustainable Development today: "A global human society based on poverty for many and prosperity for a few, is unsustainable.
"The world has grown into a global village. The survival of everybody in this village demands that we develop a universal consensus to act together to ensure there is no longer any river that divides our common habitat into poor and wealthy parts."
He said the world clearly agreed that international solidarity was needed to fight poverty and inequality and called for real results from the Summit.
"The peoples of the world expect that this summit will live up to its promise of being a fitting culmination to a decade of hope," Mr Mbeki said.
At a colourful ceremony last night, Mr Mbeki said there was now a common need to end the "global apartheid".
He added: "Out of Johannesburg and out of Africa must emerge something that takes the world forward. We have no choice but to unite in action to ensure the triumph of the vision of sustainable development. Together, we will win. "
Summit Secretary-General Nitin Desai stressed the final documents must contain specific timetables and targets.
Mr Desai lamented the "implementation gap" between the commitments made at the 1992 Earth Summit and the world’s lack of action toward achieving those environmental and development goals.
Poverty and ill health continued as does global climate change and environmental degradation, he said. "We must have this sense that we have no time to lose."
President Bush’s failure to attend has led critics to further question the commitment of the world’s only superpower and biggest polluter to the green agenda first agreed at Rio de Janeiro in 1992.
"(The United States) can be a catalyst for positive action or a constraint on international co-operation," said Achim Steiner, director general of The World Conservation Union, or IUCN.
US officials have said Mr Bush is too busy to attend the summit.
Washington is leading resistance to demands from developing countries for concrete commitments to higher aid payments and more access to Western import markets, but says it is keen to promote worthy projects in partnership with private enterprise.
Head of the US delegation, Assistant Secretary of State John Turner, said he was "feeling positive" about recent progress. But he also played down the importance of the summit’s final documents, saying they were secondary to the "really historic opportunity" the summit offers to launch "results-oriented projects".
Environment Secretary Margaret Beckett said yesterday: "It’s true that the American Government is not doing as much as we would all like , but that doesn’t mean there aren’t lots of people in America who take these issues as seriously as they deserve."
Ms Beckett conceded the UK Government itself "could do better" on the environment after Tony Blair’s record was attacked by his own green adviser.
Scottish First Minister Jack McConnell added "Devolved Scotland will not shirk from our responsibilities. The poorest countries will not make progress unless the wealthiest countries - like Scotland - become more sustainable and use fewer resources to sustain our standards of living."
The First Minister said his programme for the Summit would include talks with politicians in the Eastern Cape to see if Scotland could work with the province - one of the poorest in South Africa - to solve problems there.