No free speech at the climate talks?

No free speech at the climate talks?

No free speech at the climate talks?

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This blog post is one of a series of updates from Friends of the Earth representatives at the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in Bonn, Germany.

By Kate Horner, Friends of the Earth U.S.

June 8, 2011

Today in Bonn, delegates are taking a first step towards understanding and fixing the remarkable limitations placed on civil society participation at the UN climate talks. This issue has special importance for Friends of the Earth, and my colleague Gita Parihar from Friends of the Earth in England spoke on behalf of all civil society constituents at a workshop here in Bonn to highlight solutions to this long-standing problem.

This issue reached crisis levels in Copenhagen in 2009.  Every member of the Friends of the Earth delegation who attended the UN climate talks in Copenhagen remembers the inauspicious day when our entire delegation — including folks who had traveled from distant places like Uruguay, Malawi and Indonesia — was denied access to the entire venue.  At first we were confused, thinking that something had malfunctioned with security scanning devices. Then, when most of the forty of so members of our delegation had arrived and were milling about the entryway, waiting for to be let in, we were told we would not be admitted to the venue — with no reason given.

Of course, the security personnel should have known better than to tell a group of feisty, committed activists that they would not be admitted to a venue in which the fate our planet was being discussed.  We all recall somewhat fondly, but mostly with bitter frustration, the moment when we all sat down, pulled out our laptops and cell phones to inform the public and media that the door had been shut on critical voices.  We even chuckle recalling how our otherwise mild-mannered and sweet-faced press officer from England coined one of the great protest chants when he shouted, “Open the door, De Boer!” (referencing then-Executive Secretary, Yvo De Boer).

While many Friends of the Earth delegates were let back in later in the week and much of the frustration has since subsided, the unfortunate restrictions placed on civil society participation still stand. Most UN Conventions recognize the vital importance of civil society — it leads to better outcomes when we hold governments to account for their positions and increases legitimacy as we help raise awareness about the pressing issues of our time. Many times civil society plays a crucial role in supporting governments with very little technical capacity.

But anyone who has ever attended the climate negotiations will have been struck by how often negotiations take place behind closed doors, how few opportunities there are for civil society to speak in the process, and how any interventions have to be approved by the secretariat beforehand. And for many organizations, access to the negotiations may well be impeded by the extraordinary financial cost of attending the meetings, difficulties in obtaining visas and insufficient language interpretation (as the majority of the discussions are conducted only in English with no translation.)

And the one thing that frustrates me the most? If you want to stage even a small scale demonstration (something like 15 people holding a sign in the negotiations), you have to persuade the secretariat that your action falls outside their very broad definition of harassment. So for example, when the World Bank decides to finance dirty energy projects that displace indigenous peoples from their lands, we can’t have signs in the negotiating halls calling them to task.  When one UNFCCC Secretariat staff was questioned about this practice, she responded, “This isn’t the United States. This is the UN. There is no freedom of speech here.”  I am sure those who drafted the UN Declaration on Human Rights wouldn’t be pleased to hear their vision for the protection of fundamental freedoms so horribly undermined.

These and similar issues were discussed at the participation workshop today. Civil society came up with a range of shared and imaginative ways of solving the problems, for example pointing to best practices in other areas such as under the Aarhus Convention. A presentation by Pablo Salon of the Bolivian delegation highlighted the need for states to ask themselves searching questions about how they ensure that they represent all of the groups that they should, including the marginalised sections of society that remain at the fringe of the negotiations. As he pointed out, if the process is not fit for purpose, then there is no point in our being here. And as ambassador D’Alba of Mexico said, there is no need for “policemen” at the door of UNFCCC meeting rooms, especially when the default position in other UN processes is that meetings are open to observers. Parties also supported the need to allow civil society a greater ability to comment during sessions.

Over the course of the last eighteen months, with our allies in the climate movement, we have been pushing the UNFCCC to become more open and transparent.  Today was a pivotal moment in reforming some of the policies related to civil society participation. We are hopeful that Parties and Christina Figueres, the new Executive Secretary of the UNFCCC, will take this issue seriously, recognizing that restricting our access will undermine results, and fix this long-standing and unjust problem before the next big meeting this December in Durban, South Africa. If not, I’ll be making a list of words that rhyme with Figueres, just in case.

The clear message from the workshop was that civil society representatives belong at the negotiations- they are the lifeblood of the process, giving it legitimacy and providing expertise. Needless restrictions on their ability to engage must be removed so that, instead of being a sad example of what not to do, the UNFCCC can become a leading light, showing others how it should and can be done.

As I type this on a summer evening in Germany, the memory of being “kettled” along with the rest of the Friends of the Earth International delegation by UN Security police on a dark December evening in Copenhagen two years ago seems a distant one. Hopefully, as a result of today’s participation workshop, it will become an increasingly irrelevant reminder of the bad old days.

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