Voices Suppressed become Shouts Heard as Youth are Detained at Moon Palace

-Mariana, Tara, and Ayla

“Justice Delayed is Justice Denied!”

It’s the last official night of negotiations, and within their meeting rooms at the Moon Palace, negotiators argue and debate about what should come from Cancun. What is missing, however, is an important voice – that of civil society, impacted just as much as negotiators by climate change. That voice has been tentatively, then more strongly, shouting from the sidelines, urging negotiators to do what is right by their people – indeed, by all people. An important voice in civil society is that of the Youth, who have been actively fighting for the last two weeks and last few years to have their say in what is to become of our future. Tonight, we witnessed, and were a part of, a gross violation of our right to have our voices heard.

The Youth have long been advocates of Human Rights, and this week have focused on pressuring negotiators to reexamine a crucial part of the negotiated texts. 1.5°C is the maximum amount of global warming that can be accepted without devastating effects on communities worldwide, and yet, at this point, many nations are still opting for the easier goal of 2°C, which was agreed upon in the Copenhagen Accord of last year. However, as the youth have declared, 1.5°C equals survival, and it is not acceptable to settle for a lesser goal.

Tonight, a large group of Youth from around the world gathered on the front steps of the Moon Palace (where the official negotiations are being held) as a voice for civil society. After a two hour delay in getting final approval by the UN Secretariat and Mexican security officials for an already sanctioned action, we spoke out in behalf of the those who no longer have a voice – the victims of the many climate change-related disasters worldwide in the past year. An estimated 21,000 (as est. by Oxfam International) have lost their lives to fires, landslides, floods, drought and other catastrophic events. In memory of these victims, and to stress the fact that this pressing issue is already affecting thousands worldwide, we stood with linked arms in solidarity, counting each victim one by one, with the goal of reaching all 21,000. This task, if completed, would take more than five hours, yet we were only officially allotted 30 minutes to get our message across.

As we stood counting, members of the group stepped forward one at a time to speak out to the gathering media about what we were doing, what we represented, and what we felt was happening in Cancun. They spoke about their hopes for the negotiations, and their fears that nothing substantial was getting done inside the negotiating rooms. Members of affected communities told stories about how climate change is impacting their home countries and personal lives. As they spoke, the group counted in hushed voices, only to rise powerfully again as each speaker finished. This continued for the half hour, with media members photographing and recording our solemn faces as the numbers we counted grew higher. At the end of the half hour, whispers were spread through the group, warning everyone that our time was up, and those who couldn’t risk their accreditation should leave now. At this point, we had counted to about 1,500, and our group grew smaller by about a third. As one member left from the front row, she loudly declared “Bye guys, I have to go, I can’t get my accreditation taken away,” alerting the media to our predicament.

As time wore on, the news spread, and the media began to record the voices of those youth members who periodically came to tell us that this was our first, second, last warning that the UN security officials were coming. At 1,800 victims, we knew for sure that they were on their way, and we huddled closer together, still counting loudly, many crying – for the victims, and because we realized that just as importantly, the voice of civil society and youth was also being killed off. With the last warning, a cut-off point for many materialized – we were told that, if we continued, any accreditation for next year’s COP17 would also be stripped from us, as well as that of any audience members still around – they too, counted quietly under their breath, participating. At this point, the three of us stepped down, not sure if we were willing to risk that. The group on the steps was reduced to about ten members, and we watched with the audience as they passed 2,000, crying, and making the ultimate sacrifice. Many of that final group were experienced climate activists, risking participation in what they most cared about. As we watched them, we came to a point where we realized that standing up for what’s right was more important than having accreditation. The fact that officials were trying to quiet us as we pointed out the urgency of the need to come to a consensus that would save  human lives was just too much. Tara and Mariana pushed past the spectators and took their place again on the steps, next the banner that read, “Justice Delayed is Justice Denied – Bring 1.5°C Back.” As they continued to count, something touched home with Ayla, who had stayed among the spectators, and with four cameras on her tear-stained face, she joined Tara and Mariana back on the steps.

As we neared 2,400 deaths by climate change, the UN officials arrived and wasted no time in throwing the first detainee – a youth who had been speaking at the front of the group – into the bus that had come specifically for the purpose of carting us away. In a flash, more security officials were dragging one end of the group towards the bus, but we were linked so tightly together that to take one was to take all of us, and our banner, which remained in our hands as we continued shouting the death toll. More security officials got to the other end of the group – behind us three – and began to shove the entire group of 15 or so into the bus. As they did so, spectators began to boo, shouting “free our youth!” and pushing at the security. As soon as we were on the bus, we pressed our signs and faces to the windows, looking down on the chaotic crowd that was demanding our release and berating the security with a chant of “Shame on you!”

As the bus began to pull away, we began to regroup, checking on each other, and reassuring ourselves that everything would turn out just fine. Ayla and Mariana realized that all their belongings were still sitting against the building back at Moon Palace, and we all realized we had neither cell phone nor numbers with which to alert the rest of our delegation as to what was happening. But the entire group supported one another, with one participant having a friend collect our bags and another lending us his phone so that we could call the number that we realized was still written on Mariana’s arm from a march early this week – our delegation leader Doreen’s. We didn’t know where we were being taken, or even for sure whether we were being taken by the UN police or the Mexican Officials, but we all knew that we had done what we needed to do, and felt that we had gotten the strong reaction we needed for our message to get through.

The bus took us to Cancunmesse and we felt a little better, coming to familiar grounds, but for reasons unknown to us, security officials at the entrance would not let the bus through. The bus driver then backed us out onto the highway again, and continued to drive past Cancunmesse to who-knows-what destination. However, just as we got past the gates on the other end of the complex, some commotion at the front of the bus caused us to pull over, and we suddenly found ourselves out of the bus, on the side of the road, not knowing what was next. We asked a Youth member what had happened, only to be told, “I’ll tell everyone later, let’s get across the highway.” So we dashed across the roadway and regrouped, to discover that someone had received a text from back at Moon Palace warning that they had heard security saying that as soon as we got off the bus, we would be arrested. The quick-thinking recipient of this message, upon realizing that our (perhaps sympathetic) driver didn’t know what to do with us, had convinced him to just let us off. The group shared a quick hug, then broke into smaller groups, made sure everyone had the money for a cab ride home, and dispersed quickly, aware of our conspicuousness by the road.

We COA delegates, accompanied by a Belgian reporter who had joined in counting with us, crossed back to the other side of the highway to find a ride home from some kind people who were just leaving the Cancunmesse, unaware of the happenings at the Moon Palace. As we made our way back to our hostel, we found ourselves elated at the realization that, at the very least, officials had never gotten our names or badges, and therefore, hopefully, hadn’t taken away our voice at this COP or the next.

The entire experience was both positive and frustrating. While we are happy that our voice – that of Youth and of civil society – has made an impact, we were aware that this was not the way we would have hoped to have it happen. Protests and images of young people being dragged away are powerful, but why is this the manner in which we feel we need to work to be heard? Even our entirely sanctioned events throughout the week have been delayed, denied, or canceled last minute, seemingly at the whim of the secretariat. The work of the Youth was not flippant or irrelevant – we have been trying to highlight immediate issues, only to be treated as immature and disruptive. The fact that 21,000 have died because Copenhagen did not produce an adequate decision is inconceivable, and yet it has happened this past year. Tonight was perhaps not the way we wanted to gain momentum, but the support and outrage of the crowd was a good sign that we are leaving our battle at a good conclusion for this COP, and that in the future, when civil society wants to speak out on behalf of endangered peoples worldwide, officials may choose to listen more carefully.

Click here for an early video of the action and encounter with UN security

  1. Alicia Hynes

    This is completely outrageous and a total violation of your freedom of speech. I’m really impressed with your courage and keeping your wits about you, guys. Thank you so much for all of your hard work in Cancun. Keep trying! You are all amazing.

  2. Congratulations on your bravery girls, we need more people like you to stand out and speak out loudly.
    I thank your passion and commitment to the climate cause.

  3. Dionne

    I feel so proud that my classmates took part in this kind of social and environmental justice, you guys are very bold and inspiring! It was really energizing to read about your first-hand protest experience, way to go!

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