Expelled from the United Nations: How the Executive Secretary Reacts to Solidarity with the Phillippines

By Maria Alejandra Escalante and Graham Thurston Hallett

Before anything please watch this moving testament by Yeb Sano, head of the delegation of the Philippines.

Four hours in, day one, COP19: Poland. Half a planet away, while the other half perishes with 20 years of inaction. The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) is tasked with saving the planet from anthropogenic climate change. On Monday, the UNFCCC occupied itself with us, rather than with the Filipino people. The words of Filipino negotiator, Yeb Sano, who had just delivered the most raw and heartbreaking testament to humanity, in its visceral reminder to the heart that links all of us together, and as a gross reminder that these deaths were result of 20 years of inaction from the men and women sitting in that room, were almost instantly forgotten.

The entire Plenary Hall stood in tear-filled ovation to Yeb’s moving speech and remained standing for 3 minutes of silence to commemorate the tragedy. From the back of the hall, sixty members of civil society chanted, “We stand with you,” to Yeb Sano and the Filipino people. As Yeb and his delegation left the Plenary Hall, members of civil society were then asked to walk with him in solidarity to his speech at the Third World Network side event on loss and damage.

Youth groups and Filipino civil society had been planning a ‘sanctioned’ action the following day in support of the Philippines, where Yeb was planning to speak. In our bags we carried signs and banners made for that action.

As humans, with one heart and two legs, we didn’t think about what we’d do, we didn’t plan what happened, we felt the horror of the lives lost and the beauty that this man had shared with the international community as he announced he was fasting until a meaningful action was taken by the UNFCCC.

So we did what any human would, we stood by him. Among the solemn procession, friends held signs with names of provinces and towns destroyed by the typhoon, and in the front of the procession a banner read:

“2012 Typhoon Bohpa—1,067  /   2013 Typhoon Haiyan—–10,000+?”

In the back of the procession we held the question lingering in all of our minds, “How Many More?”

How many more lives will be lost before the obstinate countries actually care? Before they convey their compassion by committing to climate justice?

For most of the world all we can do to show we care is by taking 3 minutes of silence and by making supportive speeches. But those men and women, representing their governments, holding so much power in their hands, are the only people capable of taking actions that could stop this trail of dead, once and for all.

Within global civil society, we are the very few given voice in these halls. We are meant to bring the voice of the reality that exists outside of negotiating tables and corporate cocktail parties. All we were capable of doing at that moment, we did. We held a banner in solidarity.

And so the only thing that made sense in this situation happened:

We were banned from the UNFCCC.

Picture by David Tong, Push Europe

Picture by David Tong, Adopt a Negotiator

All because this banner wasn’t sanctioned. Holding a banner as a civil society demonstration of sympathy with a tragedy, under such emotional conditions, must be seen beyond the codified norm. We are not only being arbitrarily punished, this rejection of civil society is a growing trend and a recurring event. Last year in Doha members of youth fought to get back in the conference space for a week after being banned for their intervention the previous year, this year three of us are banned for 5 years. Is this an escalating censorship of civil society participation?

As the Secretariat told us, “We’re on your side, but you knew the rules and you willingly broke them. If you had followed the correct procedures I would have approved this action”.

Madam Executive Secretary, this was not a premeditated action, this was a procession with a Filipino man in mourning. Don’t you have something else to do? Perhaps governing a convention tasked with saving the planet by stopping anthropogenic climate change? You who begged the youth to get angry last year, are silencing civil society for following your words.

To the governments of the developed countries, to the corporations for whom you speak, to the negotiators who represent you and that stood in silence this year, that stood in silence last year at COP18 when Typhoon Bhopa had just hit, you still do not care.

You’ve never cared because you’ve never acted consistently with your words and promises. You do not care so long as you allow the continued emission and extraction of greenhouse  gases that push us along a path to a 4ºC warmer world. So long as you avoid your ‘common but differentiated and historical responsibilities’. So long as you are unwilling to transfer finances and technology to the people that need them, by providing the promised $100 billion. So long as the Green Climate Fund and Adaptation Fund remain empty. So long as you are unwilling to pay for losses and damages.

Ultimately de-badging and banning of three young people does not matter. It is not about us. What does matter is the clear demonstration of which side Christiana Figueres truly stands with. Standing in deference to ‘operational guidelines’ above Yeb Sano, the 10,000 dead, and those that express solidarity with them is a gross insult to life.

We held a banner and we walked in solidarity, that is all. The Executive Secretariat of the UNFCCC and the developed countries seem to have been under the delusion that 3 minutes of silence amongst 20 years of inaction is enough. Catastrophic climate change could be avoided and vulnerable communities could escape these horrific events if developed countries heeded the words of Frederick Douglas, an abolitionist and escaped slave in the United States, when he said, “Those who profess to favor freedom and yet depreciate agitation, are people who want crops without ploughing the ground; they want rain without thunder and lightning; they want the ocean without the roar of its many waters. The struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, or it may be both. But it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.”

Ultimately, the decision of the Executive Secretary is putting us in an unnecessary position. A waste of precious resources and energy for the climate justice movement and those that seek an equitable outcome in Warsaw. The youth are not present here to fight for the granted right of inclusion, that right is ours. We should be inside of the convention standing with those who have suffered and working so that they never will again.

  1. Ken Cline

    Maria and Graham:

    I am glad that you did what you did. Thanks for explaining it in more detail. I am trying to get friends and colleagues to put pressure on the Secretariat. It is more important than ever that youth, with your impatience and clarity, be inside and part of these negotiations and not shunted to the periphery. The fact that everyone in the hall was not equally moved to act is less of recrimination of you than evidence that most of the negotiators have left their souls in the cloakroom along with their overcoats.

  2. Nancy Norton

    I agree with Ken! I have shared your situation with friends via Facebook, but we don’t have much impact on the UNFCCC directors. Still, thank you to the delegation for your work. I’m impressed with the clarity and strength of your communications.

  3. Alex

    Youth, and most civil society, were effectively shut out of the crucial last days of the UN climate negotiations in Copenhagen in 2009. While protesting this outrage, youth were basically blackmailed into silence by the unjustified threat by the UNFCCC Secretariat of all civil society participation being cut unless we left quietly. One of my biggest regrets is yielding to that blackmail.

    To the young people currently in Warsaw: please do not yield.

  4. James Lagomarsino

    Action speaks louder than words. It is late, but surely action is what is needed now. Thanks goodness that some have the strength and resolve to take action . We should encourage such action, not punish it

  5. James Lagomarsino

    Action speaks louder than words. It is late, but surely action is what is needed now. Thank goodness that some have the strength and resolve to take action . We should encourage such action, not punish it!

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