The Personal is Political at the CBD

~by Graham Reeder

This week, three COA delegates have been observing the Convention on Biological Diversity’s Intergovernmental Committee for the Nagoya Protocol on Access to Genetic Resources and Benefit Sharing of Benefits Arising from their Utilization (UNEP-CBD-ICNP1), a technical meeting that aims to lay the groundwork for how to begin implementing the recently (Oct 2010) agreed upon Nagoya Protocol.

Things have been picking up speed here in Montreal over the past few days. We spent Monday and Tuesday watching delegations give feedback on the texts that the secretariat had prepared. Nothing dramatic happened until Tuesday afternoon, when the Egyptian Delegate, Dr Ossama El-Tayeb,  put his foot down, challenging the secretariat’s attempt to redefine (and water down) the already agreed upon definition of compliance; which would make it non-legally binding and holding no weight in court. This caused quite a ruckus, as the secretariat were clearly doing all they could to avoid any substantive deliberation and to stick to menial administrative editing that could then be ignored. This relates to a larger issue that many countries have with these negotiations because the secretariat has attempted to push through text by separating the form and the function of the access and benefit sharing mechanism.

As we listened to Dr. El-Tayeb’s various interventions, we couldn’t help but notice that despite getting slapped on the wrist by both the co-chairs and the African Group as a whole (represented by Cameroon), he has a much better grasp of what was in the text and is able to navigate the process with grace and poignancy. Another example of personality politics during negotiations is the Chinese delegate; he managed to challenge the co-chairs directly, which almost never happens, but did so with enough humility and humour that he got away with it. These interventions are dramatically different in character than, for example, those of Cuba, who attempted to point out inadequacies in the early days of the negotiations but were shut down by the co-chairs for being off-topic or untimely. What we later learned was that when a recommendation is made at the incorrect time, as deemed by the co-chairs, the recommendation is struck from the record and needs to be re-stated in order to be included in the report. Many less experienced delegates do not necessarily understand this and find their valuable input thrown into a void.

Delegation dynamics are complex and subtle; Christine von Weizsacker of Ecoropa explained to us that some larger delegations arrive not only with government environmental department representatives, but with watchdogs from trade, health, and international affairs departments who make sure that the delegation’s promises conform with other internal national matters. This is one of many reasons that larger delegations from the global north are so conservative. Smaller delegations on the other hand, are at an even greater disadvantage. Although many delegates arrive with legal expertise and a strong understanding of the texts and issues at hand, most of them do not have up to 20 years of experience in these kinds of arenas. UN negotiations are a subtle and frustrating art, and without the comfort levels that come with having known most in the room for years, as is clearly the case for delegates from Egypt, Japan, the EU, Canada, and China, it is near impossible to sway the room or even have one’s voice heard.

This is not only a problem at the technical meetings for the Convention on Biological Diversity; the UN faces challenges of representation and fairness across the board. Having been carried out of a long history of diplomatic exclusion, the old boys club that was once the League of Nations still has a long way to go before being truly fair. The impression this leaves me with is not a cheerful one. The art of negotiating requires many resources to maintain negotiators that excel for the constituencies that they represent, often leaving important decisions to the luck of the draw. It seems that Egypt has managed to get an excellent hand, but they fight an upward battle when the rich nations of the world spend a lot of money to print their own cards. Given all this inefficiency and nepotism, it is no wonder that most of the important work that is done in diplomacy occurs behind closed doors, while the global south and civil society have brought in a huge change by raising their profiles and getting to the negotiating table, they still find themselves locked out or uninvited to the meetings that set the rules of the game.

Making sure this work gets done is one of the key roles that civil society fills at negotiations, NGOs can often say things that countries cannot, for fear of losing diplomatic clout or being punished by trade/aid cuts (a practice the United States is particularly fond of). The work that UNfairplay does to support small and underrepresented delegations at climate negotiations is inspiring and important. Check them out at, particularly their report (Project FIG) on filling in the gaps.

Can we part with conventions?

by Nathan

There’s nothing new under the hot Montreal sun, but it is worth noting anyway. The Intergovernmental Committee on the Nagoya Protocol opened Monday morning, the first meeting on access and benefit sharing since the Protocol was finalised at the COP last October. For a protocol that seems wholly unfinished—Swizz cheese with more holes than cheese as one observer put it, or, as new co-chair Janet Lowe keeps putting it, a new-born baby in want of attention—there was an awful lot of back-patting and congratulating. Obviously, at a UN event this should come as no surprise, indeed it has become an expectation—Chairs and Parties are expected to decorate opening statements with more flowers than Kew gardens ex-situ collection; 90% introduction + 10% remembering that we must finish on time = zero content. A cynic might say it’s intentional.

Eventually we do get off the ground in the afternoon session of day 2, but that’s too late for a 5 day meeting. It’s seemingly small things such as, but not limited to, the delayed start that soon become the norm at these conferences. Wearing suits serves no real function, but we still do it. Distributing thousands of sheets of paper is redundant when every delegate has a laptop in front of them and the text changes so fast anyway, but that still happens. Holding fancy banquets at great expense is kind of unnecessary, but I don’t see that stopping anytime soon. It all signals a fetishism of ‘proper process,’ a lingering sentiment of older diplomatic practice that surely has no place in what should be urgent talks leading to drastic action, but in fact have been 20 years of gestation finally birthing a weak infant.

Of course this process is difficult. Of course we won’t have a protocol that immediately stops the lucrative practice of biopiracy, or sets clear parameters for what fair and equitable benefit sharing looks like. But if we expect precious hours and days to be wasted saying congratulations;  if we expect even the smallest demands of developing countries to be unmet for the longest time, and the voices of civil society to be largely ignored; if we expect for all real decisions to be made in small backroom meetings; and if we expect that the it is always the party who brings the money that calls the shots; if we expect nothing to happen, simply because it is conventional, then what good are these UN Conventions-climate, biodiversity, desertification, or other?

It is these sorts of norms that are now entrenched into the UN process which, by what is essentially tacit consent, help to uphold the very problems they now intend to solve. What can we expect, though, when those problems—like climate change, overpopulation, biopiracy and the like—too are caused by unquestioned norms on a broader societal level?

So it seems that the successful Convention will have to part with convention. The Convention on Biological Diversity has taken a few steps in the right direction—ABS negotiations have broken out of some manacles by giving civil society an active role at the table. Maybe, perhaps after Rio+20, this small change can lead to broader procedural adjustments. This is our hope for now.