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.

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