Civil Society Activists Cold-Shouldered at Climate Talks

By Thalif DeenUNITED NATIONS, Oct 26 2015 (IPS)A former UN Secretary-General once paid a supreme compliment to the work of civil society groups when he described non-governmental organisations (NGOs) as the world’s “third super power” –- presumably ranking behind the United States and Russia. Still, despite the political clout they wield, NGOs continue to be barred from the Secretariat building in New York every year during the two-week annual high-level summit meeting of world leaders, come September.The U.N.-issued NGO ground pass, security officers would proclaim loudly, is not valid and activists are not even permitted to cross the street to even stand in the shadow of the U.N. building.Civil society representatives wear blindfolds and picket the UN climate talks Wednesday morning to symbolise civil society exclusion. (Global Campaign to Demand Climate Justice)Last month was no exception, as the United Nations continued to treat NGOs as political outcasts on the grounds that the restriction was justified primarily for “security reasons” – since, it says, it is unable to cope with the thousands of civil society groups who may converge during the summit meetings when the U.N. neighbourhood itself is turned into a veritable war zone.Last week, civil society groups were barred again as “observers” – this time during the final round of climate change negotiations in Bonn.The talks, which concluded Oct. 23, were one of the final opportunities to influence details of the landmark climate agreement set to be finalised at the COP21 summit in Paris in December.The ban prompted a coalition of more than 170 civil society groups to condemn the decision to exclude observers from climate negotiations.As a result, climate change activists now fear they may even be excluded from the upcoming Paris talks in December.Gita Parihar, an environmental lawyer who is Head of Legal at Friends of the Earth (England, Wales & Northern Ireland), said civil society observers will meet with the French president of COP 21 to deliver a statement from more than 170 organizations to demand their full participation in the climate talks.“Observers may still be out of the room but we have not gone away. All countries should join with the developing world to ensure our rightful participation in Paris – and the European Union must comply with its legal obligations to do so,” she said.Asked whether Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon finds it regrettable that civil society groups were shut out of last week’s negotiation sessions in Bonn, U.N. Deputy Spokesman Farhan Haq said on Oct. 22: “Well, we are aware that at different sets of negotiations there have been different rules but at the same time what the Secretary-General has always encouraged is the greatest amount of access possible for civil society.”“And we hope that would continue because they have a very important role to play in making sure that the Governments of the world take climate change, and our considerations on climate change, seriously. And so we do hope for greater involvement as this proceeds,” he added.According to NGO sources, Japan objected to the presence of civil society observers in groups where discussion on the draft agreement took place.Asked whether Japan was the only country that objected to NGO participation, Grace Cahill of ActionAid International told IPS: “Yes, the only one. It is widely thought that they were probably backed by other countries, like the U.S.” The 134-member Group of 77 developing countries, along with China and Mexico all opposed Japan’s stand – and stressed that negotiations must remain transparent and open.A Japanese Foreign Ministry official was quoted as saying: “We have short time for very serious negotiations. Every diplomat knows real negotiations cannot happen in front of the public. If we have spin offs open to observers, we will need another group to do the real negotiations. This is not the time for show, but real negotiations.”Yoke Ling, Director of the Third World Network, said: “We are deeply concerned that the United States stood by in silence while Japan, its ally in the Umbrella Group of countries, successfully opposed the participation of civil society in the climate talks in Bonn.”“We need civil society to be present as part of an open and transparent process if the world is going to achieve a fair and ambitious deal from these talks.”Anabella Rosemberg, Climate Policy Advisor at the International Trade Union Confederation, said: “The United Nations have been created on the basis that secret deals were harmful for democracy.”She said “observers” in the U.N. are “not even asking for their legitimate right to speak, but our right to be present on the very first discussions on the Paris draft deal”.“This decision is a slap on the face of those who believe in the U.N. to solve global problems fairly. Working people have a right to know who stands with them and who doesn’t,” she added.Asked whether civil society had been barred in earlier negotiations, Cahill said: “It has happened a few times in the past. It happened at the COP15 in Copenhagen (in December 2009) where it caused big problems.”The writer can be contacted at thalifdeen@