Thursday, December 17, 2009

December 17th, 6:50 PM CET

Forum, NGO Center

There were two sights I saw today that typified the current state of the negotiations. The first was a police-escorted motorcade, lights flashing, racing down one of Copenhagen's main streets towards the Bella Center. I suspect it was carrying a head of state from one of the upscale hotels downtown to the negotiations, stalled for the better part of the week. The second followed shortly after. One of the COP15 buses, running a special route to connect the Bella Center directly to other central points, passed by at a markedly slower pace. It was almost entirely empty.

As world leaders fly in, NGOs and observers are increasingly shut out. Temporary work spaces have been erected all over the city and side events and lectures are taking place in cafes around the city, if they still happen at all. Grassroots networks struggle to reach their members and find physical locations in which to meet and organize. The question this raises - and my opinion is still changing on this - is how the content and progress of the negotiations are affected.

On the one hand, mere access to the Bella Center may be a little overrated. The site is so large, and hallways so crowded that experienced COPers remark at how difficult it is to generate the sort of informal run-ins and brief encounters that have characterized past conferences. Draft texts are not printed and distributed (or even put online) until they are hopelessly out of date, if at all. Most of the action happens in closed meetings, "bilats", or consultations with the secretariat, all inaccessible to observers. Even press conferences are closed to NGOs, though they are broadcast on the website live. The open plenaries rarely yield any new information on specific topics. Overall, unless one is plugged in with a delegation or otherwise working constructively at the Center, it's almost easier to follow the negotiations by keeping one ear listening to live feeds of the negotiations and press conferences, and an eye on email listservs, blog updates, and official press releases from governments, etc., as well as the occasional draft text - all of which can be done outside the conference.

Avaaz's aliens demonstration - standing with a delegate from Panama. Hilarious AND smart - video to come.

However, by closing the Center to NGOs, as was done yesterday after protests inside and out led to concerns over security, the possibility for the kind of constructive work carried out by some NGOs was also shut out. One observer, expressing his frustration in an email on Wednesday, explained how he had been doing pro bono press work for a delegation from a small developing country without any communications staff of their own. Without help, they are unable to get their message out to their people at home or to news agencies at the conference. Now, the only leverage they have is what they can manage to accrue through the negotiation process, which amounts to very, very little. NGOs can also serve as resources to delegations needing guidance from experts on key subjects going into the text. By denying access to NGOs, a large wealth of knowledge is also excluded from the process. In this respect, there is no replacement for being in the same physical space as the negotiations.

So by protesting in order for everyone to "get their voice heard," one block of of civil society managed to obstruct the work of another. Ironically, the idea that the Reclaim Power Now movement on Wednesday would get everyone a spot at the table was patently counter-productive, and only served to further limit input from those poor, disenfranchised, and most endangered by climate change. But again, they were joined in their walk-out by the Bolivian delegation and Indigenous Peoples Caucus. I don't know that that's the smartest move those delegates could have made, but it obviously they saw it as their only recourse. After all, isn't this whole movement about giving developing countries control over their own future?

I welcome comments on this - I'm certainly far from understanding this dichotomy, and especially the role of youth.



  1. is it the protestors fault for getting the NGOs kicked out? who actually made that decision? the protestors? or conference officials? were the protestors warned that if they did the action on weds the NGOs would get kicked out? isn't that a form of silencing voices too, you know, threatening them with further exclusion?

    obviously i don't know all the parameters and regulations in place, but it seems like the conference officials still ultimately had the power and made the decision as to which voices would be heard, not the protestors.

  2. Ian, you're right. The conference officials (apparently the security force itself, the Chief of which was given final say on who could and could not enter the center) could have handled the protestors. Ideally, they would have allowed for expression of ideas, and removed those individuals that were truly out of line and interfering with proceedings. But it's much easier for them to simply deny access entirely, for a couple of reasons.

    First, they can avoid the "martyr" effect of having protestors arrested and dragged out of the center, garnering media attention and further proving their cause, by not allowing observers in in the first place. I believe that's the major reason behind the shut-out - it makes the process look "cleaner," even though the reality is that voices are being shut out.

    Secondly, it actually was a security concern. Certain factions were intending on rallying a group to jump the fence, enter the center, and truly cause some havoc. Apparently emails were intercepted... who really knows. In that case, giving access to people planning this would be very dangerous. After all, heads of state including President Obama were set to arrive in less that 48 hours. In that case, based on the touch-and-go nature of registration, I think we could have seen this coming. (They were not threatened with exclusion, to my knowledge.)