“Transparency” too controversial at U.N. climate talks

April 15, 2010

leadersCan you object to a proposal for U.N. climate negotiators to “continue to work in a transparent and inclusive manner in accordance with the principles of the United Nations”?

If your answer is a bemused ”No”, you definitely aren’t a negotiator.

Delegates from 175 nations at U.N. climate talks in Bonn spent spent the best part an hour late on the evening of April 11 arguing about the apparently innocuous phrase as part of a 2-page document reviving talks in 2010 after the Copenhagen summit in December failed to come up with a new treaty to fight global warming.

I sat in the back of the hall as country after country presented rival phrases about “transparency” and “inclusiveness”: at one point, one delegate even waved a copy of the U.N. charter to back up her point about ”U.N. principles”. Many insisted their own carefully crafted proposals represented vital interests for tackling one of the biggest challenges faced by humanity.

So what did they end up agreeing?copenhagen

Nothing. It was too controversial so they just deleted the entire sentence.

Analysts say that a recurrent problem with the negotiations over the past years is that it’s a lot easier to spend hours arguing about legalistic phrasing than get down to the substance of costly cuts in greenhouse gas emissions by rich nations, and new actions by developing nations to try to break their dependence on fossil fuels.

Delegates will point out that Bonn was just a planning session, not meant to address the underlying issues. And despite the bland-sounding words, the deleted sentence points to a lot of what went wrong in Copenhagen.

Many developing nations say that the summit failed to agree a new treaty precisely because it lacked “transparency” (i.e. allowing everyone to know what is being negotiated) and “inclusiveness” (i.e. letting everyone express their views). A non-binding Copenhagen Accord was announced by President Barack Obama at the summit after a meeting with major emerging economies — it came as a surprise to many delegates.

Others say that allowing all 194 nations, many of them uninterested in a new treaty, to have a say about every phrase is a recipe for paralysis.

To give a feeling of the U.N. talks, I have compiled the following (shortened version) of the debate. Among nations speaking, none are in the forefront of actions to slow global warming. The United States plans to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 2020, with far deeper cuts by 2050, but legislation is stalled in the Senate:

CHAIR (Margaret Mukahanana-Sangarwe of Zimbabwe) – Asks for comments on the proposed sentence that the group on ”long-term cooperative action” to combat climate change will work “in a transparent and inclusive manner in accordance with the principles of the United Nations”.

UNITED STATES (Jonathan Pershing) – “It’s not quite clear what we are doing here. What are these U.N. principles and adherence to them mean?”

SUDAN (Bernarditas Muller), a representative of the G77 group of developing nations – Suggests revising the text to read “to continue to work in strict conformity with principles and procedures of the United Nations that are inclusive, transparent, democratic, open and legitimate.” She says: ”We feel that one of the reasons perhaps that we are in a difficult position right now is because the principles of the United Nations were not entirely followed in this process.”

UNITED STATES - Pershing objects that the meeting should not be developing new “U.N. principles” that are not in the U.N. charter. “We are looking for increased efficiency, effectiveness, openness, transparency. We can’t develop new U.N. principles in this kind of forum,” he says.

CHAIR – “Lets keep it simple”. She proposes to cut out references to the United Nations and merely say the meeting “agreed to work in an inclusive and transparent manner”.

SAUDI ARABIA (Mohammad Salim Al Sabban) – Says that given the experience of Copenhagen the text should say “to strictly adhere to U.N. principles”.

PAPUA NEW GUINEA (Federica Bietta) – Supports Sudan. “We want to ensure that the experience of Copenhagen is not repeated.”

CHAIR – “We will not make much progress if we are just repeating positions.”

UNITED STATES – Pershing says that the U.N. charter provides for peaceful co-existence but does not address issues that Sudan is insisting on such as transparency, inclusiveness, openness. “I’d be happy to list them but they are not U.N. principles”. He says the meeting should not be “cavalier”.

YEMEN, chair of G77 Group (Mahmoud Shidiwah) – Says that equal sovereignty of nations is an important principle of the United Nations. But proposes to drop U.N. reference, meeting a demand by the United States, so that the text says they “…agreed to continue to work in strict comformity with the principles of transparency and inclusiveness.”

 CHAIR – “Thanks, can we agree to that?”

TURKEY – Suggests the original text deletes “principles” and put only “procedures”. I’d suggest “adheres to the procedures of the United Nations.”

UNITED STATES – Welcomes Yemen’s idea and suggests “agreed to continue to work in an inclusive and transparent manner that adheres to the inclusive procedures of the United Nations”. “That doesn’t invent a new set of principles,” Pershing says.

PAPUA NEW GUINEA – Says will support Turkey’s phrasing.

SUDAN – Mueller supports Yemen. She pulls out a copy of the charter of the United Nations from her bag and, in a rambling and sometimes hard-to-follow speech, challenges Pershing’s assertion about the principles of the United Nations.

INDIA – Supports Yemen.

PAPUA NEW GUINEA – Suggests that the text should drop reference to “principles” but end “within the existing procedures of the United Nations”. “This is very important for a small island state like Papua New Guinea,” she says.

U.N. CLIMATE CHANGE SECRETARIAT (Yvo de Boer) – Says that reference even to “U.N. procedures” could be difficult because the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change is an independent body within the United Nations and as such has its own procedures.

CHAIR – Can we support Yemen’s version?

UNITED STATES – “I’m not sure what proposal we’re voting on”. Suggests no reference to the United Nations in the text but to make it end: “in accordance with inclusive and transparent procedures”.

CHAIR – Says there is a difficulty of referring even to procedures because of de Boer’s objections. “Why don’t we avoid this and just say: ‘continue to work in an inclusive an transparent manner’ and end there? I would like to appeal that we adopt this.”

GUATEMALA (Jimena Leiva) – “Procedures emanate from the principles,” she says. In the United Nations “any procedure may apply as long as we abide by the principles. This is not a question of procedures, just principles.”

CHAIR – Asks Guatemala: “I am not sure what you are saying about the text?”

PAPUA NEW GUINEA – Objects to chair’s proposal and suggests ending the sentence “to the existing procedures of the United Nations and the UNFCCC as appropriate” (Her proposal causes a stir with some grumbling around the hall)

CHAIR – “We seem to be going even further away…there are more complicated paragraphs in this text. If we are going to spend so much time on this we may not finish.”

YEMEN – Suggests changing “principles” to “norms” so that the proposal reads “in strict comformity with the norms of transparency and inclusiveness”.

GABON – Proposes that the text should have some reference to the United Nations, referring to transparency and inclusiveness “as established by the United Nations”.

SAUDI ARABIA – Says “I would like to help you” (provoking laughter since the interests of Saudi Arabia and OPEC oil producers are often at odds with others urging a shift to renewable energies). He suggests two options — one to say “continue to work in strict adherence in inclusivity and transparency.”. He adds: “The other option, that might make your life very simple: delete this paragraph”. (brings applause)

CHAIR – “Anyone opposed to deletion? (pause) I don’t see any objections so it is decided. (bangs down her gavel to signal the item is agreed). Thank you very much for your cooperation.”

….PAPUA NEW GUINEA – “Sorry Madam Chair but I pushed the button before you were gavelling. Let’s put the bracket and come back to this para later,” she says. (Groans heard around the hall).

CHAIR – “I am just being advised that we have 40 minutes of interpretation time left so maybe we can continue?”

Hours later in the debate, they come back to the paragraph and Papua New Guinea agrees, in the spirit of compromise, to deletion.

(Picture at top: German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Swedish Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt, French President Nicolas Sarkozy, U.S. President Barack Obama and British Prime Minister Gordon Brown try to work out a U.N. climate deal at talks in Copenhagen, Dec. 18 REUTERS/Steffen Kugler/BPA. Middle: worker walks past billboard as worked dismantle the Copenhagen conference hall on Dec. 20. REUTERS/Ints Kalnins)

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My short experience with the climate change negotiating process showed that countries resorting to the use (and abuse) of ‘principles’ for sustaining negotiating positions do not really want to negotiate anything. Many times principled grandstanding is a screen to cover an inability to define clearly what to negotiate.

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