Lessons from Copenhagen: How and why was civil society shut out?

According to the UNFCCC,

Article 7, paragraph 6, of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change provides for the admission of intergovernmental organizations to sessions of the Convention bodies as observers.

And Principle 10 of the Rio Declaration states that “environmental issues are best handled with the participation of all concerned citizens.”

But, of course, on the last day of the climate treaty negotiations in Copenhagen, only 90 NGO observers were admitted, a decision criticised by over 50 NGOs in just one letter, and by a great many others bitterly disappointed by the useless “Accord”.

So then, just what, if anything, does Principle 10 mean in practice? I wrote and asked the UNFCCC secretariat. This was their reply:

The guidelines for participation sets out that the Executive Secretary [Yvo de Boer who has resigned] is responsible for the safety and security of the conference participants in close coordination with the UN Department of Safety and Security (UN DSS). As announced in November to all the IGOs and NGOs, the secretariat implemented a secondary badge system for 15 and 16 December that allocated 50% of the capacity of the premises to observer organizations. This was announced again on 12 December in the Daily Programme with operational details.

In addition, with more than 120 Heads of State and Government (HoS/G) present at the High Level Segment (HLS) as well as a series of unauthorized demonstrations and security incidents caused by NGO participants in the lead up to and on the first day of the HLS, the UN DSS advised the Executive Secretary on 16 December that they were not in a position to support the Summit with a presence of observer organizations for the remaining two days on 17 and 18 December. They initially advised that not a single NGO should be allowed in for the duration where HoS/G were present.

The Executive Secretary nevertheless negotiated with the UN DSS with a view to ensuring a certain number of representation from NGO participants, however small it might be, to maintain the tradition of openness and transparency in the UNFCCC process. NGO focal points of all the nine constituencies were also at this meeting. The maximum number that the UN Security could agree to was 300. The secretariat then ensured that these 300 included all of the nine NGO constituencies in cooperation with respective focal points.

Amara Possian, writing on itsgettinghotinhere.org, relates the explanation of Yvo de Boer himself, given in Bonn:

While De Boer avoided pledging his support for the continued involvement of civil society in the UNFCCC process, he apologized and tried to explain what went wrong in Copenhagen. He admitted to failing to properly consider the implications of having 120 heads of state (along with the 1500 armed security personnel they brought along) in the Bella Centre at the end of COP15 and called his decision to limit participation to only 300 observers at the end of the conference a way of “safeguarding observer participation”.

So what’s the DSS? Who are they to decide on access?

The UNFCCC says de Boer had to “negotiate” with the DSS to secure any civil society participation. Who and what is the DSS? It provides just one paragraph of public information on its otherwise closed website:

The Department of Safety and Security is responsible for providing leadership, operational support and oversight of the security management system, ensure the maximum security for staff and eligible dependants as well as enable the safest and most efficient conduct of the programmes and activities of the United Nations System.

The DSS is headed by Gregory B. Starr, a former director of the US diplomatic security service, and it is responsible for no less than “145,000 [UN] staff and consultants around the world” (as Starr has told the Washington Post).

Effectively, a murky and unaccountable security organisation decides who gets access.

Getting civil society back in, by working outside


De Boer’s suggestion for preventing a repeat of this situation was through “a little bit of discrimination” and the exclusion of those with no deep substantive linkage to the process. He divided civil society at COP15 into four categories: those who saw COP15 as an important event and who wanted to be part of history; those who wanted to organize exhibits and booths; those who were organizing and attending side events; and those who had a serious commitment to negotiations and to advising the delegations. The main issue he identified with regards to access at COP15 was the fact that all NGOs had the same colour badges so when it came time to limit their participation, it was impossible to allocate spaces in a way that ensured maximum engagement and access to the centre for those who were seriously committed to the negotiations. His solution? Different coloured badges for different categories of civil society – the Mexican delegation emphasized that this is a solution to the logistical problem associated with conference center capacity, not necessarily an attempt at silencing civil society.

Of course, one should probably expect that the process of trying to secure agreement amongst the representatives of six and a half billion people might be tricky. And of course, the agreement that emerged had nothing to do with the long-term interests of those people. The only people who can really secure our interests are us. And being observers, no matter how passionate, will likely always be of limited influence.

When it comes to deciding which NGOs get access, it will most likely be the wealthier ones, as with the wealthier nations, that get the most access.


So what does this mean for civil society? How do we make the most of this? We mobilize at home. At a side event this evening, Christiana Figueres, a member of the Costa Rican delegation for the past fifteen years (the delegation who brought 50+ youth to COP15 and who has a long history of consulting civil society while developing their position for the talks) specifically emphasized the importance of civil society at home. She acknowledged that coming to a COP is “sexier and easier than attempting to work the system at home” but given the fact that most negotiators have set positions once they arrive with very little leeway, you will have a much bigger impact if you start at home

I was hoping, when I started researching this post, to get a much better sense of the actual rules and procedures that govern negotiations. But though I asked the question, the UNFCCC didn’t answer that. I’ve asked again. (This post is by no means a complete answer to the questions posed in the title!)

About David

I am an environmental writer, journalist and speaker living in Cape Town, South Africa.
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