Tag Archives: United Nations

Postcards: The League of Nations lives on in Addis Ababa

High up in the dome of Addis Ababa’s Holy Trinity Cathedral, two murals depict the Ascension and the Second Coming, the latter, complete with a green horned devil and flames licking upwards to surround the masses. Below the dome, a semicircular lunette presents the Crucifixion. At the moment of my visit, the late afternoon light slants through the cupola windows to strike Jesus’ figure on the Cross, and light up the bright vivid colours that so characterise Ethiopian Orthodox iconography.

Ascension and the Second Coming, dome of Holy Trinity Cathedral

Ascension and the Second Coming, dome of Holy Trinity Cathedral

The Crucifixion

What catches my eye, however, is the lunette opposite, where rows of desks of suited men recede towards a dais of a further three suited men. Amidst the sacred – the cathedral windows are also filled with some rather splendid stained glass of biblical scenes – this decidedly secular scene forces a pause. Upon seeing the puzzled look on my face, the cathedral guide tells me, matter-of-factly: “That? That’s the League of Nations”.

The League of Nations, Holy Trinity Cathedral

The League of Nations, Holy Trinity Cathedral

Tomb of Emperor Haile Selassie, Holy Trinity Cathedral

Tomb of Emperor Haile Selassie, Holy Trinity Cathedral

Most visitors to the cathedral are drawn to the tombs of Emperor Haile Selassie and his wife, just a few feet away in a side alcove, in imposing Aksum-cross-shaped granite sarcophagi. While Selassie died in 1975, a year after being deposed, he was not entombed here until 2000, in the cathedral whose construction he had initiated. Outside, the cathedral grounds contain monuments to war heroes and other Ethiopian luminaries – among others, English suffragette Sylvia Pankhurst and former prime minister Meles Zenawi.

In history books everywhere, the League of Nations is labelled as a ‘failed’ project of the 1919-39 inter-war period, an expression of both the potential and limits of Wilsonian liberal internationalism. Near the top of its catalogue of failings, if not at the top itself, was its impotence in halting Mussolini’s 1935 annexation of Ethiopia – or rather, Abyssinia, as it was known then. League sanctions were limited in their scope, and even then were not fully implemented by the other ‘great powers’. At the same time, France and Britain were hatching the secret Hoare-Laval Pact that would have partitioned Abyssinia and kept Italy on side against Hitler’s growing ambitions.

So what is particularly striking, and forces me to linger for a moment, is its commemoration especially here, in the cathedral whose completion Selassie had overseen in 1944, just a couple of years after his return from exile and the liberation of his kingdom from the Italian occupiers. Why would Selassie choose to depict an institution that he had hoped, upon Abyssinia’s accession in 1923, would protect its precious independence from colonial designs?

In the left of the mural, Selassie is standing addressing the League in June 1936, a king without a kingdom after having to flee to England via British Palestine and Gibraltar. His plaintive ‘Appeal to the League of Nations Assembly’ is the epitome of the hopes vested in international organization in the tussle between order imposed through force and the justice of sovereign equality:

“I assert that the problem submitted to the Assembly today is a much wider one. It is not merely a question of the settlement of Italian aggression…It is collective security: it is the very existence of the League of Nations. It is the confidence that each State is to place in international treaties. It is the value of promises made to small States that their integrity and their independence shall be respected and ensured. It is the principle of the equality of States on the one hand, or otherwise the obligation laid upon small Powers to accept the bonds of vassal ship. In a word, it is international morality that is at stake…

“…Apart from the Kingdom of the Lord there is not on this earth any nation that is superior to any other. Should it happen that a strong Government finds it may with impunity destroy a weak people, then the hour strikes for that weak people to appeal to the League of Nations to give its judgment in all freedom.”

His New York Times obituary described this speech as “was a moment in history that few who witnessed it ever forgot”, but all for naught, with the Italian fait accompli gradually being recognised by the great powers and other League members.

On the throne of justice: see no Abyssinia, hear no Abyssinia, speak no Abyssinia”. David Low, Evening Standard, 24 July 1935


A couple of days before, in the hills immediately surrounding Aksum, in Ethiopia’s north (of which more in a different post), my guide had been keen to point out the jagged line of hills in the distance where the Battle of Adwa had been fought in 1896 (and beyond which lies Eritrea). There, the Abyssinian army successfully beat off the Italian offensive, forcing an Italian retreat and Italy’s recognition of Abyssinia’s sovereignty in the Treaty of Addis Ababa, a rare military success against a European colonial power by a non-Western state. As every taxi driver and guide I encountered during my weeklong stay was keen to impress on me, Ethiopia was the only African country to resist European colonisation and preserve its independence, an achievement made possible by Adwa.

View towards the Adwa mountain range, from the monastery of Abba Pantaleon, just above Aksum.

View towards Adwa, from the monastery of Abba Pantaleon, just above Aksum.

Forty years later, that sovereignty was again challenged with the force of arms by Italy, with Mussolini’s empire-building ambitions in Africa also determined to erase the humiliation of Adwa. Even though the League had seemed to fail Abyssinia’s expectations, perhaps even after defeat and exile Selassie still deemed his vision of collective security and international sovereign equality to be crucial to Abyssinia’s continuing survival. The inauspicious circumstances in which he pronounced them at the League in Geneva were, perhaps, secondary to embedding them in the national narrative via a mural at the centre of the Ethiopian church. These principles remain necessary, the mural seems to say, for how else are small states to be anything other than the playthings of the great powers?

In 1963, Selassie was to return to this theme in his address to the United Nations – part of which became the lyrics to Bob Marley’s ‘War’. With the decolonization movement in full swing, Selassie had just hosted the first meeting of the Organization for African Unity in Addis, drawing on Ethiopia’s special history of independence from external interference to urge pan-African regional unity. At the UN, Selassie decried continued colonial exploitation and (not unusually for an imperial autocrat of the time) professed the equality of all mankind, challenging the nations gathered at the General Assembly to possess the will to act:

“The goal of the equality of man which we seek is the antithesis of the exploitation of one people by another with which the pages of history and in particular those written of the African and Asian continents, speak at such length. Exploitation, thus viewed, has many faces. But whatever guise it assumes, this evil is to be shunned where it does not exist and crushed where it does. It is the sacred duty of this Organization to ensure that the dream of equality is finally realized for all men to whom it is still denied, to guarantee that exploitation is not reincarnated in other forms in places whence it has already been banished.”


The coda to this train of thought that began with a glance towards the dome of the Holy Trinity Cathedral came rather unexpectedly a few weeks later, while in Geneva for a conference at the Palais des Nations, the League’s physical home. Transferred to the UN after the League’s dissolution, the Palais is a glorious Art Deco pile completed in early 1936, just months before Selassie’s appearance before the League Assembly.

Up on the wall of Salle XXII, a mural titled ‘Construttori’ by Massimo Campigli depicts men at work during the laborious construction of the Palais. This ‘building’ of the League of Nations was one of the great experiments in global governance of the interwar period, but swept away by countervailing political forces of the 1930s. Small irony then, that far from Geneva, the League’s imprint is still to be visibly found in the sacred space of the one country where it was tested, and found lacking.

'Costruttori' (1937), Massimo Campigli, Salle XXII, Palais des Nations

‘Costruttori’ (partial view), Massimo Campigli (1937), Salle XXII, Palais des Nations

All pictures (apart from the David Low cartoon) by Nick Chan.

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‘Climate security’ and developing country voices

“The impacts of climate change can exacerbate resource competition, threaten livelihoods, and increase the risk of instability and conflict, especially in places already undergoing economic, political, and social stress”, said US Secretary of State John Kerry in a major set of remarks on climate change and security. Emphasising the threat that climate impacts poses to US national security and broader global peace and stability, Kerry said:

“[T]he reason I have made climate change a priority in my current role as Secretary of State is not simply because climate change is a threat to the environment. It’s because – by fueling extreme weather events, undermining our military readiness, exacerbating conflicts around the world – climate change is a threat to the security of the United States and, indeed, to the security and stability of countries everywhere.

“…when we talk about the impacts of climate change, we’re not just up against some really serious ecological challenges. We also have to prepare ourselves for the potential social and political consequences that stem from crop failures, water shortages, famine, outbreaks of epidemic disease, which we saw a near brush with Ebola in three African countries last year. And we have to heighten our national security readiness to deal with the possible destruction of vital infrastructure and the mass movement of refugees, particularly in parts of the world that already provide fertile ground for violent extremism and terror.”

The portrayal of climate change as a security challenge – or in academic terms, the ‘securitisation’ of climate change – is not new. The ‘threat multiplier’ language has been around for much of the past decade, the UN Security Council has held two debates on climate change (in 2007 and earlier this year), and the socioeconomic consequences of drought as a trigger to the Syrian phase of the Arab Spring (and what descended into civil war) is being increasingly noted. There is a lot of talk about ‘greening’ military operations, about the qualitative changes that might be wrought for military missions, implications for ‘other’, conventional efforts at addressing climate change, especially adaptation and resilience-building efforts, and so on.

What does seem new – as an on-off observer of this debate – is not the character of the argument, but who is making it. The novel recent development is not Kerry’s comments (even if there was a very interesting climate mainstreaming announcement about convening a “task force of senior government officials to determine how best to integrate climate and security analysis into overall foreign policy planning and priorities”), or the welter of reports examining the various aspects of climate security agenda.

Instead, it is the engagement of defence ministries from developing countries on this subject that is the interesting new development. While many of the cases cited as signs of the clear and present need to think of climate change in security terms – Syria, Nigeria, Darfur, etc. – are obviously in developing countries (but not all, cf. the Arctic), the broad argument has not been principally made by Southern voices. Many of these linkages and ‘securitising acts’ have, rather, been led by US, European, and NATO officials and politicians, and by thinktanks and research efforts in developed countries such as CNAS and Chatham House. I interned at the Royal United Services Institute in London for a few months in 2009 on exactly such a climate security project, a sign of how a very traditional, armed services-oriented British thinktank was trying to dip its toe into these waters of the ‘new security’ agenda.

This rarity of having developing country policymakers active in this climate security debates was highlighted by a recent conference in mid-October hosted by France ahead of the COP21 Paris conference, ‘Climat et Défense : quels enjeux?’ – which caught my eye because defence officials from developing countries were indeed participants. There was fairly minimal reporting of this meeting (see VOA here and IISD here), but what is of interest for the moment is who was there: defence ministers from Ghana, Niger, Haiti, Chad, Morocco, Gabon, and the AU Commissioner for Peace and Security (in addition to representation from ‘usual suspects’ of France, UK, Italy and Spain).

Here’s Ghana’s defence minister, Benjamin Kunbuor (bringing to mind David King’s very early contribution on climate change being a greater threat than terrorism):

“Terrorism is significant, but naked hunger is as significant as terrorism,” he said. “And the relationship between terrorist activities and naked hunger are obvious. If you look at the vectors of recruitment into terrorist cells, most of the most vulnerable are hunger-prone areas.”

Roundtable on ‘Extreme Climate Events and Human Security’, at the ‘Climat et défense : quels enjeux?’ conference, 14 October 2015. Photo via defense.gouv.fr

The type of linkage being made is itself now new, trying to sketch the causal chain between climate impacts, scarcity, stability and potential conflict. What is new is when it is made by high-level policymakers in developing countries, especially from defence ministries and not the environment, forestry or energy departments that normally do the running on climate change. This sort of involvement can give climate action a different kind of traction in those countries, especially where climate issues may not be terribly well integrated into conventional ‘economic development’ planning and efforts.

Of course, too, such successful securitisation can have both positive and negative implications on how national response to climate change is structured. The language and political attention of ‘security’ may be offset by the militarisation of the issue and narrow security referents of ‘state’ rather than ‘human’ security. Bureaucracies may battle for budgets, and debate over the relative assessment of ‘risk’ within a society may have its own competitive rather than cooperative dynamics.

‘Climate security’ discourse is notable for having been largely championed by Western officialdom over the past decade. That defence and security establishments in precisely the countries on the frontlines of the impacts of a warming world are now publicly engaging with this subject may make it a more global conversation in the years to come.

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Notes from the climate talks: A party-driven, not party-written, process

One of the mantras of the UNFCCC universe is that the negotiating process should be “party-driven”, reflecting the primary role that the State Parties to the climate convention should have in shaping its outcomes. While this might seem obvious at first glance, much of this insistence arises from the experience of the 2009 Copenhagen conference, where closed-door meetings of a limited number of countries gave rise to criticism that the negotiating process that was far from transparent, inclusive, and genuinely multilateral, with the result that many countries did not feel that they ‘owned’ the negotiating outcomes. Over the four-year course of the Durban Platform (ADP) discussions intended to conclude at this December’s Paris COP21 conference, this ‘party-driven’ notion has been elaborated into a troika of principles on the conduct of the process: that the “process is Party-driven”; “built upon inputs from Parties”; and “that any outputs of the process will reflect such inputs from Parties.”

But while the ‘party-driven’-ness of the UNFCCC process is now a common refrain, what it doesn’t seem to imply is that the negotiating documents are necessarily ‘party-written’.

Instead, the dynamic that seems to be at work is a heavy reliance on the hand of the chairs and facilitators to do a lot of the actual drafting in cobbling paragraphs together: the co-chairs produce a draft document, hear views and comments on this draft, then go back and make changes based on these comments, then produce a revised draft. Rinse and repeat until a draft acceptable to all is reached (on the inevitable Saturday after the scheduled Friday close of the conference).

Tracing the stages of the COP decision on the Durban Platform agreed at last year’s COP20 session in Lima illustrates this, as shown below. (A similar pattern is at work in previous years too.)

Drafting the Lima Call for Climate Action (1/CP.20)

Draft version

Date released



Pre-sessional draft












Presidential proposal, adopted as the Lima Call for Climate Action

There are a few things about this sequence that highlight interesting aspects of the negotiating process.

The first is that the judgement of the co-chairs becomes critical, in trying to produce a draft that contains an acceptable balance to all across all the proposed outcomes as a package. The term ‘landing zone’ is often used to describe the zone of agreement, but it is the co-chairs who set where the initial ‘touchdown’ point for ‘landing’ the draft is. There is a certain amount of space within which countries’ so-called ‘red-lines’ are respected (and seen to be respected), and once the co-chairs have a mandate from countries to produce a draft, as individual agents they have a tremendous amount of discretion, despite the best efforts of their principals (the countries) to place conditions and qualifies on the expected draft document.

But the co-chairs have this role on them because countries, left to their own devices, struggle to reach that compromise on their own. Discussions on the different thematic areas are necessarily fragmented, with different sections of the text being addressed simultaneously or in different rooms during breakout (or spin-off) meetings, and countries will be and have been reluctant to make compromises in one area of the text if they do not know or feel that reciprocal compromises are being made in other areas. The only way, it seems, to edge towards that landing zone is in the ‘big bang’ manner of having the co-chairs produce a single effort at compromise, so that countries can look at the document as a package in order to see that compromises have indeed been made across the whole document, where achieving only their second, third, or fourth-preferred options on some issues is balanced against realising some first preferences on other issues.

The second is that countries themselves only essentially tinker around the edges for particular phrases or words. For instance, a final huddle at the conclusion of the 2013 COP19 session in Warsaw, gave rise to the phrase ‘intended nationally determined contributions’, a phase in which countries now find themselves in the midst of. And of course, the Durban Platform’s mandate of possibly including ‘an agreed outcome with legal force’ was the result of another last-night(+1) huddle in 2011.

But while these edits in phrasing are indeed far-reaching, the basic structure and content of the draft documents is something that has come from the co-chairs’ keyboards. Interventions expressing views on bits of the text are made orally, written paragraphs are submitted – but rarely do the co-chairs seek to integrate proposed edits and revisions during the course of the meeting, instead preferring to collect all of them, let them stew, and then craft compromise language that rarely takes any one suggestion verbatim.

These observations seem relevant now because after three negotiating sessions in 2015, with two still to come before the adoption of the Paris agreement, the new documents proposed by the current co-chairs finally return the process to something back to this basic pattern.

Last December’s Lima conference, and the first session of this year in Geneva, were in effect giant brainstorming exercises, producing the ‘Geneva Negotiating Text’. The subsequent version, produced before the third session of this year in August (called a ‘tool’ by the co-chairs), began to try and sort through this jumble by separating things into three parts – for the draft legal agreement, draft accompanying COP decision, and other issues. This, however, was a largely organizational exercise that was necessarily limited by the understanding that no options would be lost from the text. In-sessions discussions at the June and August meetings, trying to grapple with both the GNT and the ‘tool’, faced the challenge of trying to manage the duplications, overlaps and incoherencies by trying to redraft, on an overhead screen, the compilation text down to something more readable, and not really succeeding in this respect.

The draft now proposed by the co-chairs now goes beyond this, presenting a document that is at least manageable for countries to track future changes and see the balance across to reach a conclusion that it is acceptable to them. The inevitable first question to be confronted in the forthcoming October Bonn session is ‘is this an acceptable basis for negotiation’? But beyond this, the theory for the road to the end of the Paris conference is thus much clearer – drafts are presented, comments are made, drafts are iterated.


While I am waxing on at length about process themes, two interesting little procedural innovations have also developed under the current co-chairs.

The first is the de facto expansion of the co-chairs team to include the facilitators for thematic issues. Part of this is a practical purpose to allow for parallel discussions to enable the entire document to be discussed relatively efficiently, a job that could not be done if it was simply chaired by the same two people. But part of it also serves to increase buy-in of the draft documents, by having a wider range of countries also collectively responsible (if only in an informal sense) for the next iteration of the draft proposals.

The co-chairs’ scenario note for the upcoming meeting, detailing the process by which they produced the current non-paper, highlights the back-and-forth with the facilitators, whose judgement about the potential landing zones for agreement then also becomes fairly influential in shaping the iterated draft documents. ‘Yes, this is under our responsibility’, the co-chairs seem to be saying, ‘but we have not done this all on our own’.

The second is the emergence of a ‘heads of delegation consultation’ with the co-chairs, a new kind of meeting introduced at the conclusion of the August session, which the chairs now indicate will be convened as necessary at the next session, and certainly before the final closing plenary. I suspect that this setting is probably intended to clarify and settle procedural issues about the how work is conducted during and after the session, and not have these arguments in plenary or simply in bilateral consultations.

Any institutional setting evolves its own culture and norms about its method of work, and the UNFCCC has had its own fair share of these, from ‘friends of the chair’ meetings to huddles. This new heads of delegation one is just the latest, and its usefulness remains to be seen.

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A constructivist take on ten years of the Kyoto Protocol

A short while ago, the Kyoto Protocol marked its tenth anniversary of entry into force, to a deafening silence. If it hadn’t been for a useful RTCC piece on this anniversary, it would have entirely passed me by. (An entry into force anniversary is not insignificant for the KP, but a little out of place in broader terms as most treaty anniversaries probably take the conclusion of negotiations on the treaty text as the main symbolic marker).

These ten-year retrospectives have tended to focus on the core single question of whether the protocol has been effective in meeting its objective of emissions reduction, with the UNFCCC Secretariat offering an ebullient comment (a “timely reminder [that] climate agreements work”), and more measured comment elsewhere (a “failure” and that reductions attributable to the the KP’s provisions are “unlikely”). But there are certainly other ways to take stock of the Kyoto Protocol – and in this post, I want to offer a few that are probably of less interest to climate wonks, but perhaps more so to IR constructivists interested in how ideas and norms play out in international politics. What are the ideational takeaways from ten years of the Kyoto Protocol?

The socialization of carbon markets in developing countries
One legacy of the Kyoto Protocol that is widely acknowledged is its use of market mechanisms and emissions trading – not just among developed country parties with binding emission reduction commitments, but including developing countries via the Clean Development Mechanism. The UNFCCC Secretariat counts some 7,800 CDM projects registered since 2005, each intended to facilitate investment and tech transfer from developed countries to developing ones for emission-reduction projects that also contribute to sustainable development.

This marks a pretty dramatic normative change, however, in the normalisation of the idea of emissions trading among developing countries. Before and during the 1995-1997 negotiations for the Kyoto Protocol, the very idea of emissions trading between developed and developing countries was viewed with considerable suspicion and wariness by many developing countries – variously, that it would open the doorway to binding mitigation commitments by them; that such trading was an attempt to claim the ‘low-hanging fruit’ of ‘easy’ mitigation opportunities in poorer countries for credit by rich countries; that it was a way for richer countries to avoid domestic mitigation action; and that such trades would violate the sovereignty of developing countries. These were largely reflected in debates on ‘joint implementation’ (JI) – now a mechanism solely between countries with Kyoto mitigation commitments, but initially mooted as a developed-developing country process, and in those Kyoto-era debates, the G77 had opposed even having a clause in Kyoto on JI or emissions trading at all.

Fast forward to 2015, where only a handful of countries retain a principled opposition to the use of markets in addressing climate change (Venezuela and Bolivia the chief protagonists in this regard). This difference in developing country attitudes to markets is striking. While concerns about the environmental integrity and robustness of such market mechanisms (especially in relation to deforestation) remain, the greater concern that has been expressed over the life of the CDM is not that ‘this is the wrong way to address climate change’, but ‘why is my country not on the receiving end of CDM projects’. The normative rise of market mechanisms is perhaps the dramatic example of rapid social learning and ideational change among developing countries over the lifetime of the Kyoto Protocol.

Achievements of the Clean Development Mechanism. Credit: UNFCCC Secretariat


The standard of civilisation and Protocol membership
Another, but more subtle, constructivist perspective on the Kyoto Protocol over the lifetime of its first commitment period has been how it has served as a sort of ‘standard of civilisation’ in early 21st-century international society. This is obviously a reversal of the way in which this term is conventionally applied, as a normative standard imposed from Western states upon the rest – from the original racial hierarchy expressed in colonial practice, to more recent echoes in debates over state failure and humanitarian intervention – but the place of Kyoto Protocol membership and ratification in larger debates on appropriate behaviour in world politics is another remarkable achievement.

The global opprobrium faced by the United States for its withdrawal from the Kyoto Protocol is the case in point, where the KP was taken as a key example (alongside similar behaviour towards the ABM treaty and the International Criminal Court) of the US turn to hegemonic unilateralism during the George W. Bush administration. In doing so, not ratifying the KP was seen as an abdication of any claim to responsible great power leadership, making it the pariah and rogue state of international environmental politics and remaining ‘outside’ international society. Conversely, Australia’s own belated ratification of Kyoto in 2007, one of the first acts of the Kevin Rudd administration upon assuming office, was also held up as a return of Australia’s return to good international citizenship. Obviously one also needs to add Canada’s own formal withdrawal from the Protocol in 2011 – the only country to have done so, but an act for which it has also faced considerable international censure of a different character to those others (Russia, Japan) who declared that they would not be taking on commitments in the KP’s 2012-2020 second commitment period.

Defying the Kyoto Protocol. Credit: Wolverton/CagleCartoons.com

Defying the Kyoto Protocol. Credit: Wolverton/CagleCartoons.com

Critics point out that the fact that countries can and do walk away from the Kyoto Protocol with no punitive consequences (as well as for noncompliance generally) means that it has been a weak and toothless agreement. But such punitive consequences are rare in international environmental law, however, and we might better understand the KP’s importance through its social significance as a marker of what responsible behaviour in international politics has consisted of over the last two decades.

Path dependence and the road to Paris
Finally, in looking ahead to the anticipated Paris agreement at the end of 2015, taking measure of the Kyoto Protocol also lies in where and how the ideas expressed in the Kyoto Protocol are likely to remain sticky in the design of the new agreement.

For instance, the universality of the UNFCCC regime remains paramount (despite some contention over ‘applicability to all’), which does not seem minor when measured against the flurry of mini-lateral efforts in the late 2000s – the Asia-Pacific Partnership, Major Economies Forum, and all the other institutions giving rise to the ‘fragmentation’ and ‘regime complex’ analyses of the diverse sites of climate action. At the same time, the Paris agreement is not the third commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol. At least one thing that is markedly different from Kyoto is the way in which commitments will be reached – ie. not ‘negotiated’ at the international level, but simply submitted via the now-initiated INDC process following being determined domestically.

There are a glut of analyses about what the Paris agreement should ‘learn’ from Kyoto, and in any case, the reality will be upon us very soon. But the package of ‘things to be done’ that will make up the Paris agreement are really a package of ideas and their assumptions about how to go about addressing climate change – things that are fertile ground for constructivists and the study of where these ideas come from.

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In new round of climate talks, Russia bites back

The annual mid-year session of the climate change negotiations organised by the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change ongoing in Bonn, Germany have seen a(nother) round of procedural strife delaying one of the technical bodies from beginning its substantive work. Russia, together with the Ukraine and Belarus, have been insisting on the inclusion of a new agenda item (“Procedural and legal issues relating to decisionmaking by COPs/CMPs”) for the Subsidiary Body for Implementation (SBI) before the SBI’s agenda is adopted in full. Others have opposed the introduction of this new item, preferring to subsume this discussion under existing agenda items – and seven negotiating days later, no resolution to the impasse has been reached, with the rest of the SBI agenda thus yet to be adopted and its detailed work yet to be spun-off to smaller groups. (Other mid-session reports on this subject are here (RTCC)here (Adopt a Negotiator) and here (Third World Network).)

UNFCCC SBI 2012 blog screenshot

“Consultations are ongoing”: The UNFCCC website’s status report on the SBI agenda (as of the morning of 11 June 2013)

Russia’s Doha bruising

The trigger for these three countries demanding a debate on the procedure of the COPs stems from the final hours of last December’s COP18 session in Doha, Qatar – where the Qatari conference president, some twenty-four hours after the conference was supposed to have concluded, gavelled through a series of draft decisions in a remarkable two-minute sequence of reading out draft document symbols, proclaiming that he saw no objections from the floor, and then relentlessly bringing his gavel down over and over again to mark the conference’s formal adoption of the decisions – all punctuated by bursts of applause by delegates, incredulous at the breakneck speed of events.

Among these was a decision agreeing a second commitment period for the Kyoto Protocol – and in its details, a clause limiting the amount of tradeable carbon credits that countries could ‘carryover’ from the first (2008-12) period into the second (2013-2020), a limitation largely aimed at Russia, Ukraine and Belarus, that had a large surplus of these credits as a result from their industrial collapse during the 1990s, for whom this restriction would limit their ability to sell off these credits to other countries. (For the consequences of this decision, see this report). As the COP President bustled through gavelling this decision into adoption, Russian delegates attempted to get his attention to block its adoption: from a few rows behind the Russians, I could see the Russian chief delegate furiously waving and banging his placard on the desk in attempting to bring proceedings to a halt (others in the hall, if they could not see the Russian chief delegate, could certainly hear him), while another raced to the front of the podium, standing directly in front of the COP President to get his attention – all to no avail.

With the decisions adopted, the floor was opened for statements: the Russian chief negotiator spoke about how disappointed he was, struggling to believe that the COP President had not been aware of his attempts to intervene before the gavel was struck. The decision, nonetheless, had been adopted, and the COP President, in response, simply said that Russia’s comments would be reflected in the record of the meeting.

(See the UNFCCC webcast of the final hours of COP18 here, up until 0:03:30. A Russian delegate’s hand and finger is visible at 0:01:50 for about 10 seconds, as the COP President is gavelling through the draft decisions – he had run from his seat to stand directly in front of the COP President and has raised his hand in an attempted objection. Later in the same clip, the Russian chief delegate’s statement is from 0:08:30 to 0:16:30, and is followed by a brief reply by the Qatari COP President)

Russia’s objection at the final COP18 plenary. Photo: IISD Reporting Services

Renewing long-standing questions about procedure

The joint Russian-Ukrainian-Belarussian proposal at the current session is thus their reaction to being run roughshod over by those final COP18 proceedings – still bruised from that experience, they have being willing to hold up proceedings on the rest of the SBI agenda for over half the conference, and preventing these other issues from being discussed.

But the complaint of these three countries does come on the back of a recent trend of what might be described as ‘creative’ procedural conclusions to the COPs, as well as a longer procedural limbo within which the UNFCCC process has functioned without formally agreed rules of procedure. The 2009 Copenhagen conference concluded with the conference “taking note” of a draft produced by some thirty heads-of-state in a closed door meeting; the 2010 Cancun session was presented with a final take-it-or-leave-it draft by the Mexican conference presidency, with delegations given two hours to review it before the final plenary, where Bolivia’s attempt to block adoption was ignored, and its opposition simply footnoted in later documentation; and the 2011 Durban session’s final adoption of the Durban Platform agreement was worked out in a middle-of-the-room “huddle” of a handful of interested (key) parties.

Reflecting these concerns, Martin Khor, Executive Director at the South Centre thinktank, in a pre-Doha essay, wrote that:

“The recent COPs also show that various procedures and processes have been used to push through important decisions and documents which would have been opposed successfully by many developing countries if normal participatory processes of the UNFCCC and the UN in general had been followed. The attempt to force through a document emanating from closed-door small meetings failed in Copenhagen. New methods used in Cancun and in Durban succeeded in having decisions and documents adopted by the COP and the CMP. Too much power and authority have in practice been accumulated by the officials of the country that hosts the COP. Instead of being a host and provider of facilities in a venue of meetings, the host country has become prime determinant of process and substance through the new practice of providing the President with draft texts and then having them adopted.”

The difference between past COPs and the most recent one may just be that Russia is willing to push back – and push back forcefully.

The COP host: international politics intervening?

Perhaps more than in other multilateral negotiating processes, the actions of the COP President have come to bear considerably on the course and progress of the conference, rather than just receiving the stamp of prestige from hosting a big international summit. The annual rotation of the COP from country to country (next up: Poland) means that norms and processes have a certain flexibility in how the presidency chairs the conduct of the conference – and introduces a certain amount of luck and contingency into the process.

In this way, the SBI agenda disputes of the first week of this session have re-opened a question that I think is more than academic in considering how the UNFCCC process produces its outcomes – do wider geopolitics introduce themselves into the specific ebb and flow of the climate negotiations? Specifically, is there anything unique about the Qatari COP18 presidency’s willingness to gavel a decision past the objections of what is still one of the world’s most powerful countries?

At that final COP18 session, after the Russian chief delegate had voiced his opposition to the COP President ignoring his requests for the floor, the COP President responded with this:

I value very highly the warm relations between my country and the Russian Federation, Ukraine, and Belarusia, and their contribution to global climate protection, it is a very notable one. I must repeat, it was my sense that the decision adopted today reflects the will of the Parties to mark the result of Doha.”

Are these the nice words of diplomatic rhetoric? Or a two-fingered salute instead? The state of relations between Russia and Qatar are, of course, anything but warm, most especially over the Syrian civil war. On this subject, the two countries have been backing the opposing protagonists (the Assad government and Islamist rebels respectively) with arms and money, frequently locking horns in UN debates on Syria, and have also had diplomatic tiffs on other subjects.

It brings to mind a counterfactual question about whether a country less confident than Qatar in its wider positioning in international affairs would have been willing to so brazenly ignore the objections of one of the permanent members of the UN Security Council. Can one imagine last year’s conference hosts, South Africa, being as willing to take such a step to knowingly antagonize Russia? Could South Korea, that had been locked in a drawn-out bidding war with Qatar to host COP18, have taken similar action? Some wondered in the wake of COP18 that while it was one thing to ignore Bolivia in 2010, it was another thing altogether to ignore Russia – and thus with this precedent, perhaps other major emitters such as the US or China might find themselves in the same position in the future, drowned out by applause and the relentless slamming of the gavel over their objections. But any such prospect depends too on who the COP hosts are, and their own willingness to take such a step – factors that are absolutely not constant and perhaps require a rather fortuitous alignment of the stars.

The UNFCCC process often seems an insular one, unconnected to wider international politics, perhaps apart from the odd hint of conditional aid here and there. Delegates are often drawn predominantly from environment ministries, with lesser representation from foreign ministries. The world that seems to matter and resonate within the conference corridors is one of natural disasters, technology development, and financial mechanisms. COP18, and its delayed fallout at SB38, may just have provided a reminder of the broader context and the deeper international political rivalries that lie just beneath the surface.

Plus ca change?

Finally, though, a vignette from the past. Shortly after COP18, in the course of my own research work, I came across this description of COP2’s adoption of the Geneva Declaration. While this Declaration had only a political statement by ministers, had been deeply contested at that negotiating session. Perhaps some things don’t change all that much.

“While there were some rumours that the Russian delegation vividly tried to raise a point of order so as to prevent the Declaration being accepted, these attempts were swept away by the sustained applause of the great majority of delegations supporting the procedure proposed by the President. When the plenary calmed down again, the opponents of the Declaration were left with commenting on the result, but could not hinder any longer the majority of Parties to express their will”. (Sebastian Oberthur, 1996, “The Second Conference of Parties”, Environmental Policy and Law 26(5), p. 200)

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A window of opportunity opens in the international climate talks

Since the collapse of the 2009 Copenhagen conference, much of what has gone on at the negotiating sessions of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) has slipped off the radar of both public and political attention. But a new chapter in the international climate change negotiations begins this year – and could be a unique moment in efforts to craft international agreement on how the world will collectively attempt to slow global climate change.

This week, the Durban Platform working group (ADP) is convening in Bonn, Germany, for the first of three meetings in 2013, moving in earnest towards its 2015 deadline to agree a new international treaty to succeed the Kyoto Protocol and enter into force in 2020. But while the ADP negotiating process had been launched at the 2011 Durban conference, its progress last year was dogged by deep conflict over how to organise its work, partly in view of substantively similar issues being discussed in parallel negotiating processes, and thus resulting in disagreement over the right procedural ‘home’ for substantive discussions.

Two other sets of processes – on the fate of the Kyoto Protocol’s second commitment period, and on ‘Long-term Cooperative Action’ (LCA) – were brought to a conclusion at last year’s Doha conference and streamlined into existing institutions and bodies. Thus, now free of the procedural morass that characterised UNFCCC negotiations in 2012, the ADP process that unfolds over the next three years represent what may be seen as a contingent moment in the history of the UN climate negotiating process, where fundamental questions over the design and scope of an international agreement are up for grabs in a way and manner perhaps unseen since the beginning of the initial intergovernmental negotiations at the end of the 1980s.

The 2013 UNFCCC meeting on the ADP in Bonn, Germany. Credit; UNFCCC/flickr

Around the rooms and corridors of the climate negotiations, an oft-heard phrase is that ‘context shapes content’, a reference to the way in which previous decisions and agreement carefully sets the boundaries of what can be agreed substantively at any given session. In 2013, with the Kyoto and LCA negotiating tracks no longer defining the main focus for negotiations, the context for the ADP is dramatically different than it was a year ago, free to stretch its legs and begin to chart a way forward without being accused of prejudging decisions taking place in the other negotiating tracks.

This is, therefore, a tremendously febrile moment, fertile for new ideas and approaches that have been buzzing around the past few years from think tanks, NGOs and academia, to finally make it into the substance of a new intergovernmental agreement. It is a moment that can be a profoundly creative one, with a bit more space to explore and imagine different ways of proceeding. And it is, most importantly, a unique moment, one where the procedural constraints that so tightly structure the negotiating process have been momentarily relaxed. Both previous ‘big bang’ moments for the UNFCCC process – Kyoto in 1997, and Copenhagen in 2009 – were directed by negotiating mandates that had relatively clear parameters, even if these were contested by some. Agreement on the Kyoto Protocol had been guided by the 1995 Berlin Mandate that limited binding emission reductions to developed countries; and the attempt at a new agreement in Copenhagen had a full-blown agenda specified in the 2007 Bali Action Plan.By contrast, the ADP mandate is relatively non-prescriptive, simply setting out a goal for a legal instrument to be agreed by 2015 and an interim process to raise mitigation ambition in advance of this legal instrument coming into force in 2020.

The co-chairs of the ADP process, for their part, recognise that the carefully-crafted ambiguity of their mandates provide an opportunity for negotiators to reflect on the very purpose of an international agreement, and not just its content and form. Questions that they have asked negotiators to address in forthcoming discussions are strikingly open-ended: “How would the agreement be designed to ensure durability and flexibility to respond to changes in national circumstances and evolving scientific knowledge over time?”; “How will the principles of the Convention be applied in the new agreement?”; and “Are new arrangements needed in the 2015 agreement to ensure transparency of action and support and, if so, which?”

These, and the other questions that the co-chairs have framed for discussion, are remarkable because they address deeply the core normative issues of the negotiations that have simmered away in recent years but which have been perennially dodged rather than confronted: How should the benefits and burdens of climate action be distributed in a diverse world? In effect, they almost resemble an effort to design the new agreement beginning with a blank sheet of paper, loosened from the norms that have guided the past two decades of the climate negotiations.

As the ADP talks proceed, the institutional machinery of the UNFCCC process rumbles on as the new institutions established in the past two years, especially the Green Climate Fund, find their footing and begin the work of implementing their mandates. And wider developments, most recently the crisis that the EU’s Emissions Trading Scheme finds itself in and the collapse of the carbon price, obviously condition the demands and flexibility that governments come to the UNFCCC negotiating table with. Nonetheless, at this particular negotiating venue, we are now entering a moment where there is at least the space for far more creativity and innovation than what the memory of recent disappointments might suggest.

In the years since Copenhagen, those inside and outside the political drama of what goes on at the UNFCCC process have come to recognise the multilevel, multilayered nature of global climate action, where an intergovernmental treaty is just one, and perhaps not even the most central, element. But some kind of binding international agreement still remains the political lodestar for many, and the ADP’s 2015 deadline is now the date that looms on the horizon. Many have bemoaned the glacial, circular and halting pace of progress in the UN climate negotiations. The next three years – in a negotiating context wholly distinct from previous ones – may present a unique opportunity to break that mould.

Originally posted at Politics in Spires on 2 May 2013

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The Palestinian quest for state recognition (Playing the IR Game)

The saga of the Palestinian bid for international state recognition rumbles on, a few weeks after the sound and fury of lodging its official UN bid, and now most recently with the decision by UNESCO members to admit it as a full member. And for the first time in many years, it seems, the Palestinians are off the back foot in the stagnated, moribund international ‘peace process’.

In one sense, UNESCO as an organization has been caught in the crossfire: as a legal requirement, the US will be ending financial contributions to the agency, amounting to a not insignificant 22% of its annual budget, invariably affecting its ability to continue its programs over the next year and beyond. For the Palestinians, the practicalities of its new membership seem slight: the ability to apply to have sites in the West Bank listed as World Heritage Sites may be the most notable.

In other international agencies which will surely see similar bids for Palestinian membership in coming weeks and months, the practical consequences may be greater for the Palestinians. But this is, as other cases of state recognition illustrate, about little else other than politics, where the material consequences of such action are downplayed or willfully ignored. In the footsteps of Kosovo and south Sudan in the past year, and as the efforts to recognise the National Transitional Council rebels as Libya’s legitimate government, well ahead of its offensive surge that finally ousted the Gaddafi government, illustrate, recognition is a symbolic gesture, and a political calculation above all else.

Why here, and why now? The very reason for the Palestinian Authority’s ‘recognition’ strategy, which began nearly a year ago with bilateral efforts targeted at developing countries and is now reaching its apogee at the UN and multilateral agencies, lies in its internal battle with Hamas for political legitimacy in the Palestinian territories. The prisoner swap deal just two weeks ago that saw a captured Israeli soldier transferred in exchange for a thousand Palestinian prisoners, has provided a contrasting boost for Hamas, as the two different Palestinian political factions, secular and Islamist, and crucially with different perspectives on the use of violence, attempt to demonstrate their relevance to the Palestinian population. And yet, if the PA’s throw of the diplomatic dice seems futile, it is because in the US, as the 2012 election year ticks closer and closer, Obama’s back is up against the wall in having to placate the Israel lobby at home; having to put its cards on the table, these have turned out to be unequivocally in favour of a highly nationalist Israeli government. Juxtaposed against a largely succesful diplomatic campaign to mobilize a majority of the world’s states around its cause, the Palestinians now hold the cards of the moral high ground, and are actually being seen to do something with it.

In the politics of recognition are attempts to set the boundaries by which new states may be admitted into the ‘international community’ as full members. The 1933 Montevideo Convention on the Rights and Duties of States is one such attempt to establish what these criteria are, and others attempt to construct their own, seemingly objective, criteria for what statehood really means and should entail: territorial control, economic solvency, functioning governance structures; the list potentially goes on and on. These decisions are, however, ones ultimately mediated by political judgments, such that international recognition may create a legal reality that belies the ‘facts on the ground’. But perhaps thus was it always ever so.

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