Online negotiations: A new and serious threat to democratic multilateralism

Letter to the United Nations Secretary General by Dr S Faizi, an ecologist based in Thiruvananthapuram, currently Consultant (Biodiversity), United Nations Development Programme (UNDP); Chair, International Union for Conservation of Nature/ Commission on Environmental, Economic and Social Policy (IUCN/CEESP) Task Force on Post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework; Team Leader, Japan International Cooperation Agency’s (JICA’s) Gujarat Ecosystem Management Study; and Member, UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) Informal Advisory Committee on Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA):

I am a multilateral environment negotiator, including in the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee (INC) that formulated the CBD and am writing this to your attention the concern of a good number of countries and civil society with regard to the modalities of online conduct of negotiations. I had actually believed that online negotiation would be good for many developing countries as they dont have to look for external travel funds and can avoid visa issues when the event is held in a developed country, besides in the savings in carbon emission. 

However, the conduct of the online negotiations in  two ongoing meetings of Ministry of External Affairs (MEAs) has shown that the online negotiations bear the danger of disenfranchising a large number of countries. Several countries attending the ongoing meeting of CBD Subsidiary Body on Scientific, Technical and Technological Advice (SBSTTA) and SBI have complained of being left out due to connectivity problems. It is the same with the ongoing meeting of the  United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) Subsidiary Body for Implementation (SBI). And those who are left out are developing countries.  Therefore the UN system should give this urgent attention at the highest level.

Physical meetings and online meetings are two different modes and online meetings cannot be conducted using the same Rules of Procedure adopted for physical meetings without necessary amendments for the changed mode of meeting. The Arhus Convention has made such an attempt by adopting special operating procedures for remote participation and decision making, although  the Parties to the Convention are mainly European for whom connectivity problems are not a serious problem (I am attaching a copy of this for your ready reference).

I was looking for a CBD Bureau decision/statement on the special provisions they have made for decision making in the online meetings of SBSTTA and SBI, but couldn’t find anything except informing that internet-constrained Parties may use domestic UN facilities in their respective countries. Even when the Bureau cannot amend the RoP, it can still adopt measures for the adoption of draft final decisions in the subsidiary bodies in the pandemic period.

Online meetings would be ideal, but we still need to go a long way to be able to do that given the differential internet infrastructure, which means that no decision making should be done in the online mode until solutions to this constraint is addressed. For conducting online meetings, it would be important for the UN General Assembly (GA) to discuss this and give guidance to all the UN bodies and treaty bodies; such a decision at the GA level would have been really useful to avoid a lot of confusion and distress. It is important for the GA to address this new threat to democracy within UN bodies and treaties. Here I suggest a few points that needs to be met in online meetings:

+ The respective secretariats ensure that no country is left out of participation due to technical problems

+ No decision making is done in online meetings, but prepare draft final documents

+ If any decision is taken the chairs ensure that not just quorum but regional quorums are in place.

+ The chairs ensure that not just normal quorum but region-wise quorums are in place at every point of the proceedings of a meeting.

+ I can see chairs struggling to conduct meetings without proximate assistance of the secretariat, wherever possible it is good for the chairs to travel to the secretariat and chair the meeting from there; however in doing so the issue that the chairs are elected at the start of the meeting needs to be addressed (like holding a pre-session organisational meeting)

+ Provision for regional and group (eg G-77) meetings (time provision, logistics)

+ TIme setting to accommodate all countries esp African and Pacific countries, or suitable alternation of timing.

+ The Parties should deem that their delegates are working full time on negotiations, and not as a partial work (we should not have a situation where a delegate is negotiating the whole night and have to attend routine office work in the day time).

+ Any Party should be able to ask for an adjournment, as provided in the RoP, if there is a need for regional or group consultation.

I would also like to express the concern about one of the co-chairs Open-Ended Working Group (OEWG) on the Post-2020 CBD Global Biodiversity Framework (GBF), Mr  Basile van Havre, urging parties to conclude the adoption of the GBF soon, through the media. There is no urgency of adoption of GBF in a hurry in a world that is almost closed. This is apart from the fundamental concern that the GBF process and the drafts betray a tendency to tactically unmake the CBD, by excluding hard negotiated balancing operative provisions in the treaty (for eg Article 16 on access to and transfer of technology). 

Assuring you of my highest consideration.

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