Fixing the rules, not the game

By: Erica Nickels

When I pictured the United Nations negotiations on climate change, I imagined a giant conference centre with negotiations at one end, panel discussions at the other, and NGO and special interest groups’ booths somewhere in between.  The reality is that the side events and booth are in one complex, and the actual negotiations happen at the Moon Palace, a golf and spa resort a 20 minute bus ride away.  The general consensus is that this arrangement is highly inconvenient and often segregates country delegates from NGO representatives.  One of the unexpected advantages, however, is that you never know who you’re going to be sitting beside on the bus ride between the two venues.

Several days ago, I struck up a conversation with a a negotiator from Burundi. She expressed frustration with the amount of time she spends getting from one space to another.  Her country can only afford to send 2 negotiators, and unlike the developed world, who are housing their negotiators at the prohibitively expensive Moon Palace, she an her fellow negotiator are staying at a less expensive hotel in downtown Cancun.  That means that before she’s even arrived at Moon Palace, she’s already spent an hour on the bus.  Add to that the fact that she is one of two negotiators, and there are up to 15 negotiating tracks happening at one time.  In comparison, this year Canada sent 60+ negotiators and support staff who can spell each other off when they need to eat or sleep or talk to their families. Meanwhile, the Burundians are run off their feet and fighting a losing battle.

To add insult to injury, while delegates barter endlessly back and forth over adaptation aid and who will pay whom how much, the United Nations, along with various country and private interest delegations, host lavish parties with open bars and exotic foods to tempt invitees to endorse the latest publication or purchase the most recent “green” product.  The Burundian negotiator was discouraged by the opulence that is so prevalent at the negotiations, suggesting that they could fund thousands of projects in her country with the money that is spent in two weeks on entertaining and showmanship at the UNFCCC.

There are some concrete things that I can do here as a youth delegate to support countries like Burundi, who have limited capacity at the negotiations. For example, I will be taking notes for Karibati, a series of small islands in the South Pacific who are already feeling the affects of climate change, and could see large swaths of their home land underwater within the century.  It is ironic that the countries most affected by climate change are often those with the most limited resources for sending negotiators to the United Nations to speak on their behalf.  By taking notes at the side events and  meetings that Karibati negotiators are unable to attend, I can help them to get the information they need to make informed decisions at the negotiations.

I believe, however, that we need to go further than volunteering to take notes.  The very fact that some countries send dozens of negotiators and hundreds of support staff while others are unable to send more than a handful highlights one of the many ways that existing inequities continue to be reinforced at the United Nations.  This is a space where all countries are supposed to be on a level playing field and have an equal voice.

If the United Nations were to limit the number of negotiators and support staff that each country is able to send to the negotiations, regardless of their financial means, they would be taking a big step forward towards ensuing that everyone has an equal opportunity to be heard.  While the existing inequities go much deeper than how many delegates from each countries are present, setting a firm cap on delegates would at least help ensure that everyone gets the same amount of sleep, and has the same number of representatives present during various conversations.  The United Nations isn’t perfect, but it’s currently the best option we have for facilitating high-level conversations around climate change.  That being said, it’s time for us to start a serious conversation about how it could work better.

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