Africa Calls Out Inequitable Virtual Negotiations on Biodiversity

TWN Info Service on Biodiversity and TK, Biosafety, Climate
and UN Sustainable Development
2 June 2021
Third World Network

Africa calls out inequitable virtual negotiations on biodiversity

London and Hobart, 2 June (Lim Li Ching and Lim Li Lin) – The African Group, at a key meeting of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), has expressed deep regret that because of the virtual setting, representation from the African Parties has been extremely limited. It asked for an important document to be bracketed in its entirety, as “the region has not participated”.

The CBD is currently holding formal virtual sessions of its Subsidiary Bodies. The pandemic situation has made in-person meetings currently impossible, but the virtual negotiations have proven to be extremely inequitable, adversely affecting many developing country Parties and civil society organisations for many reasons. These reasons include internet connectivity issues, timings of meetings that consistently disadvantage particular regions and difficulties in regional coordination.

These aspects have seriously affected the participation of developing country Parties at the negotiations, which even under the best of circumstances in face-to-face meetings, are already unfair due to capacity and resource inequalities. In the current context, many developing countries are also facing many other difficulties, not least the health, economic and livelihoods crises caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, and the inequitable access to vaccines and other therapeutics that the WHO Director General has called a “catastrophic moral failure”.

Developed countries have strongly pressured for the commencement of these formal virtual negotiations at the CBD, despite the on-going crises in many developing countries, risking an unbalanced and undemocratic outcome on substantive policy issues, which are meant to be discussed in a multilateral setting with the participation of all Parties.

Many civil society organisations have also opposed formal virtual negotiations, and have insisted that the current inability to hold face-to-face negotiations should not be used by Parties as an excuse for not implementing the CBD, as there is still much to be done to comply with existing obligations, and its Strategic Plan 2011-2020 and Aichi Biodiversity Targets, which have not yet been met.

The current virtual sessions of the Twenty-fourth meeting of the Subsidiary Body on Scientific, Technical and Technological Advice (SBSTTA-24) and the Third meeting of the Subsidiary Body on Implementation (SBI-3) are discussing many issues relevant to the negotiations of the post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework (GBF), which is intended to be a key pillar in the future implementation of the CBD.

The African Group, at a plenary session of the SBI on 30 May, highlighted that because of the virtual setting, representation from the African Parties has been dismal and limited to only two or three, or sometimes even only one, African Party/ies able to participate because of internet connectivity challenges. As such, South Africa, speaking on behalf of the Group, asked for a Conference Room Paper (CRP) relevant to the post-2020 GBF to be bracketed in its entirety as “the region has not participated”, and this was the mandate given to it from the African Group.

South Africa said that this was necessary in order to safeguard the region’s position at future meetings, and that the documents relating to the post-2020 GBF are to be a “package deal”. South Africa said that it would also identify other documents of critical importance to the post-2020 GBF.

The SBI Chair said that these sessions of the SBI (and SBSTTA) would not adopt L documents/final documents, and that their adoption would be deferred to a later date at a face-to-face meeting. However, the scenario note for the SBSTTA and SBI sessions clearly states that “Adoption of L documents/final documents will be deferred to a later date at a physical meeting …., unless otherwise decided by the Bureau.”

(The Bureau of the Conference of the Parties to the CBD meets regularly and will be taking further decisions on virtual negotiations, including on whether the third and final negotiation of the Open-ended Working Group (OEWG) of the Post-2020 GBF will proceed virtually.)

As such, South Africa was adamant that the entire CRP (a next to final document for adoption) should be bracketed, allowing the African Group to re-open the document if necessary, when it is finally able to participate properly at a face-to-face meeting. As it is very difficult to re-open final documents, and there is uncertainty over future Bureau decisions on the adoption of final documents, it is prudent for the African Group to ensure that the rights of its Parties that have not been able to participate are safeguarded, observers noted.

South Africa therefore requested that decision-making on these important issues should only take place when in-person negotiations are possible, and when the region would have adequate representation of its sovereign Parties. It stressed that the African Parties are keen to participate and want to be part of the process.

In fact, South Africa, as one of the few African Parties able to connect virtually, had been participating “day and night”, in order to represent Africa, to the brink of exhaustion, it said. South Africa asked, “Will colleagues be happy if they don’t see anyone participating from Africa?” and stressed that they were not holding anyone to ransom, but that Africa was “feeling the pain of not being part of the process”.

The discussion on the CRP in question has now been suspended until the next session of the plenary, which resumes on 11-13 June.

Another issue of concern is the process for the development of Draft 1 of the post-2020 GBF. Among the many issues that are being discussed by SBSTTA and SBI currently, there are a number of issues relating to the post-2020 GBF. The scenario note for the meetings indicate that the Chairs of SBSTTA and SBI will convey the “results” of the meeting to the Co-Chairs of the Post-2020 GBF process. This is likely to be in the form of a report, but there is little clarity yet as to the details, and to what extent Parties will be able to discuss or negotiate this.

This means that the “results” of the SBSTTA and SBI will feed into Draft 1 of the post-2020 GBF despite the fact that the final outcomes have not been adopted, and that some Parties may have reserved their rights to re-open the documents.

These issues clearly highlight the inequities and difficulties with negotiating substantive outcomes in virtual settings. In comparison, observers noted that the fifth United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA-5) had adopted a “two-step approach” in light of the restrictions related to the COVID-19 pandemic. The first part (UNEA-5.1) was held online in February 2021, with a revised and streamlined agenda that focused only on urgent and procedural decisions. Substantive matters requiring in-depth negotiations have been deferred to a resumed session (UNEA-5.2) scheduled for 2022. +

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