Biodiversity Talks Stymied by Inequities in Virtual Negotiations

TWN Info Service on Biosafety
16 June 2021
Third World Network

Biodiversity talks stymied by inequities in virtual negotiations

London and Hobart, 16 June (Lim Li Ching and Lim Li Lin) – Formal virtual negotiations under the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) have hit major stumbling blocks.

This is largely due to the inequities of the virtual format, which have prevented meaningful participation by developing countries, especially the African Group. Major uncertainties now cloud the way forward, including on how further negotiations of the post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework (GBF), intended to be a key pillar in the future implementation of the CBD, will be carried out.

The CBD held formal virtual sessions of its Subsidiary Bodies over a six-week period, from 3 May to 13 June 2021, including plenary and Contact Group sessions, and Friends of the Chair meetings. 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) discussed many issues relevant to the negotiations of the post-2020 GBF. These meetings had been postponed from 2020, and informal sessions of the Subsidiary Bodies were also held in February and March 2021.

The COVID-19 pandemic has made in-person meetings currently impossible. Despite the strong reservations of many civil society organisations and developing countries with regard to formal virtual negotiations, developed countries have strongly pressured for the meetings of the Subsidiary Bodies to be held virtually, in order to progress with the negotiations of the post-2020 GBF. These concerns have proven to be real, and even more inequitable and unsatisfactory than anticipated.

Internet connectivity and meeting times that consistently disadvantaged some regions were challenges disproportionately faced by developing countries. In addition, resource and capacity constraints and other national priorities of developing countries facing multiple crises due to the pandemic and vaccines inequities meant that participation by them was limited. Many delegates faced having to negotiate in their “spare time”, through the night, in a grueling six-week schedule, while still doing regular work during the day. With limited time for the sessions, meaningful participation by civil society organisations was also severely constrained.

The African Group, during continued discussion on a key conference room paper (CRP) at a plenary session of SBI-3 on 11 June, reiterated its previous stance calling for that document to be bracketed (indicating non-consensus on the text between brackets) in its entirety, given the lack of participation of its representatives in the virtual sessions. (See ‘Africa calls out inequitable virtual negotiations on biodiversity’, 2 June 2021.)

The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Chair of the African Group, bemoaned the fact that some of the Group’s senior negotiators had come under “severe pressures” in recent days about the Group’s previous request to bracket SBI-3 CRPs (next to final documents for adoption) related to the post-2020 GBF. Even though final SBI-3 recommendations are only supposed to be adopted at a resumed in-person session, this is usually more of a formality, as the final ‘L’ documents as they are called usually largely reflect agreed consensus text.

The DRC sought to “bravely” explain the Group’s position, pointing out how the African region has been disadvantaged by the virtual negotiations, as have many other developing countries. It stressed, “let us not pretend that the process over the last few weeks, and still ahead, is adequate or satisfactory”.

Given that the vast majority of the African region had not been able to participate in the formal virtual sessions, the Group felt that it was necessary to safeguard its interests by bracketing all SBI-3 CRPs related to the post-2020 GBF, allowing it to revisit the documents in their entirety if necessary, when African CBD Parties are finally able to participate properly at a face-to-face meeting.

The DRC pointed out that while the SBI Chair would send her report to the Co-Chairs of the Open-ended Working Group (OEWG) on the Post-2020 GBF, Parties have not had a chance to see this report, neither to negotiate its content. As such, the African Group was of the view that neither the Chair’s report nor any SBI-3 CRP represents consensus by all Parties.

(The Co-Chairs of the OEWG on the Post-2020 GBF will be preparing Draft One of the GBF based on the ‘outcomes’ of the meetings of the Subsidiary Bodies, among other inputs. This presents numerous difficulties and issues as final recommendations have not been adopted, vastly divergent positions are reflected in the documents, and many of the discussions relevant to the GBF have not been concluded. This risks pre-empting even the safeguarded positions of African Parties, and Draft One will be the basis of the OEWG negotiations moving forward.)

The DRC reiterated that it would be impossible to reach consensus through the same virtual format used during the current meetings. Instead, “consensus will only be reached when it will be feasible for us to engage in meaningful face-to-face negotiations, or when we have adapted our working practices to the virtual world and have found ways to accommodate the connectivity limits of the slowest among us.”

Several developing country Parties (Morocco, Bhutan, Brazil, Argentina and Ecuador) spoke up in support of the African Group while Colombia, Australia and Mexico preferred to not forward wholly bracketed CRPs to the resumed in-person session of SBI-3 which is supposed to adopt recommendations for the 15th Conference of Parties (COP 15) to the CBD in October.

The European Union and its Member States said that they would accept bracketing the whole CRP, but stressed that this should be viewed as an exception and should not create a precedent. The SBI Chair, Charlotta Sörqvist from Sweden, agreed and ruled accordingly.

The issue continued to dog the negotiations. At the plenary session the next day, Uganda, speaking on behalf of the African Group (while noting that the DRC had been unable to connect virtually), again reiterated the Group’s position. It called for another CRP document that has bearing on the post-2020 GBF and the work of its OEWG to be bracketed wholly, in order to safeguard the interests of those who have not been able to participate. It said, “the progress achieved by a few cannot be taken to be consensus, not by a long shot.”

After some discussion, the Chair decided to bracket the entire document. Following a request from Norway, supported by Mexico, she also agreed to reflect the African Group’s concerns in the report of the meeting. A further CRP related to the post-2020 GBF was also bracketed in its entirety, and no doubt more would have been as well if there had been time to complete discussions on all the CRPs.

Because there was a serious lack of time for adequate discussions due to the virtual format, several key CRPs were not even discussed, and were deferred to the resumed session of the Subsidiary Bodies. As the days progressed, more were added to the list; in total, eleven CRPs on seven agenda items have been deferred. Many of these agenda items address extremely complex issues, and are also closely linked to the post-2020 GBF.

The decision by the Chair to defer these discussions was expected as it was clear that the negotiations were not proceeding well, and were becoming counter-productive, further diverging Parties’ positions, rather than bringing them closer. Clearly, sufficient time and inclusive in-person participation by Parties is necessary to facilitate trust and consensus building in order to reach common understanding and agreement. The inability to foster good regional coordination and to sufficiently and effectively interact with other Parties only served to widen the gaps.

Contact Groups, meant to facilitate more focused discussion on contentious issues and bring Parties to consensus, largely failed to do so in the virtual setting. The virtual Contact Groups suffered from a lack of time, a proliferation of brackets, and timings that consistently and disproportionately put certain regions at a disadvantage. This was the case for the Asia-Pacific region in particular, with negotiators having to start three-hour sessions at midnight, or in the early hours of their morning on numerous occasions.

One developing country Party raised this as a point of order in the Contact Group on options to enhance planning, reporting, and review mechanisms. It had previously requested for the meetings not to be held at the midnight time slot (for that Party). However, despite the Co-Chair’s reassurances that the issue would be considered, the next session was again set to start at midnight, much to that Party’s astonishment.

The developing country Party asked for “fair sharing of burden”. The meetings at those times were not only difficult for Asia-Pacific negotiators, because they also had to continue with their daily work in the day time, but were also disadvantageous to the region’s positions, due to the difficulties in coordinating and participating. It asked the Co-Chair, is there “any reasonable reason that leads you to sacrifice fairness?”

The Deputy Executive Secretary of the CBD had to then explain that the time was too short to make the necessary changes to the (existing) bookings of the time slots with the provider of the virtual platform, but that there were future meetings of other Contact Groups scheduled at better times for the Asia-Pacific region.

The virtual format has also thrown into sharp relief the lack of agreement on substantive issues, with some Contact Groups not even being able to complete their mandate, or to complete first readings of all the paragraphs within their mandate. Many CRPs and final ‘L’ documents contain numerous brackets as Parties preferred to safeguard their positions in what was clearly a dysfunctional negotiation setting. This is unusual, as final documents are usually largely agreed on with no or minimal brackets.

There is no clarity yet on when the resumed face-to-face meetings of the Subsidiary Bodies will be held. Originally meant to be convened back-to-back with either the third meeting of the OEWG on the Post-2020 GBF or COP 15 to adopt the final ‘L’ documents, the resumed meetings will now have to first deal with the deferred CRPs, and even an outstanding Contact Group meeting, amidst documents littered with brackets. This is no small task given the wide divergence in Parties’ positions.

Of critical importance is also the fact that civil society participation was extremely limited in the virtual sessions. Not only did they face time zone constraints and connectivity problems, especially for those in developing countries or in rural areas, but the sheer lack of time often meant that civil society’s voice was not heard at all during the negotiations. In particular, rights holders such as indigenous peoples and local communities, women, small farmers and youth, faced disproportionate challenges, despite being at the forefront of protecting biodiversity.

As the SBI drew to a very hurried close, given that time simply ran out with too many agenda items not discussed, the implications for the OEWG, the development of Draft One of the post-2020 GBF by its Co-chairs, and the final GBF itself are a cause for great concern. Already it has been announced that OEWG 3 will be held virtually from 23 August to 3 September 2021, despite the painful experiences over the last six weeks. Rumours abound that COP 15 scheduled for October 2021 in Kunming, China may be a ‘hybrid’ meeting, but there is no certainty on this.

Observers to the process reacted with surprise to the CBD Secretariat’s Press Release a day later that seemed to gloss over the problems and inequities – “the many challenges these virtual sessions have thrown our way” were “largely overcome”, it said. The Press Release also trumpeted “the most highly attended session of SBSTTA to date”, quoting high numbers of registered participants for both meetings of the Subsidiary Bodies, when the highly problematic and stressful experience with real participation had been plain to see by all.

Unless there is meaningful and inclusive participation of all Parties to the CBD and civil society, the outcomes risk being unbalanced, undemocratic and lacking in legitimacy and ownership by all. This will have serious consequences for the implementation of the CBD and efforts to address the grave biodiversity crisis.+

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