Can we part with conventions?

by Nathan

There’s nothing new under the hot Montreal sun, but it is worth noting anyway. The Intergovernmental Committee on the Nagoya Protocol opened Monday morning, the first meeting on access and benefit sharing since the Protocol was finalised at the COP last October. For a protocol that seems wholly unfinished—Swizz cheese with more holes than cheese as one observer put it, or, as new co-chair Janet Lowe keeps putting it, a new-born baby in want of attention—there was an awful lot of back-patting and congratulating. Obviously, at a UN event this should come as no surprise, indeed it has become an expectation—Chairs and Parties are expected to decorate opening statements with more flowers than Kew gardens ex-situ collection; 90% introduction + 10% remembering that we must finish on time = zero content. A cynic might say it’s intentional.

Eventually we do get off the ground in the afternoon session of day 2, but that’s too late for a 5 day meeting. It’s seemingly small things such as, but not limited to, the delayed start that soon become the norm at these conferences. Wearing suits serves no real function, but we still do it. Distributing thousands of sheets of paper is redundant when every delegate has a laptop in front of them and the text changes so fast anyway, but that still happens. Holding fancy banquets at great expense is kind of unnecessary, but I don’t see that stopping anytime soon. It all signals a fetishism of ‘proper process,’ a lingering sentiment of older diplomatic practice that surely has no place in what should be urgent talks leading to drastic action, but in fact have been 20 years of gestation finally birthing a weak infant.

Of course this process is difficult. Of course we won’t have a protocol that immediately stops the lucrative practice of biopiracy, or sets clear parameters for what fair and equitable benefit sharing looks like. But if we expect precious hours and days to be wasted saying congratulations;  if we expect even the smallest demands of developing countries to be unmet for the longest time, and the voices of civil society to be largely ignored; if we expect for all real decisions to be made in small backroom meetings; and if we expect that the it is always the party who brings the money that calls the shots; if we expect nothing to happen, simply because it is conventional, then what good are these UN Conventions-climate, biodiversity, desertification, or other?

It is these sorts of norms that are now entrenched into the UN process which, by what is essentially tacit consent, help to uphold the very problems they now intend to solve. What can we expect, though, when those problems—like climate change, overpopulation, biopiracy and the like—too are caused by unquestioned norms on a broader societal level?

So it seems that the successful Convention will have to part with convention. The Convention on Biological Diversity has taken a few steps in the right direction—ABS negotiations have broken out of some manacles by giving civil society an active role at the table. Maybe, perhaps after Rio+20, this small change can lead to broader procedural adjustments. This is our hope for now.

#Nathan

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