Just How Accessible is a UN Public Process?
An Examination of Democracy in the Public Sessions Preceding the Third United Nations Environment Assembly
by Natalie Gray, UNEA 3 Delegate
UN CAMPUS, NAIROBI– The United Nations has typically been a far-from-accessible convening space for civil society; therefore, as we from the International Forestry Students’ Association (IFSA) gained an opportunity to attend the third United Nations Environment Assembly in Nairobi in November 2017 (UNEA 3), it became significant to examine the power dynamics and representation in the proceedings, and the resulting outcomes of the Global Major Groups and Stakeholders Forum (GMGSF).
The GMGSF is intended to be a democratic venture: an opportunity for thematic public groups to integrate their own set of goals into the major proposals coming from the UNEA, the highest-level decision-making body on the environment. To limited effect, the first and second UNEA possessed Major Group fora of their own, but the 2017 GMGSF would become the first opportunity to organize the public for policy statements that they could collectively review.
Admittedly, these constituencies– represented by a couple hundred people– were hand-selected by the UN, and even fewer accredited to attend official meetings post-GMGSF. Nevertheless, it appeared that civil society groups from significant perspectives– indigenous peoples, businesses of varying size, gender activists, scientists and inventors, children and youth– had been thoughtfully selected to account for public vested interests and wisdom.
Major Group leadership, introduced by Jorge Laguna-Celis from UN Environment, emphasized their goals as such. “We are here to ensure these spaces are yours,” led Laguna-Celis, referring to the grassroots organizations in the room. He went on to describe how this year’s GMGSF would implement innovations in communication, including “more interactions and active participation,” and “new methods to build and obtain consensus,” including real-time online editing and voting. “Drafting will involve all of us,” he concluded.
The following days, November 27th and 28th, featured thematic panels on a series of pollution challenges, refined by pollution type, where it is found, and what dynamics caused the chaos (ex. marine noise pollution, soil pesticide pollution, and others). Many times over the course of the GMGSF, civil society panelists concluded that pollution is about power imbalances. As a result of an extractive economy, all pollution can be attributed to and exacerbated by militarism and conflict, neoliberal capitalism, corporate power, patriarchy, and land grabbing. In turn, these sources of pollution should be addressed by a circular economy, driven by an informed and empowered public that can influence policy enforcement and private sector accountability.
Meanwhile, the Major Groups convened at breaks to compile their policy agendas. Some, like the Women’s Major Group (WMG), had worked for months to strategize a detailed proposal. Others, like the Children and Youth Major Group (CYMG), brainstormed and refined their thoughts in the days of the event. Major Group facilitators insisted that proposals be kept nondescript so that they may find support amongst the UN Member States; however, this sentiment was not always keenly received.
Two 10-hour days of presentations and negotiations produced an extreme amount of energy and material; and in its second day, the GMGSF met its democracy challenges. An early morning trial of voting software prompted a debate over vague language and the decision-making process; Erik Solheim, head of the UN Environment Program, was met twice with silent, standing protest when he first proposed short-term ‘false’ solutions as his ultimate recommendations, and then likened civil society organizations to terrorist groups the next day; finally, the resulting GMGSF statement, intended to be voted upon by all in attendance, saw its content become inaccessible in the last hours of the forum.
By late Tuesday evening, the final collective statement was provided to the GMGSF for review. Instead of being in the online voting form we anticipated, the approximately 45-page document was printed, its pages taped to the wall, and we, a room of hundreds of individuals, were asked to read the small print within 15 minutes’ time: a physically impossible task. Both the WMG and CYMG proposals, submitted after 3:00 PM, failed to make it to the in-person print-vote at the time, though they were integrated into the document overnight; in addition, the final vote was left contested, for business did not see their contribution reflected in the document, either, even after submitting it on time. Instead, business representatives insisted the collective statement be reframed as an “outcome document” of the two-day period, and the final decisions on document language were left until the next morning.
The United Nations convenes the UNEA and the GMGSF so that we may inspire each other, talk solutions, and craft a global environmental agenda for the next few years. As in our scientific practices, we make a record of how we perform– for if our predicaments can be monitored, they can be resolved.
For IFSA, an invite to the GMGSF is an opportunity to be present, informed, and direct contributors to policy outcomes. We attend so that we may invest in the knowledge we need to become leaders– and better organizers of– environmental policy and consensus-gathering approaches in the decades to come.