Protecting the environment with intelligence

Debbie Banks on CITES – in out, in out, shake it all about

Day 3 at the CITES Standing Committee…

CITES Meeting August 2011

I was a bit late into the conference room in the morning, as I’d had a pre-meeting meeting (such is the nature of these events), with a government delegate who had recently visited Vietnam, and was horrified at the open sale of tiger meat and tiger bone products.

Mary Rice, EIA’s Executive Director was already plugged into the system in the nose-bleed section of the conference hall when I got to my seat, “you’re just in time to pack up your bags”, she said.

Typical! Elephant day (and believe me, they get an entire day to themselves!), at a CITES meeting is guaranteed to bring some kind of drama. And so it was that civil society was voted out of the room, on the pretext that governments needed to discuss “sensitive information” regarding ivory trade.

The delegate from Kuwait, as one of the regional representative of Asia said the majority of the region wanted it (Really? Hmm, read China and Thailand, cos certainly India wasn’t even consulted!). Voting with Kuwait in favour of evicting wildlife, conservation and trade organisations were Botswana, Iran, Colombia, Costa Rica, Dominica and Norway. Voting to retain some integrity for the UN and to keep civil society engaged were the UK, DRC, Bulgaria, Ukraine, USA and Australia, abstaining were Egypt, Uganda and Japan

Despite the simple majority vote, the UK put up a brave challenge on behalf of transparency and public participation. But alas there was nothing they could do, and with much shuffling of papers, mutterings of going back to the dark ages, some sideways glances at north London-based EIA to see if we were going to pull our hoods up and kick off, we all trooped out.

Then it was straight on to the phones; a frustrated huddle of NGOs tweeting, facebooking, press releases (much more civilised than throwing shoes / folders / chairs at delegates and facing down rubber bullets). If the intention of the governments that wanted us out of the room had been to prevent civil society, and by extension the media, making a fuss over their flaws, incompetence, corruption and failures to end ivory trade, well then, they rather shot themselves in the foot.

Their actions drew media attention, but more than that, the other CITES Parties quickly realised it was just a ploy and that nothing of a sensitive nature, that wasn’t already in the CITES documents, was being discussed and the record of the meeting would be public.

In fact, it appeared to be a tactic just to get a few of us out of the room so they could bad mouth the ivory investigation findings of EIA and Elephant Family. China apparently complained that we don’t share our information with them and that we’d probably not actually been to China.

Ivory Stockpile

Oh good grief! Yes folks, this is China’s enforcement strategy – rely on NGOs to point out where your problems are, so there’s no need to get off your backside and look for the bad guys yourself. Then whine when those pesky NGOs prefer to expose your incompetence (insert also, negligence / corruption / complicity), rather than do your job for you.

Fortunately, after the lunch break we were all voted back in, Norway having come to their senses and realising that as signatories to the Aarhus Convention on public access to decision-making, it was a black mark on their record.

Mary used her intervention calling for China’s “approved ivory buyer” status to be revoked to ask the Chair of the meeting if she could also respond to comments reportedly made about the integrity of our work during the closed session. Denied. But the Chair suggested we circulate something in writing instead.

Score! Any government delegates who had never heard of EIA before, now certainly wanted to read our ivory report and our rebuttal. You can find them here (Ivory Report) and here (Criticism rebuttal)

That said, along with other key issues over which we had some well thought-out recommendations and suggestions there was no time available for substantive discussion. Gone are the days when NGO inputs from the floor will be taken into account. The agenda is too big and there are too many people at these Committee meetings, so it’s a “thanks” from the Chair and on to the next agenda item.

It was the same with our “asks” on tigers and other Asian big cats. Prior to the agenda item coming up (which was pushed back to late on the last day of the meeting), key government allies had essentially admitted they were not in a diplomatic position to confront China over their tiger and leopard skin trade, so it would be down to us to play the “bad cops”.

Ranthambore Tiger

So we did, check out our intervention here . We asked China to share with us the status of the registration scheme

  • How many skins have been registered under this scheme?
  • How many have been sold?
  • How many have been sourced from captive bred sources?
  • How many have been sourced from the wild?
  • How has legality been verified?

Nothing. Nada. Zip. Zero. Resounding silence. Not one of the governments in the room asked them to respond. Nobody said, “Actually, yes, I’d like to know too”. Why can’t China just answer the questions, what’s so difficult about this? Is it because, if they answer the question they’re effectively admitting to the world that they have a legal trade in tiger and leopard skins, which contradicts Premier Wen Jiabao’s promises? Is it because, just as with the ivory trade control system, they really don’t have a handle on what’s going on outside of Beijing but don’t want to admit it?

We won’t give up. Everything that we ask for in the documents we prepared for the meeting with the Wildlife Protection Society of India are still valid and you can read about them here.

We’re going to need your help though. Between now and the next CITES Standing Committee in July 2012, we need to make sure that our questions and concerns are raised by governments and the CITES Secretariat. That means you writing to your elected representatives. Get in touch if you want to turn your government into a “good cop”.

What Did Happen at CITES Standing Committee:

The SC headed off a threat from the Asian region to fiddle with the text of the Convention in relation to Introduction from the Sea. It was quite amusing to watch delegates from China and Japan scuttling around the room queueing up their allies to speak in favour of fisheries giants. Foiled.

Ramin is no longer on the agenda, the SC was satisfied with reports from Malaysia and Indonesia that they’re successfully implementing ITTO-CITES projects to prevent illegal logging and trafficking of ramin species.

Thailand has until July 2012 (and the next SC meeting), to demonstrate greater internal trade controls and legislation over their domestic ivory market.

The UK will chair a Rhino Working Group that will identify additional measures that Parties can take to address the illegal rhino horn trade, including enforcement and outreach measures towards consumers.

UNEP and the CITES Secretariat are working with INTERPOL and others to co-host a World Congress of Justice, Governance and Law for Environmental Sustainability in Brazil immediately prior to the Rio+20 summit in June 2012. Participants will include attorney generals, senior judges and chief prosecutors and is an excellent opportunity to get wildlife crime taken more seriously by the justice system.

The only decision taken in relation to Asian big cats was agreement that the Senior Experts Group of the International Consortium on Combating Wildlife Crime (ICCWC) should be tasked with reviewing and updating the guidelines for specialised enforcement units.

Efforts to undermine the legitimate listing of commercially valuable marine species were defeated with the SC rejection of a proposal to set up a working group to look at time-bound listings.

Formal summaries can be found here.

Debbie Banks

EIA Lead Campaigner

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2 Responses

  1. [...] was a deceptive move and that no such confidential information existed, the evictees was asked to rejoin the group. As delegates for civil society, our voice at these crucial international events, their [...]

  2. [...] was a deceptive move and that no such confidential information existed, the evictees was asked to rejoin the group. As delegates for civil society, our voice at these crucial international events, their [...]

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