Venezuela did not hijack civil society climate meeting

Last week’s social pre-COP meeting was a valuable democratic process that built links between the global North and South

Pic: Social Pre-COP/Twitter

Pic: Social Pre-COP/Twitter

By David Tong

Last week, I was in Margarita Island, Venezuela, for the “social pre-COP”: a warm-up meeting to next month’s climate talks in Lima.

On the final day, there was a closed door (or at least closed tent) ministerial meeting, as at most normal pre-COPs. With the negotiations closed to us, civil society met to debrief and evaluate. The consensus, and the very clear consensus, was that the ministerial dialogue went very well.

Venezuela has opened us a door. Now it is up to us to decide what kind of room we go on into.

What happened last week ended a process that began in Copenhagen in 2009, when Hugo Chavez first proposed this new dialogue between civil society and official negotiators. Venezuela has held fast to this idea, despite significant criticism and real opposition.

In July, the Margarita Declaration’s radicalism prompted suggestions that the Venezuelan government stage-managed the process to advance its own anti-capitalist political ends. There are already suggestions that Venezuela manipulated last week’s process to political gain.

This analysis has the situation back to front.

Democratic process

I was not at the meeting in July, but have spoken to many friends and colleagues who were. They believe that July’s process, though imperfect, was truly democratic, with the Margarita Declaration drafted from the bottom up, in meetings (or “Mesas”) with democratically elected facilitators and note-takers. The Declaration’s radicalism represented Global South social movements’ understandable radicalism.

It is true that Venezuela’s government played a much greater role this week, which I have questioned extensively, both chairing the discussion and drafting the text. But this was no anti-capitalist hijacking.

Rather, it looks like a government scared. Under pressure from other governments attending, spooked by critical media commentary, and concerned to defend the legitimacy of the social pre-COP process, Venezuela clamped down. This, I think, explains the compromised methodologies.

And it explains the compromised text better than the anti-capitalist hijacking theory does. The changes requested by civil society but omitted from the final text would have made it more ambitious, not less. It is hard to see, for example, how rejecting stronger language condemning carbon markets accords with any kind of anti-capitalist hijacking.

Meaningful outcome

I wasn’t exactly uncritical about last week’s process. Quite simply, the civil society preparatory session was not civil society’s meeting. These issues – not differences between civil society groups – pushed our meeting on through Wednesday night until after daybreak.

But this was still an unprecedented meeting, with a meaningful outcome. Never before has civil society met with negotiators before the UN climate talks like this. Though the outcome document comprises a presidential summary from Venezuela, not a civil society document, it still broadly captures the views of the 80 organisations and movements here.

The ministers engaged actively with the text and with civil society’s representatives. It was a successful dialogue.

Just as #Volveremos 12 months ago launched an unprecedented alliance for real climate justice outside the Warsaw climate talks, the social pre-COP is an unprecedented meeting. We cannot expect the first meeting of its kind to have ideal methods. This represented the trial run of an entirely new process.

Precedent set

France has said that it is considering continuing some form of social pre-COP process for next year’s Paris summit. It is not clear what process will transform into, but this year’s social pre-COP has proven that it is possible for ministers to engage with civil society before COP productively.

Importantly, we have also proven – just as #Volveremos did – that the social movements of the Global South and the civil society organisations of the Global North can articulate a shared vision for a just, wise and scientific response to climate change.

It is up to us, as civil society, to decide what we do with this precedent. We want a voice at the table, not just another table. If we wish to retain a social pre-COP dialogue in 2015, we will need to articulate what exactly it is we are after. We might also need to stump up resources and organisational capacity ourselves.

Venezuela has cracked open a door for us. We now have to determine what kind of room is on the other side.

David Tong is a lawyer, co-chair of the Aotearoa New Zealand Human Rights Lawyers Association and chair of P3 Foundation, New Zealand’s youth movement against extreme poverty. He was a New Zealand youth delegate to the 2011 Durban talks.

A version of this blog was first published by Tck Adopt a Negotiator

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