Activists who have long played a role in shaping the tone and direction of the United Nations’ flagship climate summit say they’re being increasingly restricted at the annual event, complicating their ability to influence the talks. It comes as a record number of representatives and lobbyists from the fossil fuel industry attend COP28, which will continue in Dubai through next week.
At least 2,456 lobbyists for fossil fuel-related industries registered for this year’s conference, according to a report released Tuesday by a coalition of nonprofit climate policy watchdog groups. In contrast to that growing industry presence, activists say COP28 organizers have notably limited the number of protesters allowed inside the summit’s designated demonstration areas, the Associated Press reports. The climate talks, they said, have been especially restrictive in recent years, limiting what demonstrators are allowed to say and where and when they’re allowed to say it.
“There’s always been a lot of restriction on civic space inside of COPs, but we are really seeing a trend of it increasing,” Lise Masson, an organizer with Friends of the Earth International, told the AP. “We have to say how loud we’re going to be, what’s going to be written on the banners. We’re not allowed to name countries and corporations. So it’s really a very sanitized space.”
The U.N. has long placed strict regulations on demonstrations at its climate summits, at least inside the security borders where the main negotiations take place. Known as the Blue Zone, demonstrators in this area are prohibited from raising country flags and from naming specific states, leaders and companies under longstanding U.N. rules.
Demonstrations are also restricted to specific locations, and activists must apply for protest permits in advance, with their messages approved by COP organizers. During the summit, the Blue Zone is considered international territory and run by the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, or UNFCCC.
“Space is available for participants to assemble peacefully and make their voices heard on climate-related issues,” the UNFCCC said in a statement to the AP, adding that COP28 was being conducted “in line with longstanding United Nations Climate Change guidelines and adherence to international human rights norms and principles, within the Blue Zone.”
Still, activists say the restrictions continue to go beyond what they’ve encountered at past summits. Some of the designated protest areas, for example, were shut down this week, according to activists, who said they were told by COP organizers that they were closed for maintenance. Whatever the reason, activists said, the closures forced their protests farther away from the talks, where the messages were less likely to reach their intended audience.
“Why did it just so happen to be the best spot to put actual pressure on the world leaders?” one climate activist told the AP, referring to one of the shuttered protest spots.
Activists have also complained about having their speech curtailed by COP host countries, though this typically applies to outside of the secure Blue Zone, where conference attendees are subject to local laws rather than U.N. rules. In the case of this year’s summit, which is being hosted by the United Arab Emirates, activists are barred from protesting midday. The ban, UAE says, is for safety reasons: to limit potentially dangerous heat exposure during the desert nation’s hottest hours of the day. It’s also the ideal time for demonstrators to reach delegates, who are going out to lunch, activists said.
In fact, the UAE, like many of its neighbors, tightly restricts speech among its citizens—something activists worry is influencing this year’s climate talks. Human rights groups, such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, have accused the UAE of jailing dozens of political prisoners.
Agnes Callamard, secretary general of Amnesty International, told France 22 that she believes U.N. organizers want to provide more space for protests, but they’ve been hamstrung by the UAE’s “repressive environment.” A planned Amnesty demonstration at COP28 advocating for the release of political detainees was delayed twice by U.N. officials, Callamard said, and has yet to get approval.
“The U.N. has been trying to find ways for us to do our actions,” Callamard said from Dubai. “But it is working within an environment that is making … [demonstration approvals] much more complicated.”
It’s unclear if the Amnesty protest would abide by existing U.N. rules and whether its message has any relation to climate change.
Egypt, the host of last year’s summit, was similarly criticized for allegedly cracking down on protesters during COP27. Activists at the event accused the Egyptian government of arbitrarily detaining protesters and setting up security checkpoints in Cairo, where authorities forced people to hand over their phones to check for evidence of planned protests. One report said that the COP27 official phone app was likely being used for surveillance purposes.
Both the UAE and Egypt are widely seen as authoritarian states. Activists, however, say they also encountered difficulties at COP26, which was held in the United Kingdom. Visa restrictions plus restrictions to protest space inside the summit, one climate activist said, made COP26 “the most inaccessible COP we’ve ever seen.”
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