Warsaw climate talks may witness consensus-majority battle

Russia has strongly criticised the secretariat of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change for failing to be impartial and breaking rules of consensus-based decision-making during recent negotiations. It has asked that the talks beginning November 11, 2013 at Warsaw decide on a voting process for decision-making.

The decisions at the climate negotiations are taken by consensus between all countries but this principle was broken in the last three rounds of talks and decisions gavelled despite objections from some countries. Russia’s objections were over-ruled in 2012 during one such incidence.

The talks are led by the host country as the ‘president’ each year of the negotiations and advised and guided on procedures by the secretariat, which is headed by the executive secretary. The latter plays a critical role in giving direction to the talks along with the President and other elected individuals who lead key parallel tracks of the negotiations.

But the fresh Russian proposal to put the issue on the formal agenda of the Warsaw talks has raised the spectre that the rule of consensus could get pitted against the proposal of majority by vote — a move that several developing countries such as India and China are opposed to. In mid-2013 too, Russia had raised the concern at a lower level of U.N. climate talks and blocked negotiations for almost a week on the issue.

In strongly-worded formal submission, Russia has now said, “Decision-making in the UNFCCC process has suffered evident setbacks over the past few years with serious procedural and legal flaws being multiplied, transparency eroding, frequency of dubious proceedings acquiring alarming magnitude…”

An Indian climate negotiator wishing to remain anonymous told The Hindu, “We are aware that the principle of consensus has been broken in recent past. It is not a healthy practice. But to formally debate on rules of voting at the U.N. climate talks will only ensure that the well-settled principle of consensus is re-opened and questioned.”

Mexico and Papua New Guinea had earlier in 2011 demanded that the convention shift to majority voting from the consensus-driven process. The proposal had found support from the E.U. and its allies but not sailed through. India had objected at that time too along with China to the proposal.

At the 2010 climate talks, Bolivia was over-ruled by hosts Mexico despite repeated objections and got the Cancun Agreements approved. At the 2011 talks in Durban too, negotiations were shoved through without clarity by South Africa and then in 2012 Russia, Ukraine and Belarus got steam-rolled as the package of agreements were passed without consensus. The U.S. also put its exceptions to the decisions of 2012 on record after they had been hammered by Qatar as presidency.

Russia has said in its new submission, “Inadequate actions or non-actions of the secretariat of the UNFCCC versus obvious procedural violations of the past are a cause for concern.” It has demanded that the secretariat and other presiding officers of the talks act in a ‘professional manner’ in ‘unconditional compliance with the spirit and letter’ of the draft rules of procedure.

In what several negotiators described as diplomatically strong language, Russia has held the executive secretary of the UNFCCC as personally responsible for ensuring compliance.

A negotiator from one of the Like Minded Developing Countries on Climate Change writing on the role of the UNFCCC secretariat told The Hindu on email, “It is more than malfeasance. It’s also incompetence.” The negotiator added that the secretariat alone was not at fault and that the CoP presidencies too had acted against the rules in recent years. “The same message (similar to Russia’s complaint) was sent to the U.N. Secretary-General in an open letter earlier this year. What is more important is how the CoP presidency in Warsaw will handle this, seeing as how the SBI (a subsidiary body of the convention) already was held up by this (issue) in June, and its many implications on the process.

The Indian negotiator added, “There is a procedural concern about how such an issue can be added on to the agenda for the talks at the last moment. Then there is concern about what the Russian proposal implies for the negotiations. The last time (at the mid-year talks) Russia was strongly opposed by all others for blocking the talks using this issue.

Two previous negotiators from the Indian team said that Russia has expressed its concerns keeping in mind that the happenings of the last few years could set a dangerous precedent for finalisation of the new global deal by 2015. “To me, it seems that Russia is trying to pre-empt a situation in 2015 in Paris whereby the President would gavel his own text without line-by-line negotiation by the parties. This happened at Cancun too (in 2010),” one of the two said. The other one noted that the Russian proposal had come too late in the day and by procedure only proposals made six months before the annual talks can be formally accepted as part of a draft agenda. This draft agenda is then affirmed by all countries before it’s even discussed formally through the two weeks of talks.

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