As the protest against false climate solutions, drew to a close in the Blue Zone, a designated area for such demonstrations at this year’s United Nations Climate Change Conference otherwise known as the 2023 Conference of Parties (COP28) grounds in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, Martins Olamide, and Zikora Ibeh, from Corporate Accountability & Public Participation Africa (CAPPA) were suddenly accosted by fellow activists.
‘‘Look, you might be in danger,’ one of the activists whispered to Martins and Zikora. ‘‘While giving your interventions, you called out names of certain countries and corporations. Some security officials came around asking for your names. You are being monitored and could get questioned. Just to let you know, be careful,’ She added quietly.
Just moments earlier, Martins and Zikora, together with other activists had united in solidarity, passionately voicing their opposition to the dominant presence and oppressive influence of fossil fuel entities and lobbyists at the climate conference. Their protests also denounced the promotion of false solutions like carbon markets, which they argued are merely permits for pollution, and a smokescreen for the ongoing large-scale appropriation of green territories and assets of vulnerable communities, particularly in Africa.
The human rights principles of public participation, free expression, and accountability are important elements that enhance the global climate change conference. Every year, thousands of individuals from across the world gather in a shared space at the COP to strategize and galvanize collective action against climate change. For representatives of civil society, especially at-risk environmental human rights defenders, and members of vulnerable communities, the COP serves as a vital opportunity and platform to raise their voices for climate justice, challenging polluting forces and demanding transformative actions from decision makers and political actors to safeguard the lives of people and the ecological integrity of the planet.
This year, COP28 held in UAE, a federation of seven sheikhdoms, and one of the most restrictive environments for civil society and human rights defenders. The UAE does not tolerate dissent and bans organised groups like political parties and labour unions but as the host of COP28, it permitted demonstrations at the conference. These allowances, however, came with significant surveillance and caveats that constrained the full expression of dissent, voices of impacted communities, observers, and members of civil society. For instance, climate activists were unable to stage demonstrations outside Expo City – the official venue of COP28 in Dubai.
Yet, it is important to note that this issue extends beyond the political character of the UAE. It’s indicative of a broader pattern within the COP framework. Restrictions on the civic space at COP have always been a thing, hemmed in by the subtly authoritarian bureaucratic guidelines of the United Nations Framework on Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) Secretariat which oversees the conference. At this year’s meeting, the UNFCCC rules and regulations for demonstrations prohibited activists from naming and shaming big polluters, waving country flags, or even identifying names of vulnerable communities and countries at the frontlines of the climate crisis.
Climate justice requires acknowledging the disproportionate impact of climate change on marginalized communities. It demands a reevaluation of power dynamics in global climate discussions. The influence of fossil fuel lobbyists at COP28, and the suppression of opposing voices, underscores a conflict of interest that undermines the conference’s purpose. The stifling of free expression in spaces meant for global dialogue contradicts the principles of transparency and accountability necessary for effective climate action.
There is a need for a new approach to global climate discourse and governance at the COP – one that is rooted in the principles of equality, social justice, and collective action. This model would not only clearly challenge the dominance of corporate interests in shaping climate policy but also ensure a global climate conference where decisions are made through democratic and participatory processes. These processes must go beyond tokenistic allowances and ensure that the voices of those most affected by climate change are heard loud and clear, without fear or favour.