I was asked after Bonn whether Russia, Ukraine and Belarus blocking SBI seemed justified. Blocking SBI (or any other negotiation stream) is of course a radical undertaking as it wastes the scarce negotiation time the UN process has per year. However, this time the action of these three countries, Russia, Ukraine and Belarus, cannot be labeled as a simple protest only, as they are raising an important substantive point.
Adding an agenda item on procedural and legal issues related to decision-making gained importance in the eyes of these countries in Doha in December, when the amendment to the rules of the second commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol was adopted against their agreement. This further stretched the vague concept of consensus decision-making. Even though consensus does not require unanimity amongst all countries, this time the view of a group of countries was ignored on a legally binding substance matter that applied to the protesting countries (redefinition of their commitments for the second commitment period). Even though they can decide not to ratify the second commitment period, they still felt strongly that this was unprecedented.
So perhaps we should rather be asking whether the request of these countries to add an agenda item (or originally sub-item 17a, which had been recorded in the agenda as a separate item 19) to ensure that the matter is discussed, was unreasonable. And why it raised opposition amongst others, as the concern on the vagueness of the procedural rules is sympathized by many other parties – although all this sympathy may not always be spelled out in the negotiation room.
It could be argued that an additional agenda item could cause at least two kinds of procedural trouble in the future. First, also other countries could start suggesting agenda items, which would slow down the process, and make it difficult to judge which item could be legitimate to add, and which one not. Second, and maybe more important, is the difficulty of the task such an agenda item would establish. The consensus rule is not easy to define further due to its nature. The adoption of the Rules of Procedure for the Conference of the Parties to the UNFCCC have so far failed, and thus, COPs have been run on draft Rules of Procedure for almost two decades. This means that for instance voting rules do not exist, and thus, ‘consensus’ is used in decision-making. As a result, the agenda item could possibly delay the negotiation process. The counter-argument of these three countries is that it would be problematic to negotiate a new agreement without clarity about the procedural rules. Further, some more political opposition to a new agenda item came from countries which have unsuccessfully suggested agenda items in the past (most importantly: India on intellectual property rights).
The compromise suggested by the Chair would not have ensured that the issue raised had got sufficient attention in the future, as its aim was not to record the item in the actual agenda, but in other documents. Such recording could have easily been sidelined by parties willing to do so. Thus it is understandable that these compromises were turned down.
Finally, all this takes place in a setting which has got used to thinking that these countries do not take climate protection very seriously. Their domestic measures are vague, and their pledges for the Kyoto second commitment period were unrealistically loose, allowing them more or less unlimited headroom for emission growth. Russia has withdrawn from the second commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol in terms of legally binding commitments. Also, especially Russia has demonstrated its ability and willingness to block the process in the past in order to gain political or economic benefits, and even though the substance matter is this time legitimate, it must be difficult for other parties to overcome this past, and see the protest as a separate event. Also the way the debate has evolved due to Russia’s rhetoric has perhaps strengthened this impression, and wider political motivations behind the argument from this camp certainly come to mind.
For more on Russia’s participation in the climate negotiations, see Anna’s article on Doha in Climate Policy. (vol.13, no.3).