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Copenhagen and the UN's NGO Problem

Does the climate secretariat have an attitude about NGOs, or does it just seem that way?

2 min read

During the Copenhagen climate conference a local newspaper, the Copenhagen Post, has been putting out a surprisingly good daily newspaper devoted to the meeting, The COP15 Post. Yesterday, December 1, its lead story had the headline, NGO Fury Directed at COP15 Organisers. It described the difficulties accredited NGOs have had in getting access to the conference center, and an open letter 50 of them addressed to Yvo de Boer protesting the treatment they were getting. The well-regarded de Boer is executive secretary of the secretariat, based in Bonn, Germany, of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC, or, as it's more popularly known, the Rio treaty).

That brought to mind not only the difficulties I personally had getting into the conference center this week but also problems I ran into immediately with the UNFCCC's secretariat when I tried to obtain press accreditation as IEEE Spectrum magazine's editor for energy and the environment. When proper press credentials failed to arrive on request, and I sent an e-mail message of inquiry, the secretariat told me that they did not issue press credentials to publications of "non-governmental organizations" and only accredited press organizations somehow recognized by member governments.

It sounded positively Soviet! The United Nations does not recognize independent press organizations and only accredits government-approved press??

When I calmed down a little, a respected colleague suggested to me that perhaps what the UNFCCC secretariat meant to be saying was that they did not recognize publications of professional or membership organizations, or of non-governmental institutions. This sounded plausible, and so I sent another message to the secretariat, asking whether it was indeed the case that they accredited--say--Rupert Murdoch's publications but not the AAAS's Science magazine, MIT's Technology Review, or IEEE's Spectrum. That query went unanswered.

On closer reading of the secretariat's mail to me, as my colleague pointed out, it seemed that perhaps I could get admitted to the conference as part of an NGO delegation, though that meant I would not have proper press credentials and would not be admitted to press-only events So, rather than keep harping on the press issue,  I instead obtained accreditation as a member of an NGO group--a Dutch one as it happened--and went to Copenhagen planning to participate in a couple of Holland Climate House panels. That said and done, I couldn't help but wonder whether, when I arrived, I would find reporters working for magazines like Science or National Geographic, a membership publication of the National Geographic Society, working with press credentials after all, contrary to the UNFCCC's supposed principles.

When I finally arrived at Holland Climate House at 6 pm on Tuesday this week, after being turned away my first day by the conference and having had to stand in line for seven hours the second day to get in, I found my Dutch host being interviewed right at that very moment by a press-accredited reporter for National Geographic magazine.

So does the UNFCCC have some kind of problem in how it handles non-governmental organizations? It sure seems to. But don't ask me what exactly the problem is. I frankly have no idea.

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