This week we all just learned of the proposal by the Secretariat and Bureau to conduct the next Basel OEWG meeting electronically due to the global COVID-19 health crisis.
While we certainly understand the concerns we all now face due to the current global pandemic, and the need to think and act outside of norms because of it, we cannot see this response as acceptable and appropriate.
First, the proposition of the Basel Convention Secretariat as communicated in their message of April 20, is not procedurally/legally correct as it fails to follow the Rules of Procedure of the Convention and fails to follow the mandating decision of the OEWG VI/36. Proposals to change these rules and the decision must be agreed to by all of the Parties.
Second, holding OEWG 12 electronically will greatly harm the already difficult circumstances for developing countries and countries with economies in transition in their participation in the Basel Convention and also democratic processes of the Convention. We believe that the stated urgency of conducting the meeting electronically is not a convincing rationale to suspend normal due processes established in the Convention.
Developing and countries in transition already are disproportionately disadvantaged by having fewer resources to expend on Basel Convention matters, noting they:
- have less staff to monitor the many working groups and issues;
- have less staff to master the dominant language of English, or even one of the 6 UN languages; and
- have less funds to send significant delegations to meetings.
And now, for developing countries and countries in transition this new proposal makes things so much worse.
Let us be reminded of what is proposed and how these changes are contrary to established rules of the Convention and create disproportionate negative impacts on developing countries:
- Suspension of the rule to conduct the meeting in the 6 UN languages but only conducted the online part in English. This is contrary to Paragraph 10 of the COP mandate establishing the OEWG (Decision VI/36). This creates an enormous disadvantage (e.g. Latin America, francophone Africa, Asia).
- A 48-hour tacit-consent decision mechanism does not allow Party delegates working from home to consult nationally, let alone regionally nor to hear from international experts and intergovernmental agencies on matters of great importance. The 48-hour period, including weekend time, neglects the fact that delegates are under curfews or lockdown orders and will need to find ways all week to access food, healthcare supplies, etc. This new method of decision-making is contrary to the Basel Rules of Procedure and disadvantages countries with fewer staff that rely on regional experts, inter-governmental agencies, NGOs and others.
- The Euro-centric time-zone proposal of a meeting starting at 2pm (Geneva time), will disadvantage delegates in a wide swath of the globe (particularly in East Asia, and West Latin America). Any way that one might attempt an electronic meeting, one area of the world or another will be disadvantaged.
- The proposed procedures concentrate far too much decision-making power and discretion in the hands of co-chairs, delegations with many experts, and the Secretariat. This is a dangerous rolling back of democratic norms of international law and is contrary to the rules of procedure.
- Reliance on the internet and people working from home to be able to fully participate in an internet-based meeting assumes a situation of digital equity that we know does not exist in all parts of the world. Demand for work-at-home computers is high and often not met even in developed countries. Further, the the reliability of a high-bandwidth internet generally and the electronic grid to power it, is in question with further economic disruption. With delegates teleconferencing from home networks we can be certain that some delegates will not be able to properly access the meeting and yet they will not be able to interrupt the proceedings until their line is functioning.
- Right now, we cannot predict the impact of the pandemic and its future course. However, many experts expect that it has yet to fully play out in the Global South, and predict enormous challenges in African and Latin America in the near future. Can we be sure that we can conduct a meeting fairly in the time of the Pandemic where some Parties will be more disadvantaged than others?
Due to all of the above, the legitimacy of any outcome of the meeting is in serious doubt.
In conclusion, it is clear that in a pandemic, we must at times do things quite differently in order to save lives. However, the OEWG is not a life and death emergency. The world is assessing and reacting to this pandemic and as such, many events have been postponed, and rightly so. It is perfectly legitimate to delay the OEWG 12 until it can be held properly and fairly for all Parties.
We understand the Secretariat's concern over finding venues in future, but a case can be strongly made, not to conduct an unfair and poor meeting which will lack legitimacy, but rather to save the June Basel OEWG budget and use it to scale up the 2021 Basel COP 15 budget, to support a longer, more inclusive meeting as might be possible at that time.
You can't rush a pandemic, nor should we rush important decisions that will impact how hazardous substances are traded and possibly dumped across the globe. We urge the Parties to speak out now to prevent an unsatisfactory and likely illegitimate meeting.