Thoughts on the recent UN climate meeting in Poland

This post was contributed by Marit Marsh Stromberg,  a PhD student from Birkbeck’s Department of Geography, Environment and Development Studies. Her scholarship is funded by Good Energy – a renewable energy company.

One might have hoped for strong words and swift implementation from world leaders following the latest round of international climate change talks. The evidence and reality point towards the need for action. Firstly, the high likelihood that temperature rise has been caused by humans was emphasised in the Fifth Assessment Report on climate change, which was released recently by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Secondly, typhoon Haiyan, which hit the Philippines earlier this month, has killed more than 5,000 people. Despite these facts, there was no new strongly-phrased climate agreement at the Warsaw Climate Change Conference from 11-22 November.

As usual, things move slowly and are more complex than that.

The gathering of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change in the Polish capital, also known as Conference of the Parties (COP) 19, was part of a series of conferences to create a new Kyoto protocol ready to be signed in Paris in 2015. This time the hope is to get every country on board as the last treaty didn’t include major players like the US and China.

The host of the conference, Poland, has been criticised by environmental groups for hosting, at the same time, the Coal and Climate Summit (18-19 November) with the World Coal Association. While this choice to host climate change talks and a coal industry meeting simultaneously could be seen as hypocritical, I say it was a good choice. If it was not held in Poland, that coal conference would have taken place in some other country. The coincidence of the apparently mutually exclusive conferences taking place at the same time sheds lights on the current status of things: while governments all over the world may invest in renewable energies and energy efficiency measures, at the same time they allow business-as-usual in the fossil fuel sector; while the Arctic is melting, new fossil fuel extraction opportunities are revealed and explored. I am sure it is not only Poland that could be accused of hypocrisy and caught red-handed.

Now, how about the outcome of the UN climate conference? It has been reported as limited, but some small steps are still considered to have been made. As one-fifth of the CO2 emissions are related to deforestation the creation of a fund helping developing countries to keep their forests is considered as one of the more substantial outcomes. Another step forward have been the decisions taken regarding the compensation of loss and damage in relation to climate change for developing countries.

As regards the important question of assigning specific CO2 emission reduction targets, it was decided that countries should be able to present their proposed contributions (the exact word was a result of some longer negotiations and chosen instead of commitments) in early 2015 to allow time for the combined efforts to be evaluated before the final meeting later the same year.

The phrasing can apparently now be interpreted in two ways. Firstly, from the perspective of some developed nations (e.g. the US) it is clear that all countries need to make some actual reduction commitments, resting on the the argument that it is necessary that we target those countries that will be emitting the most in the future. Secondly, from the perspective of some developing nations (e.g. China, India) it is clear that developed countries need to take more action since they have the historical responsibility for the current state of affairs. I appreciate both arguments: the current emission trends need to be addressed, but we can’t forget the socioeconomic divisions that exists between (and within) countries and how history brought us here in the first place.

While the world leaders and the UN now have the delicate task of trying to reach a far-reaching and shared platform by the end of 2015, I will continue my own journey in a field related to climate change. This autumn I have started a PhD in Geography at Birkbeck. I will be looking into the characteristics of spatial and temporal variability of intermittent renewable energies, such as wind and solar energy, in the UK and how these characteristics can be used for finding a suitable renewable energy mix for a future reliable and greener electric power system. My studies are funded by Good Energy – a renewable energy company.

I will update you on my progress via a termly blog on these pages. I can’t wait to contribute to research to help reduce CO2  emissions. After all, time is running out.

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Torture prevention in Uzbekistan: my return visit

This post was contributed by Professor Bill Bowring of Birkbeck’s School of Law

In March 2012 I travelled to Uzbekistan for the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) to lecture to practising defence advocates on torture prevention. In October 2013 I was invited back, and in this blog I explain Uzbekistan’s global significance, its paradoxical engagement with United Nations treaties and mechanisms, and my own activities.

This was not my first visit to this Central Asian country of some 28.5 million people. It is about the size of California, which has a population of 38 million. I have visited several times from the 1990s, carrying out human rights training.

The population of the capital, Tashkent, is nearly 2.5 million, the largest in the region, and more than twice the size of Britain’s second city, Birmingham. Having been largely destroyed by an earthquake in 1966, it is a modern city. Tashkent has been named the “cultural capital of the Islamic world”, and has the earliest written Qur’an, as well as a beautifully decorated three line metro system, and since 2012 a high speed train line to Samarkand. Tourists know Uzbekistan for the Silk Road, and for the gorgeous historical cities of Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva. But Tashkent is the business, industrial and educational powerhouse.

Uzbekistan is a very serious and ambitious regional power. It has the largest population of the Central Asian states, double the population its nearest rival, Kazakhstan. There are substantial Uzbek minorities in its neighbours: 3% in Kazakhstan, 5% in Turkmenistan, 14% in Kyrgyzstan, and 15.5% in Tajikistan. In Afghanistan, General Abdul Rashid Dostum leads the Uzbek minority, about 10% of the Afghan population; and the most effective military force in the country, never defeated by the mujahedin or the Taliban. Uzbekistan sees itself as the regional leader. Uzbek is a Turkic language and there is substantial Turkish investment and involvement. I stayed in a hotel which is part of a Turkish chain, though I was able to enjoy some delicious traditional plov, rice with lamb, herbs and spices, in an enormous House of Plov.

As The Guardian reported on 9 October, British universities are, controversially, moving in. Westminster has set up a campus in Uzbekistan and at least five others, Cambridge, Bath, East Anglia, the London College of Fashion and London Metropolitan University, have partnerships with colleges in Uzbekistan.

That Uzbekistan is an authoritarian state is beyond question. 75 year old President Islam Karimov has been in power since 1989 when he became First Secretary of the Uzbek Communist Party. He has been elected President three times by overwhelming majorities in elections which have been condemned as unfree and unfair.

According to the United States State Department’s Country Report for 2012 on human rights practices in 2012: “The most significant human rights problems included: torture and abuse of detainees…; denial of due process and fair trial; restrictions on religious freedom; … incommunicado and prolonged detention; harsh prison conditions; arbitrary arrest and detention; restrictions on freedom of speech, press, assembly, and association; on civil society activity;  and on freedom of movement; violence against women; and forced labor in cotton harvesting… human rights activists, journalists, and others who criticized the government [suffered] harassment, arbitrary arrest, and politically motivated prosecution and detention.”

That is, egregious violations of human rights, carried out by a strongly centralised regime, under a president for life, in which rights are subordinated to development.

Yet Uzbekistan participates energetically in UN human rights mechanisms. In 1994, after the collapse in 1991 of the USSR, Uzbekistan acceded to the UN’s Convention on the Rights of the Child, and in 1995 to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the Convention for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, the Convention for the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, and – the Convention Against Torture (CAT).

In 2006 the UN created the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) mechanism, in which the human rights records of all 193 UN Member States are reviewed by the UN’s Human Rights Council. On 24 April 2013 the Council considered Uzbekistan’s second report – the first was in 2008 – and over one hundred recommendations were made by member states.

And on 30 October 2013, immediately after my visit, Uzbekistan defended in Geneva, in a public hearing which may be seen on You Tube, its Fourth Periodic Report to the UN Committee Against Torture. Its representative, Professor Akmal Saidov, Chairman of the National Human Rights Centre of Uzbekistan (NHRC), described this as a “fiery dialogue”.

Indeed, it was Professor Saidov and his Centre who invited me this time, and the British Embassy in Tashkent which paid for my visit. I had four engagements in my three days in Tashkent – with a ten hour journey via Istanbul overnight each way. It was made very clear that I was not representing the UK or the Foreign Office, but was in Uzbekistan as an independent expert.

On 24 and 25 October I attended an international conference organized by the NHRC with Uzbek and foreign experts to discuss human rights in Uzbekistan and international best practice. I gave a presentation on UK legislation and institutions for the protection of human rights. I also participated in a meeting between the NHRC and various UN agencies on the implementation of recommendations following Uzbekistan’s recent UPR report to the UN Human Rights Council.

I also spoke, on the morning of 25 October, to a large audience at the Training Centre for Lawyers. I gave a lecture on the British judicial system and the training of legal professionals in the UK, to future judges, practising lawyers, government officials and academics. There was tremendous interest and many questions.

On 26 October I visited the Uzbek Human Rights Ombudsman, Mrs Rashidova together with the British Ambassador, George Edgar, and Professor Saidov. I gave a presentation on the UK experience since 2009 in establishing a National Preventive Mechanism (NPM) under the CAT. Uzbek officials and legal experts discussed the establishment of an Uzbek NPM and Uzbekistan’s implementation of the CAT in the context of the hearing in Geneva on 30 October.

That evening I attended the inaugural event of the British Alumni Network, with over 40 graduates of Master’s degrees in the UK, many supported by Chevening and other scholarships.

Was my visit simply an opportunity for attempted window-dressing by Uzbekistan?  I argue that Uzbekistan’s engagement with international human rights, the enormous effort put into writing reports and defending them in Geneva, and the internet publicity which does not go unnoticed by Uzbek civil society, do indeed bear fruit. As Professor Saidov emphasised in Geneva, Uzbekistan has recently abolished the death penalty, reduced its prison incarceration rate to the level of the UK, and begun to introduce habeas corpus.

But most importantly, Uzbeks become ever more conscious of the yawning gap between their country’s proclaimed compliance with international standards, and its actual practice. I think I have made a very small but significant contribution to this process.

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UN General Assembly another venue for Obama’s inaction

This post was contributed by Professor Rob Singh of Birkbeck’s Department of Politics. It originally appeared on The Conversation on 24 September 2013.

And so the annual autumn ritual of American masochism begins again in New York. Like inviting your least likeable in-laws to detail your worst features to your nearest and dearest after an agreeable Christmas lunch, this week’s 68th UN General Assembly welcomes heads of state and government from its 193 member states. With its plenary session overshadowed by Syria, and issues from Iran’s nuclear programme and Israeli-Palestinian relations vying for competition on the agenda, the media expectancy is even greater than usual. “The stakes are very high,” according to PJ Crowley, a former assistant US secretary of state.

What fatuous nonsense.

While the invitees marvel at the size of the food portions in New York City, and media frenzies erupt at incipient photo opportunities in Turtle Bay, let’s recognise this week for what it is – a symbolic spectacle signifying minimal substance. Yes, an enticing opportunity for non-US leaders to grandstand on the biggest international stage for strictly domestic political benefit. And yes, a chance for mere politicians – democratic and authoritarian alike – to pose as statesmen and solemnly pledge their fealty to human rights, the rule of law, and international peace (how very controversial). But, ultimately, whether New York or Washington, DC is the more reliably dysfunctional venue for serious politicking is up for debate.

Even by the standards of US politics, watching an array of exotic guests use one of the nation’s great cities to excoriate America and hail the arrival of a new “post-American era” must represent one of the more depressing spectacles for the domestic public. Sadly for the scriptwriters, the drama is not quite as vivid as when Chavez, Ahmedinajad and Gaddafi enjoyed their 15 minutes of fame denouncing George W Bush. Through fair means and foul, these characters have moved on.

But already, new scripts have been written and the question is merely whether the actors play their roles accordingly. Above all, will the Iranian and American presidents finally break a taboo and meet in the Great Satan’s living room (not, like Gordon Brown, in the UN kitchen)? Will the recent conciliatory words and gestures of President Hassan Rouhani receive symbolic reward – a presidential handshake, a deliberately accidental encounter, even a “meet and greet”?

To which the appropriate response is: “So what if they do?”.

Prior US presidents viewed the annual UN debate with emotions ranging from resignation to despair. But for Barack Obama, it’s tailor made. Teleprompter to the ready, warm words to go and nothing of substance to slog through. Only if one still buys into “Obama-world” – where grand speeches substitute for hard bargaining – can one continue to regard this earnest symbolism and soaring rhetoric as remotely consequential.

As such, it’s tempting to view the NYC goings-on as emblematic of not just the weakening of the West but also the end of US leadership.

But this wisdom is far more conventional than wise. On most measures of national power, the US remains far beyond all other nation-states. Not only is it the only player capable of global power projection, but America’s energy revival promises a “power surge” of substantial and enduring economic and geo-political dividends. No other power, or combination of powers, is likely to rival the US for decades to come.

The strategic problems, rather, are two-fold.

First, the UN’s profound limitations remain. A Security Council that reflects the power distribution of 1945, not 2013. A veto system that effectively precludes collective action even when genocide, ethnic cleansing and civil war destroy tens of thousands of lives and displace millions. And a gaping legitimacy deficit in which prolific UN declarations about the “responsibility to protect” are consistently belied as hollow by its inability, unwillingness and incapacity to do so.

Second, it is not American weakness that is at issue, but the irresolution, confusion and dwindling credibility of this particular White House. Like a poker player who believes that decent chaps don’t bluff, Obama is neither trusted by his allies nor feared by his adversaries. On the 50th anniversary of JFK’s assassination, one has to go back to Kennedy’s besting by Nikita Khruschev at the 1961 Vienna summit to recall a US president so powerfully outplayed by his Russian rival. But that was in Kennedy’s first year as president. Less than a year after his re-election, Obama appears adrift, ineffectual and preoccupied by domestic, not international, politics.

Whether or not Obama meets Iran’s president, few will mention the recent appointment of hardliner Ali Shamkhani as secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, a clear signal that Rouhani intends to preserve Iranian nuclear “rights”. Whatever the Russian delegation declares on Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal, few will focus on the 100,000 plus dead through conventional means of warfare – and counting. Festering issues from North Korea to a reconfigured and reinvigorated al Qaeda will receive minimal attention. And why should they? This week was never intended for serious diplomacy or meaningful negotiations. As for the Middle East, even now – never mind the rest of the world – Obama’s default disposition recalls Ernest Hemmingway’s in 1935: “Of the hell broth that is brewing in Europe, we have no need to drink.”

Mostly, the coming days represent theatre, and not especially impressive theatre at that. In the days of mobile phones, email and the internet, the notion that such international conflabs are necessary for genuine communication is redundant. It seems difficult, in that light, to entertain anything more than a minimal hope of substantive progress on Syria, Egypt, North Korea or any of the functional issues – from nuclear proliferation to climate change – that supposedly preoccupy our leaders.

Let’s hope I’m wrong. But ask yourself – when was the last time you either listened to, or took seriously, an Obama speech? Now imagine the response the average Syrian, Iranian, Israeli or Russian would have to that question. Ignore the theatrics and atmospherics. Lie back and take in the warm words. And watch the inaction.

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