Written By: Patricia Whiting, Sr. International Policy Analyst for Sims Lifecycle Services
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Secretariat of the Basel Convention* recently announced that the Bureau of the Basel Open-Ended Working Group (OEWG) determined it not feasible to organize the upcoming face-to-face meeting June 22-25, 2020 in Geneva, Switzerland. Rather, the Bureau has decided the meeting will be conducted “by electronic means”. This will be historically the first time a Basel OEWG will be organized in a virtual setting, and this decision raised several issues and questions among Basel Parties, observers and stakeholders.
In terms of rationalizing the Bureau’s decision, the Secretariat cited concerns over the uncertainty of future inter-governmental meetings and venues; coupled with the need to continue progress with inter-sessional work and related decisions. Without progress, the work of the decision-making body responsible for monitoring and reviewing the implementation of the Convention, the Basel Conference of the Parties (COP) will be delayed.
A number of Parties and observers, especially from developing countries and countries with economies in transition, have expressed concerns and even objections to the Basel Bureau’s decision. The belief is that an online meeting format will threaten equal participation across the board in the democratic process that is supposed to characterize meetings of the Basel Convention. The African UN Regional Group for example, has submitted a letter to the Secretariat indicating their opposition to the proposal. The Basel Action Network (BAN)** has been most vocal in articulating these concerns in “Delegate Alerts” to the Basel Secretariat, parties, observers and other stakeholders.
In BAN’s view, an online meeting is not acceptable for the following reasons:
- It does not follow the Basel Convention’s Rules of Procedure: The meeting format, or “meeting modalities”, as communicated by the Basel Secretariat, is not procedurally or legally correct, as it does not follow the Basel Convention’s Rules of Procedure agreed to by all the Parties.
- Impaired and disproportionate participation: Conducting the OEWG electronically will greatly impair the already difficult circumstances of developing countries, and countries with economies in transition. These countries are already disproportionately hindered in their participation under normal circumstances with fewer resources – less staff to participate, monitor and communicate on issues considered by the many working groups. Additionally, these meetings will be conducted in working English and not translated into all six UN languages as provided by the Basel Rules of Procedure.
BAN also objects to several procedural elements that run counter to their view of the Basel Rules of procedure. This will negatively impact “disadvantaged countries with fewer staff that rely on regional experts, inter-governmental agencies, NGOs and others” including:
- A 48-hour tacit-consent decision timeline: This might challenge Party delegates who are working remotely. In this scenario, they would need to consult with national and international experts, and intergovernmental agencies in the context of existing challenges for countries because of COVID-19.
- A meeting schedule that is set on a Euro-centric time zone: The meeting will commence at 2 p.m. Switzerland CEST time – posing challenges for those who do not live in the European region (especially taxing for those in East Asia and West Latin America for example).
- A meeting structure with limited input: The meeting modalities appear to concentrate a large amount of decision-making power and discretion in the hands of co-chairs, delegations with many experts, and the Secretariat, versus smaller delegations and other stakeholders. This seems to run counter to the democratic norms outlined in the Basel Rules of Procedure and international law in general.
- A meeting where active and remote participants will have the digital equity and reliance on the internet they need: work-at-home computers and high-bandwidth internet for example, not considering that functional electronic grids are stable to power things in the context of the uncertainties in infrastructure associated with the pandemic.
In my view, we recognize the challenges the Basel Bureau faces as it seeks to find a solution to balance concerns that the OEWG must progress consistently with its workplan and budget, and the realities of the global challenges posed by the pandemic.
At the same time, I believe many of the concerns identified by BAN and the Africa Region are valid. Many of the issues highlighted by BAN and others can be applied globally, and not just from the perspective of developed countries. The pandemic has created large hurdles for many Basel stakeholders in terms of “business as usual”. Staff working remotely may not have the same infrastructure that is provided at their work offices. In many cases, they are also quarantined with children that must be home-schooled, and have a lack of continuity of normal provisions, etc.
In addition to severely handicapping participants in other time zones beyond Europe (from developed as well as developed countries), I agree that much of the value of a face-to-face meeting is lost in a virtual meeting (e.g. no side bar discussions, lack of rapport provided by contact group meetings).
Finally, being in the field of e-waste recycling with worldwide operations in developing and developed countries alike, I can attest to the issues posed by the digital divide in terms of ensuring effective participation among challenged countries.
I understand both points of view. On one hand, the option is to hold the meeting online addressing concerns over work progress, timing, and challenges associated with identifying future meeting venues. On the other hand, the meeting would be postponed indefinitely to address concerns about preserving a democratic and equal process, in terms of the implementation of this multilateral environmental agreement adopted to serve primarily developing countries, and countries in transition.
However the issues raised by Africa, BAN, and others are valid and suggest more consideration on behalf of the Parties and Observers. In my view, the outcome of deviating from precedent – internationally accepted protocol and rules – may have unforeseen negative consequences. In closing, neither of the options appear perfect, which just underscores the complex and holistic nature of issues raised by the Pandemic.
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*Multilateral environmental agreement among 187 countries governing the transboundary movement of waste.
**A prominent NGO in the Basel arena and a major proponent of the interests of disadvantaged countries.