Kept Out In Copenhagen

Conference organizers put tight limits on observer participation

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(Editor’s Note: Earthjustice attorneys Martin Wagner and Erika Rosenthal are blogging live from the Copenhagen climate change conference. This is today’s post by Martin)

There is no shortage of irony in Copenhagen this month.

I wrote previously about the efforts of some countries to avoid recognizing that the planet has rights. The conference organizers delivered Monday’s dose when they announced severe restrictions on access of non-governmental organization observers (that’s what we are officially called) to the conference center over the next several days.

Today and Wednesday, only a portion of any non-governmental organization’s delegation can enter the building. Thursday, only 1,000 will be permitted in total (the building holds 15,000). Friday, we’re limited to 90.

The irony is that one of the main objectives of negotiations is defining the governments’ shared vision for long-term cooperative action to prevent dangerous human interference with the climate system. (The emphasis is mine; the governments seem unable so far to find much they can agree on, and have closed so many negotiating sessions that it’s clear they’re not interested in sharing with others either.)

But the limits on public participation in this process are not only ironic. As with any legal system, full and effective public participation is essential to ensuring the legitimacy of environmental decisions like the ones being made in Copenhagen. Public participation is an important source of information as well as scrutiny.

The public’s perspective is particularly important when the decisions will affect the most fundamental aspects of the lives of billions of people on the planet, as will the outcome of the Copenhagen negotiations.

International law recognizes this. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights guarantees the right to "take part in the conduct of public affairs." The Rio Declaration on Environment and Development recognizes that "environmental issues are best handled with participation of all concerned citizens." And the Aarhus Convention, an important treaty negotiated right here in Denmark, guarantees the right of all people to access to information and to participate in environmental decision-making.

Just as important as the public role in the creation of a Copenhagen agreement is our role in its implementation. As Earthjustice has proven through our history, public participation is crucial to ensuring the effectiveness of environmental laws. This is why we are advocating for the Copenhagen agreement to guarantee access to information, full and effective participation, and access to justice for all those with an interest in any actions or decisions undertaken pursuant to the agreement.

Public participation is both a protection and a responsibility in all stages of efforts to address climate change—the Copenhagen negotiations included.

From 1996-2024, Martin Wagner led the International program, specializing in taking corporations to court for practices that violate international human rights.