CITES and Democracy

The recent CITES Conference of the Parties (COP) in Geneva, Switzerland, demonstrated the challenges of governance for multinational treaty organizations, especially those attempting to sustainably manage the world’s resources. 183 countries are Parties to the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) and many of them attended the COP.

The objective of this United Nations body is to restrict international trade where it has been determined to be detrimental to the survival of that species.  The most well-known species to be protected from international trade include rhinoceroses, elephants, tigers, whales and other ‘charismatic megafauna’.  Plants, too, such as wood species and flowers, are also protected by this treaty.

Trade restrictions and management are achieved by listing the species on one of three ‘Appendices’ to the Convention, with each appendix restricting trade to varying degrees.

The CITES Secretariat, based in Geneva, offers invaluable advice to member countries when making Appendix listing proposals. From both a legal and a procedural perspective, there is nothing wrong with CITES Parties eschewing the Secretariat’s advice. Indeed, CITES was designed to operate for the Parties, with the COPs fulfilling the executive function. The Secretariat’s advice is just that – advisory.

Nevertheless, concerns have been raised that the recent COP yielded as many as 11 occasions when Parties voted for listings against the recommendations of the CITES Secretariat.

It seems unlikely that the Secretariat repeatedly erred. It is a specialist body with the technical skills and practical expertise to decipher listing proposals. It analyzes each one ahead of the COPs and determines which meet its criteria and which species would benefit from being subject to CITES controls.

While the Secretariat is not omniscient, it is well-informed. Moreover, in the case of marine species it draws on the knowledge of an ad hoc FAO Expert Review Panel, which is made up of the best fisheries experts in the field from around the world.

So what conclusions should be drawn when its recommendations are so frequently disregarded? The answer lies in the fact that, while only Parties are permitted to introduce listing proposals, many are actually developed behind the scenes by environmental non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs). The proposing Parties – the contracting members of CITES – often act as the willing proxies of those NGOs.

Having developed their proposals, the NGOs spend many months advocating for the listings with governments around the world. This is achieved at private meetings and forums and through participation in formal public consultation processes in the European Union, United States and other countries.

The views of experts – especially when they are contrary or raise shortcomings – become an obstacle to the NGO proposals, rather than a valuable part of the global governing process.

The NGOs then mirror the actions of the Secretariat, which prepares and circulates its recommendations to Parties ahead of COPs, by producing a parallel document containing their recommendations on each proposal. But whereas the CITES Secretariat is published to inform, the purpose of the NGOs’ document – issued through an umbrella organization which they underwrite – is to provide a single and unified basis for the final lobbying push ahead of the COPs.

The NGOs further participate at CITES meetings as observers, where they make formal debate interventions and bolster their positions through side events, advertising and sponsorships. Given their effort and organization, it should not be surprising that NGOs’ recommendations yield positive results at CITES COPs.

But does it matter when so many Parties reject the views of global experts and choose instead to follow the positions developed and promoted by NGOs?  After all the NGOs may argue that the ends justify the means – that without their advocacy, CITES would vacillate while species go extinct. They may also say that the votes at CITES are democratic and transparent, although the NGOs’ lobbying is largely hidden and receives scant public attention.

In the case of latest CITES COP, NGO influence led to the listing of the Mako shark. With a global population estimated at more than 20 million, Makos are neither endangered nor threatened by international trade. When asked for its analysis on the vote by the newspaper La Estrella, Opes Oceani said: “CITES did not follow the best available science, the advice of UN fishery experts or the recommendation of its own Secretariat.”

At CITES, NGOs have collectively managed to circumvent or overcome two of the safeguards of the Convention – that proposals are made only by Parties and that two-thirds of the Parties present and voting are needed to secure a listing.

They have also undermined the relevance of advice from CITES experts and created enormous implementation difficulties for Parties.

One lesson from the COP is that the authority of any multinational body relies not just on whether it follows its authorized procedures, but also on how it does so. Good governance requires that decisions are made correctly and not covertly manipulated by outside groups or non-state actors. Decisions should be based on a full appreciation of all the facts and through a publicly transparent process.

Perspective New UN Treaty Poses Significant Challenge for Pacific Island States

By James Movick

Remarks made by the Pacific Forum’s secretary general Dame Meg Taylor at a recent conference on high seas biodiversity are perfectly timed and signal a considerable challenge for small island developing states (SIDS) in the Pacific.

In addressing a meeting of Pacific SIDS in Fiji, Dame Meg expressed the view that Pacific nations have a vital role in ensuring the biodiversity treaty being negotiated at the United Nations does not forget people and communities dependent upon ocean resources for their livelihoods, culture, and economy.

It’s a refreshing sentiment in a world where campaigns about protecting the ocean environment are all too often devoid of the role of people; where oceans protection is promoted in terms of “no take” and “absolute protection”. For those of us who live and work in the Pacific, and have done for generations, such a viewpoint is far removed from the reality of life, where the sea provides food security, resources and income in the absence of land-based industries.

The new UN biodiversity treaty concerns valuable resources from the high seas – owned by no-one but open to all. How are those resources to be managed and shared in the future? There are agreements for fishing, mining and shipping on the high seas, but the international community is looking to further enhance those rules as more pressure comes on biodiversity as a result of a changing climate, among other concerns.

The treaty is important to all nations, but particularly so for the Pacific because of the size of the Pacific Ocean itself and the tracts of international waters within it, which are vast and have untapped potential. That is why it is of major importance for Pacific nations to take an active approach to the negotiations at the UN: to achieve an outcome that reflects the Pacific identity, culture, and geography for our ongoing sustainable development, and gives effect to the agreed Blue Pacific policy: where people remain at the centre.

Over the last few years, there has been unprecedented focus on the health and life of the oceans. That concern is much welcomed; however it is the proposed measures to support that good health and life of the ocean that need to be more considered and nuanced, particularly with regard to the impact on local dependent communities.

We have seen the move to implement large-scale marine protected areas, many over 100,000 square kilometres. In fact, the Pacific is over represented in this drive for large-scale MPAs – with 64% of established MPAs and MPA networks by area. It also contains 74% of proposed future MPAs, according to a recent report by international oceans consultancy Opes Oceani.

The report concludes that ocean MPAs are initiated and promoted generally by large international Non-Government Organisations, and seldom by governments, in order to meet NGO numerical targets rather than as a sound contribution to goals related to biological diversity. The campaign for 10% of the world’s oceans to be classified no-take protected areas is superseded only by the drive to increase that to 30%.

The Pacific Ocean remains vulnerable to the establishment of further large-scale MPAs by distant Northern Hemisphere nations as well as international NGOs, with negative implications for the sustainable management of the Pacific’s fisheries and other oceanic resources.

Be that as it may, in the Pacific context, large-scale MPAs that include no-take bans have little or no fisheries management rationale for highly migratory species, a major earner of foreign income for Pacific nations. While they are certainly easier to administer than more complex ocean management schemes, and have become a publicity tool, their usefulness in the context of Pacific development is debatable.

More appropriate and traditionally familiar tools are marine management areas, where particular activities are targeted with appropriate temporal, spatial and species-specific management measures to achieve desired outcomes for marine biodiversity, such as fish-stock replenishment. MMAs are used more commonly in the Pacific to mitigate over-fishing of reef resources and inshore fisheries, for example. Furthermore, development of deep-sea resources and technology has advanced considerably in the last decade and locking off large areas of the ocean will limit sustainable development opportunities for Pacific nations.

The Blue Pacific is the policy on which Pacific nations are moving forward at the UN, and gives effect to the Sustainable Development Goals, notably SDG14 related to sustainable use of oceans and fisheries. Blue Pacific aims to refocus the collective potential of the region’s stewardship of the Pacific Ocean. It’s a direction based on acknowledgement of shared ocean identity, ocean geography and ocean resources.

Pacific nations’ respect for the ocean and the resources it provides stretches back many centuries to when the great migrations occurred. Sustainability and management are always challenging and there is no doubt that increased capability and resources would help achieve better management outcomes. Pacific SIDS have a vested interest in conservation and sustainable utilisation of the High Seas because of their dependence on the ocean and the paramount resources from which we derive desperately needed foreign exchange.

Balancing twin imperatives of conservation and utilisation is inherent to Pacific Ocean management frameworks. Sustainable use of ocean resources is a vital component of any final text that emerges from this far-reaching UN biodiversity treaty if Pacific nations are to benefit and improve economic and social outcomes.


James Movick is the former Director General of the Pacific Islands Forum Fisheries Agency – based in Honiara, Solomon Islands – which works to ensure sustainable use and management of fisheries resources for Pacific nations. He is a long-time participant in national and regional fisheries management in the Pacific Islands and presently resides in the Federated States of Micronesia.