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.