Climate activists say U.N. restricting protest at COP28

Climate activists protest in support of Palestinians in Gaza, at the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP28) in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, December 3, 2023

Climate activists protest in support of Palestinians in Gaza, at the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP28) in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, December 3, 2023. REUTERS/Thaier Al Sudani

What’s the context?

Climate activists say the U.N. has restricted when and where they can protest at COP28 and banned some phrases about the war in Gaza

  • Advocacy groups say protest language censored on Gaza
  • Activists must seek U.N. approval for COP28 demonstrations
  • U.N. says committed to uphold summit participants' rights

DUBAI - Activists at the COP28 U.N. climate summit in Dubai said on Friday they had been unable to express their views freely on the Gaza conflict and that their climate protests had been affected by restrictions on when and where they could be held.

Tasneem Essop, head of Climate Action Network International, a network of civil society groups, said the U.N. climate secretariat (U.N. Climate Change) had prohibited demonstrators from using certain phrases with relation to the war between Israel and Hamas militants in Gaza, including "ceasefire now".

She and Asad Rehman, executive director of UK-based social justice group War on Want, said other activists had been stopped from wearing scarves, badges and lanyards showing support for Palestinians, and U.N. security staff had confiscated them.

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While wearing those items, they told reporters at COP28 that they had been negotiating with U.N. Climate Change over the rules, which they said had been changing daily.

"We were promised that our rights as civil society would be protected here - and everything that we have tried to do has been within the U.N. rules," said Rehman, adding that the situation had made it hard to communicate advocacy messages.

"We as civil society are the ears, eyes and voice of peoples around the world and that's why we're here at this COP."

German climate activist, Luisa Neubauer, participates in a protest demanding that Germany does more to phase out fossil fuels, at the German pavilion at COP28, on the sidelines of the World Leaders Summit in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, December 2, 2023
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People walk outside the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP28) in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, December 3, 2023. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Jack Graham
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The COP28 conference site is designated as U.N. territory, and it is subject to U.N. rules, not those of the host country.

U.N. Climate Change said in a statement it was "committed to upholding the rights of all participants, to ensure that everyone's perspectives are heard and their contributions to the climate challenge are recognised".

It added that inside the "Blue Zone" - the area of the conference where the negotiations take place - "space is available for participants to assemble peacefully and make their voices heard on climate-related issues".

That is done in line with longstanding U.N. guidelines and "adherence to international human rights norms and principles," the statement said.

Essop and Rehman said activists had not had their protest messages on climate change issues - such as calls to end fossil fuel use - vetoed by the U.N. climate secretariat.

A climate march and rally planned for Saturday afternoon inside the Blue Zone would proceed as planned, they added.

But, they said, the largest zone for daily civil society demonstrations at the talks had been replaced by a water fountain, and lunchtime protest time slots had been cancelled by the U.N., citing concerns over heat.

"Our experience in this COP, in this Blue Zone, has been way more difficult and restrictive than any other time," said Essop.

Activists 'not welcomed'

Katharina Rall, a researcher with Human Rights Watch, said her team had spent a week negotiating a demonstration in support of environmental rights defenders, which will likely now happen.

But such efforts were soaking up time that would otherwise be spent on advocacy, she said.

"This is concerning for the outcome of the (COP28) conference, and it is concerning beyond that because it means we keep climate activists having to fight for their rights instead of really being able to do the work they need to do," she said.

Activists hold placards and shout slogans during a protest, at the United Nations Climate Change Conference COP28 in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, December 6, 2023

Activists hold placards and shout slogans during a protest, at the United Nations Climate Change Conference COP28 in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, December 6, 2023. REUTERS/Thaier Al-Sudani

Activists hold placards and shout slogans during a protest, at the United Nations Climate Change Conference COP28 in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, December 6, 2023. REUTERS/Thaier Al-Sudani

German youth activist Luisa Neubauer told Context the conference areas where protests are permitted were too far away from the main political negotiations, too small and subject to time restrictions, while U.N. security staff had not allowed young people to sit on the floor during meetings.

"This is not a place where we feel welcomed as activists," she said. "This is the story of this COP."

Rall, from Human Rights Watch, said it had not been possible to hold civil society marches and demonstrations outside the COP28 venue as is customary during the annual summit, because the UAE does not permit protests.

U.N. Climate Change said it had received 167 submissions for climate actions at COP28, surpassing the number last year.

As of the first week of COP28, 88 of those actions had been successfully executed, or an average of 14 per day, with seven cancelled by the organisers, five identified as duplicates, and the rest to be processed for future dates, it said.

In a small number of cases, the secretariat is working with those requesting actions "to ensure that the code of conduct can be adhered to", it added.

Sebastien Duyck, senior attorney with the Center for International Environmental Law, said freedom of assembly and freedom of speech had been compromised at COP28.

"This is having a terrible impact on all of the civil society delegates here, because it leaves (them) second-guessing what they can say without getting in trouble, constantly trying to ... understand how far to go," he told media on Friday.

He and others said they were concerned the fraught situation would set a precedent for COP climate conferences to come.

"We call on the United Nations to really reconsider these approaches," he added.

(Reporting by Megan Rowling; editing by Jon Hemming)


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Updated: December 16, 2023


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