Silence descends on venue for CITES' meeting

The triennial meeting of nations signatory to CITES (the UN International Convention on Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) has still not been rescheduled two full months after the Easter attacks in Sri Lanka forced its cancellation.

Why the delay? Why is the meeting being held hostage to safety considerations in Sri Lanka?  If terrorism is still a potential threat there, why not shift the meeting to the facilities in Geneva already well prepared to host UN agencies?

Worse, the secretary general of CITES has remained silent on the policy considerations involved in her decision. She has not shared with the thousands of delegates, observers and journalists who planned to attend the May 2019 meeting why her decision is taking so long.

The longer the delay, the less likely the meeting will attract all the people who should be there to make sound policy decisions for the animals and plants now in danger of extinction worldwide.

On May 17, 2019 the CITES secretary general Ivonne Higuero, a Panamanian environmental economist with a career spanning 26 years in the UN Development Agency said in a statement, “... We have been exploring possible options for holding [the CITES 18th Conference of the Parties – CoP18]. We expect the assessment at the end of May 2019”.

However, the end of May 2019 has come and gone with no announcement on why the deliberations on a new date or venue have proven ‘so difficult’.

While Higuero and the CITES secretariat thanked the parties, especially Sri Lanka, for their patience and understanding, the world is still in the dark about what is going on.

Meanwhile, many people are asking why the CITES secretariat seems to be holding on to the hope of holding CoP18 in Sri Lanka in the face of calls to move it from Sri Lanka because of possible continuing terrorist attacks.

A few weeks ago a US-based NGO, the Ivory Education Institute and a Switzerland-based NGO, the IWMC-World Conservation Trust, made written appeals to the chair of the CITES Standing Committee asking for an immediate decision on when and where the long-planned 18th Conference of the Parties will be held. 

“The Convention clearly gives the Standing Committee the responsibility to act on urgent matters,” said former CITES secretary general and president of the IWMC, Eugene Lapointe.

“The serious security issue still present in Sri Lanka is just such an emergency matter. The IWMC has suggested that the Standing Committee meet in urgent session in June 2019 to announce the new dates and site for CoP18.”

The call of the Ivory Education Institute and the IWMC to take the decision from the CITES Secretariat and place it where it legally belongs in the CITES Standing Committee has been ignored.

This week the Ivory Education Institute and the IWMC-World Conservation Trust have made a new and urgent appeal to the CITES secretariat to stop keeping the world in the dark. They have called for open communication and an immediate update on the new dates for the long-awaited triennial meeting.

“Absolutely unconscionable,” Harris said.  “Where is the CITES leadership? The UN spends big money for the Geneva-based CITES secretariat, but all we get from it is silence. The UN bureaucrats, who often act like the Chinese Mandarins of old in the organisational controls they exercise, got what they wanted in a compliant secretary general for CITES chosen from their own ranks. But wildlife conservation is not getting what it needs from that position — decisive leadership. The flora and fauna species can only survive when the world’s conservation specialists make important, practical and balanced decisions.” 

Additionally, Harris cites the current situation in Botswana as one of the countries in ~Southern Africa deserving of CITES leadership.

In a speech this week in the United States, President Mokgweetsi Masisi explained why his country was lifting its ban on hunting elephants. CITES had already granted Botswana permission to hunt ‘400 elephants’ from its seriously overcrowded preserves. But the CITES secretariat has remained silent in the face of the criticism levelled against Botswana by Western animal rights groups that remain adamantly opposed to hunting.

“Their threat to orchestrate a tourism boycott of Botswana is unfair,” Harris said. “How dare elite private Western groups threaten small African countries with economic devastation for carrying out approved UN policy to protect wildlife resources and human populations?”

In light of his concerns, Harris of the Ivory Education Institute has additionally written a letter of appeal to the United States Overseas Advisory Security Council saying, “As the Executive Director of the US-based Ivory Education Institute and a former US foreign service officer, I believe that the US has the responsibility to announce its official position on the issues surrounding the rescheduling of CoP18,” Harris said.

“I hope the Overseas Advisory Security Council will take up the issue and communicate to the Secretary of State and inform the media without delay. The guidance of the United States government is not only expected but is also vital in this situation.”

*About the Writer: Emmanuel Koro is Johannesburg-based international award-winning environmental journalist who has written extensively on environment and development issues in Africa.

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