International relations, Arts, culture & society | The Pacific

9 March 2021

Pacific women have been extremely important in international climate change negotiations, yet significant regional barriers can prevent them from assuming the most senior, high-profile positions, George Carter and Elise Howard write.

The under-representation of women in climate negotiations is well-established. When the global multilateral body on climate change, the Conferences of Parties (COP) of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), first met in 1995, around 18 per cent of all delegates sent by parties to the convention were women.

While the number of total women state delegates gradually rose to 40 per cent by the 17th COP in 2013, some states still did not send women delegates.

Analysis of the representation of men and women among Pacific delegates at the most recent significant climate agreement – the COP21 Paris meeting in December 2015 – provides insights into how the region performed compared with others and some of the barriers to leadership Pacific women face.

Women accounted for only 35 per cent of national delegates in total in Paris. For delegates from the Western and Eastern Europe Group, this figure was around 45 per cent, whereas it was 21 per cent for the African countries. In contrast, the Pacific delegation of 345 accredited negotiators from 14 island states had close to equal representation of women and men.

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While this balance is important, it doesn’t provide a full picture of women’s representation in international climate fora.

Inside the complex world of climate negotiations there are three identifiable roles: technical negotiators, coalition coordinators, and heads of delegations.

Technical negotiators are state-accredited delegates who engage in back-room side negotiations, known as contact groups or spinoff meetings. These negotiators for Pacific countries were from diverse backgrounds, and the group included climate change project practitioners, ministry officials, scientists, international lawyers, activists, media personnel, private sector actors, church ministers, academics, and even students.

Almost 50 per cent of technical negotiators for the Pacific in Paris were women. Apart from Niue, all Pacific states had at least two women technical negotiators acting on behalf of their country.

One notable example was Ambassador Ngedikes Olai Uludong of Palau, who spearheaded the Pacific Small Islands Developing States (PSIDS) and Alliance of Small Island States’ (AOSIS) positions in the negotiations. Her extensive experience working in the Pacific and the European Union, as well as the corridors of the UN headquarters in New York, made her not only a source of technical knowledge but also of procedural strategy.

Rensie Panda fulfilled multiple roles, as a passionate negotiator for Papua New Guinea, AOSIS and the Coalition of Rainforest Nations (CfRN) coalition. Malia Talakai represented Nauru with her law and anthropology background, as well as her extensive research in the region on loss and damage, which made her a valuable resource to the PSIDS and AOSIS delegations.

Linda Siegal and Diane McFadzien were also present, bringing a wealth of technical and legal experience to the Cook Islands delegation. Although they may have worked for international organisations and resided outside of Cook Islands, they were instrumental in coordinating Pacific positions in the meetings and had led and trained many women negotiators from the Pacific in recent years.

This core group of technical negotiators not only condition global and international negotiations, but through their work in the Pacific region, greatly influence the climate change agenda.

While many women and men are involved in proceedings as technical negotiators, the most influential positions in pre-agreement meetings are coalition coordinators or lead negotiators. Inter-state coalitions are integral collectives and simplify the negotiation process at the United Nations level. This influential position, in effect, gives one or two individuals the ability to speak on behalf of not only their own country, but also a collective of states in the closed negotiations.

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During the Paris conference, negotiators from the Pacific were active in four key negotiation coalitions: AOSIS, Least Development Countries (LDC), CfRN and the G-77.

One important coalition coordinator was Anne Rasmussen of Samoa. She was a co-facilitator of a contact group for UNFCCC on reporting and communications, and a leader who took an active role in speaking on behalf of Samoa, AOSIS, and the PSIDS grouping on matters of adaptation and finance.

However, the most crucial agreement phase in Paris was the final week of negotiations, in which ministers of state and heads of delegations confirmed the final agreement. Lead negotiators may have access to this final stage, but this is usually limited to heads of delegations or government ministers.

At the 2015 Paris conference, there were no women from the Pacific attending as heads of delegations. In the final week of the conference, two male leaders – Prime Minister of Tuvalu Enele Sopoaga and Foreign Minister of Marshall Islands Tony de Brum – joined a small group of international leaders to finalise key aspects of the agreement.

At previous COP and intersessional meetings, women from the Pacific, especially ambassadors, acted in this role. However, the Paris meeting was one of the most well-attended summits by heads of government. In 2015, heads of government across the Pacific region were all men.

This record of how women participated in the 2015 negotiations, is important in understanding the barriers and opportunities that negotiators will face in the road to the Glascow 2021 negotiations. It is an important year globally and for the Pacific in climate change talks, as countries confirm their ambitious contributions to implement the Paris Agreement.

The lack of women’s representation among heads of Pacific delegations was more indicative of the significant barriers to women’s participation in national politics across the region, rather than women’s substantive contributions to climate change negotiation delegations.

Politics and negotiations are the key to how power works and decisions are made. As such, while tracking women’s representation is important, counting numbers of men and women is not enough. The positions women are able to hold, and the power those positions wield, is also significant.

As this account shows, Pacific women regularly display networked forms of leadership in international climate change negotiations. The tension is that this work takes place behind the scenes, and lacks the recognition and reward of the most senior leadership positions.

This piece is based on a journal article published in the November 2020 edition of the Small States & Territories Journal. Read the full article here.

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