• Participation and activism are fundamental tools for climate justice.
  •  Those who defend the environment continue to be subject to discrimination and violence.
  •  COPs need improvement regarding inclusiveness and participation.

COP28 is the climate conference with the highest number of participants, almost 100 thousand in total. Among them, there are also activists from all over the world who are fighting to fight climate change under the cry of ‘climate justice‘.

These activists, of any age, gender, background and origin, play a very important role during negotiations as they raise fundamental and often controversial issues in order to influence the orientations and decisions of States.

For this reason, discussions on the creation and accessibility of civic space, grassroots participation or the treatment reserved for so-called “environmental defenders” find ample space in the COP28 side events. We at ICN have followed many of them – we even organized one! -, and in this article we summarize the most important considerations, together with a reflection on inclusiveness at COP28.

Participation in decision-making processes and expression of dissent

From the point of view of international law, the theme of participation is enshrined in particular in the Aarhus Convention and in the recent Escazù Agreement.

Both deal with protecting access to information, public participation and access to justice in decision-making processes on environmental matters. In particular, they indicate the standards of transparency and responsibility necessary to establish a democratic and public decision-making process, which involves every interested party in every environmental decision, from the construction of a dam to that of an incinerator.

Furthermore, they establish the protection of so-called environmental defenders, often subject to criminalization and attack by government authorities or big corporations. This is a topic that is raising great concern, so much so that it has given rise to the appointment of Michel Forst as Special Rapporteur of the United Nations, with the task of reporting on the situation of those who defend the environment and human rights pursuant to the Aarhus Convention.

Michel Forst spoke at many side events to show his commitment as Special Rapporteur, provide his support to the activists present at COP28 and denounce the abuses found in his investigative activity. In particular, at the side event “No climate justice without human rights: civic space for a fossil-free future” he was particularly concerned about the situation of activists in Europe, which he defined as a “crackdown of environmental activism in Europe” (a harsh repression of environmental activism in Europe).

How are things going at COP28?

For what concerns participation in climate COPs, the situation is a little different. First of all, it is important to remember that the negotiations of the UNFCCC (the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change) follow specific procedural rules, which allow bodies and organizations – governmental and non-governmental, national or international – to participate as formal observers unless there is opposition from at least one third of the Parties present. This mechanism allows NGOs such as the Italian Climate Network and many activists to enter the COP, attend the negotiations and exert pressure, lobbying or advocacy on the countries’ delegates there.

However, in practice there is no shortage of problems in accessing the negotiation rooms.

In fact, these procedural rules are provisional in nature and have never been made official by the Parties, leaving ample room for discretion for their application. Furthermore, these rules apply within the boundaries of the COP venue: outside of them the activists’ action is regulated by the authorities of the host country. This is an important consideration to make, especially for COP28. The United Arab Emirates is certainly not known for its observance and protection of human rights, democracy and political dissent.

These issues have made civil society very cautious in their actions at COP28. This can also be seen from their location, with the actions – which must receive explicit approval from the UNFCCC – confined to the so-called Blue Zone, which is under the jurisdiction of the UNFCCC, and not in the Green Zone, under Emirati control. But even in venues, the public space for dissent is shrinking according to the difficulty encountered in organizing the openly pro-Palestinian march held on Sunday December 10th, a bad signal for civil society and its possibilities for action.


Then there are additional access barriers to consider. Decision-making processes within the United Nations should have a good level of inclusiveness and democracy. However, this is not always the case, or rather the margin for improvement still remains very large.

Numerous barriers continue to prevent the participation of observers in negotiations, and it is above all the weakest categories of actors, such as women, young people, indigenous communities and people with disabilities, who experience these obstacles the most.

The accreditation process for accessing negotiations is one of the main obstacles. It is still difficult to reach people from the most marginalized communities, and even more difficult to physically bring them to COP.

Reaching the cities where the Conferences are hosted is certainly not cheap, and in the absence of a sponsor many activists may find themselves forced to give up participating, a critical issue that we also raised last year at COP27 (in this article). 

Added to this are logistical difficulties and infrastructure problems. The spokespersons of the WGC (Women and Gender Constituency) have repeatedly underlined their difficulties in having formal observers with disabilities due to these structural barriers, present even in the United Nations venues, designed by and for able-bodied people. Language barriers also represent an obstacle for many activists and representatives with limited knowledge of English, who would be able to express themselves better in their native language.

Therefore, in order to achieve democratic decision-making, the UNFCCC must begin eliminating these barriers as soon as possible to ensure representativeness and inclusiveness. An inclusive COP is one that works with youth, women, indigenous communities and people with disabilities; who ensures that they are present, not only as observers, but that they are able to articulate their ideas and their voice in the negotiation process. It is also necessary that the criteria for assigning climate COPs are transparent in order to ensure inclusiveness and respect for human rights (the United Arab Emirates has signed the Host Country Agreement but we do not know that it has been made public) and the needs of observers, and to prevent future conferences from being organized in countries where human rights are not observed.

Erika Moranduzzo, Coordinator of the ‘Rights and Climate’ Section and Alice Rotiroti, Volunteer at the Italian Climate Network

Cover image: UNFCCC

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