We live in a digital age where our lives are surrounded by iPhones and smartphones, and my life is no exception. Notifications flash on my iPhone screen quite often, most of them carrying breaking news from around the globe. Though most of them hardly catches the eye, the one that did came from Nairobi, Kenya. On April 30, the Kenyan government decided to set fire to a huge stockpile of ivory amounting to about £70 million! This set me pondering about the scale and the magnitude of the illegal trade. Having already said ‘huge’ stockpile, this actually isn’t. Keeping the estimates in mind that rampant poaching has led to over 100,000 elephant deaths between 2010-2012, the stockpile accounts for only a puny fraction. It contained only 105 tonnes of ivory from over 7,000 elephants, and 1.35 tonnes of rhino horn – which is still a huge number!
To offer a better perspective, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) says that as many as three rhinos are killed everyday, the Western Black Rhino has gone extinct, pangolins have been the most trafficked mammal in the world and this is only as far as Africa is concerned. Going far north, the penguins and the polar bears are dwindling in their numbers. Not due to poaching but loss of their habitat – melting of Arctic ice caused by the alarming rise in temperatures worldwide. Coming down to Asia and the Indian sub-continent, the picture is not any brighter. The illegal trade of tiger and leopard skins has not stopped but has given birth to full-fledged international rackets spanning from Hong Kong, China, India to even some European countries.
On 5 June 2016 the world is celebrating World Environment Day for another year. With this year’s theme being “Go Wild for Life”, the UNEP attempts to draw the attention of the world’s people about the shocking consequences of the massive extent of poaching that the governments of the nation-states have failed by and large to check its rise and bring it to a grinding halt. Keeping in tandem with the theme, the host nation Angola has already committed to end the illegal crime of trade in wildlife products, pledged to tighten border controls, and promised to fulfil its commitments under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). This is not including the social media campaign that will be run by the UNEP and efforts to encourage school children to take part in the event, like every other year.
Poaching is a serious issue which calls for much tighter laws to tackle the problem. Personally speaking, this outrages me and as a student of International Relations, I can realise the magnitude of challenges that governments face today. However, it is worth considering before World Environment Day, what needs to be done by the institutions of government, bureaucracy and international organisations, going beyond the immediate aim of addressing the problem of poaching. The question that lies ahead is, is all that has been done so far enough?
Of course not! While the initiatives taken by the United Nations in partnership with the world leaders and celebrities is definitely commendable, what can be observed is that unfortunately, what has been done so far has been cosmetic, symbolic and without any long-lasting effect. Here are a few glimpses which reflect that. In the year 2014-15, the total income for the UNEP was USD 785.7 million. Out of that amount, the amount contributed by the UN Budget was USD 38.6 million, making it the lowest contributor. To put the 38.6 million amount in perspective, the United General Assembly approved a staggering USD 5.5 billion for the 2014-15 UN budget! This means it apportioned an appalling 0.7% of the funds towards its main agency dedicated towards protecting the environment.
The United Nations Security Council (UNSC), which is legally responsible for maintaining international peace and security, has only started participating in this issue from 2007 by organising a Debate on Climate, Peace and Security. Last year, the UNSC held an open Arria-formula meeting ‘on the role of the climate change as a threat multiplier for global security’. (Arria formula meetings “are very informal, confidential gatherings which enable …. frank and private exchange of views.. which do not constitute an activity of the Council”, meaning that they lack the legal capabilities and seriousness of the normal proceedings of the Council). Albeit, the initiation of action by the UNSC might seem promising to the layman’s eye, but to me it does not. It is undeniable that debate and dialogue is the best possible alternative but the debate has to have a problem-solving bent and not just sticking to status quo! Debates getting lost in the diplomatic and political cul-de-sac will be a waste of resources. In the 2007 debate, the P5 and other influential nations debated that the problem of climate change and environmental degradation is not a matter suitable for discussion in the Security Council as it must be addressed by all, making the General Assembly more suitable for it. To expose the irony, it is not that the General Assembly is completely independent from the Security Council and fully democratic. The power of the big powers is present in subtle ways. The draft budget of the Assembly i.e. the UN Budget reaches the Assembly only after it has been passed by the Advisory Committee on Administrative and Budgetary Questions, in which the US always remains a member. Thus, in practice, the US is eligible to veto the draft budget even before it reaches the Assembly.
Seeing it from a theoretical perspective and having studied the module International Organisations IR2085 this year, it gets easier to be able to spot an interesting paradox. The main powers which were vested in the five most important nations after the Second World War to make the UN a stronger and meaningful organisation, are now being used by them to evade responsibility in taking the initiative to start immediate action. Moreover, actions by the US to launch a complaint to the World Trade Organisation against India and France’s International Solar Alliance, arguing that it created unfair barriers to the import of US-made solar panels, is not very encouraging and appropriate at the present. What emerges is that, it is time for the UNSC and its members (especially permanent members) to expand its paradigm of security to environmental issues that will have a legal reach.
A revamp of the Security Council in making it suitable to tackle the 21st century non-conventional problems is much needed for but for the time being, it seems a far-fetched dream. As far as environmental degradation and climate change is concerned, the world leaders need to keep in mind that it is absolutely real! The moment the consequences of climate change become more prominent, the already existing problems would blow out of proportion. To name a few, the already massive refugee issue would multiply by many-folds – which is likely to create an acute scarcity of drinking water, food and shelter. Not only the P5 members of the UNSC – USA, China, Russia, France and UK, but also developing and highly polluting nations like Brazil, India and South Africa, need to come to a consensus with binding commitments in fixing a target. The 55 parties producing over 55% of the world’s greenhouse gas are yet to ratify the Paris Agreement negotiated at the UN Climate Change Conference in Paris.
Drawing from this year’s theme, “Go Wild for Life”, this can be interpreted extensively. Not only for stopping the illegal trade of killing precious flora and fauna in our environment, but it can also be interpreted in the sense that the world governments with the help of the international organisations must go ‘wild’ in their actions in saving the lives of all of us inhabiting planet earth. The wildness would be in the urgency of the actions taken by the international community. If the powerful nations take this matter seriously, only then will progress be made and others follow suit. Show-off bureaucratic gestures like planting a tree or organising a rally, would be in vain unless followed up by some real action. Taking the neorealist concept of the ‘zero-sum’ game, the powerful nations must convince themselves that initiating real action against the perils of environmental degradation would not put any one of them on the back-foot. Instead, they would be competing against each other, only from a better-off position. Even if a nation sees itself a loser in the deals, steps to improve the environment must be taken. Otherwise, it would be even worse for all. However, as a student and a citizen of a nation, I realise that only analysing the situation at the governmental and organisational level will be incomplete. Governments and organisations must take the leap to act, but it is all up to us, the people, to carry our social responsibility in caring for the environment. This World Environment Day, let us remind ourselves that humanity faces a trade-off between development and sustainability. The choice is ours!
Budhaditya is studying the BSc International Relations by distance learning in Kolkata, India.
Hurd, Ian: International Organizations: Politics, Law, Practice. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).