COP21: A Voluntary Failure

unacto1The following post was written by Hala Aurangzeb, one of our new UNAC-Vancouver board members. This contribution does not necessarily reflect the views of all UNA Vancouver membership.  

Thousands of activists have taken to the streets of Paris, despite the state-of-emergency ban on public gatherings. Their disobedience is meant to stand for deepening concerns over the, now decades long, failure of global leadership to seriously address climate change.

But in the past few days, against the backdrop of teargas and arrests, the discourse among the human-chain of protesters has ricocheted from the regular environmental topics to include the slippery association of “fundamentalism” with civil disobedience. So what’s the common denominator between global security fears and climate change?

Paris-flower protect
Screenshot captured from Democracy Now! Protesters in Paris protect the memorial site from riot police.

To address this question, one needs to peel back the ascriptions that supposedly divide up the issues surrounding Paris, and see the continuities that muddy up the whole situation– of the refugees, the attacks, the climate, and this sham of a climate address.

In fact, there is something eerily familiar about demonstrators for climate action being met by riot police while the big boys convene for lunch. Let’s turn back to March 2011, when the Arab spring persisted in the form of thousands gathered in Damascus, against the Bashar al-Assad government.


Photo captured from

At that time, the country had been emerging from half a decade of drought—one of the worst in its modern history. The drought, which has been associated with number of factors, including an unsustainable irrigation system, dwindling rainfall patterns, and the general mal-effects of global greenhouse emissions, resulted in increased soil aridity which caused multiple crop failures. By 2011, 60% of the land had “turned yellow” and over 800, 000 farmers’ livelihoods was wiped out, driving them into the cities. Speaking to inevitability, the New York Times’ columnist Thomas Friedman’s wrote that the Syrian case of “young people and farmers starved for jobs — and land starved for water,” was, “a prescription for revolution.”


Subsequently, as the civil war amassed a number of other powerful actors—from the US, to Russia, Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and ISIS— reports from NASA showed that between 2003-2009, the Tigris-Euphrates Basin had lost 117 acre-feet of stored freshwater. With the continued conflict on either sides of the Basin, mismanagement of water escalated, coalescing into a key component in the multi-front war between ideological, and geopolitical stakeholders.

And the tale of water continued, as the war raged on. In a press release earlier this year, UNICEF reported the troubling trend of strategic water management by guerrilla factions “to achieve military and political gains,” against the civilian population. In the town of Aleppo, where deliberate water cuts forced families to send their children out in search of water, many did not make it back home.

Climate Summit-Water

Yet, despite the repeated cameos of water in this tale, a polemical debate has flourished about the advent of climate change as a principle factor in the Syrian crisis. The proponents of the idea, highlighted above, claim that the correlation is clear between the water crisis in the rural areas and the rise in protests in Damascus. But others have contended that the rainfall statistics in Aleppo do not prove that a drought, technically, even occurred. Yet in this seemingly inane quibble over “the facts” there is something to be gained from the perspective that “climate change,” when contextualized by the travesties of war and displacement, might not be an adequate shorthand for the political-economic catastrophes which we try to describe it by.


In Syria, while the displacement of large numbers of farmers came about from an apparent shortage of water, the shrinking aquifers following the fall of the Iraqi state, and inter-governmental discussions on the shared use of water, the people did not resort to divine anguish or surrender. During the riots, Syrians placed the blame of water shortage on the mismanagement of state actors. As one expert put it, “water doesn’t know political boundaries.” But in the Fertile Crescent, where the river systems supply water to Turkey, Iraq, Syria, and southern Iran,  political failure to manage water in any one state can directly impact neighboring countries’ access.

Thus, following the water wars which ensued in Iraq, Turkey’s retention policies which “hoarded” water, and the combined decisions of the Assad regime (i.e., aggressive irrigation techniques, hike in oil prices; liberalization of publicly owned and subsidized industries, and de-regulation of the agricultural sector for large scale investors) expended water networks beyond capacity. 

So while climate change proponents of the political left have seen the Syrian crisis as an opportunity to evince the dangers of climate change, the system of economic and political rationales which preclude and perpetuate climate change are pushed to the side. In fact, as Friedman, and Rebecca Solnit have pointed out, the latent the dangers of market liberalization on social welfare, combined with the market-driven exacerbation of climate change pave the way to a highly unstable state of governance– in Syria and elsewhere. As Solnit points out:

“Climate change will increase hunger as food prices rise and food production falters, but we already have widespread hunger on Earth, and much of it is due not to the failures of nature and farmers, but to systems of distribution.”

In the Syrian example, while we can debate about the exact aridity of the soil due to drought, it was fiscal policies and de-regulation of the agricultural sector which unleashed the full consequences of water shortage on a population bereft of a social safety net.

To give credence to history, one can only look back on past droughts in the span of modern history, to see similarities. In a captivating historical account, Mike Davis wrote of the environmental upheavals of the late Victorian era when droughts in India alone resulted in millions of deaths. The first-hand accounts which he lines together, reflect a nightmare-ish scene, where such phrases as “eye-for-an-eye” fail the test of allegory. Davis writes:

Millions died, not outside the ‘modern world system’, but in the very process of being forcibly incorporated into its economic and political structures. They died in the golden age of Liberal Capitalism; indeed, many were murdered … by the theological application of the sacred principles of Smith, Bentham and Mill. [1]

Only, in the contemporary context, the principles of exponential resource exploitation have already hit a ceiling, resulting in a climate crisis.  As mentioned by an attendee at Paris, Chee Yoke Ling, “a very important principle,” which has been ignored by the Summit, “is historical responsibility. Because the global warming we see today is the result of accumulated greenhouse gases.”

And yet, the resulting document from the COP21 was steered by such major carbon emitters as the US, who framed the stipulations under “voluntary” action. In other words, there is no binding authority which commits any state to reducing emissions. Un-coincidentally, the COP was also sponsored by such major transnational corporations as  Renault, L’Oreal and Engie.

In a piece for the Guardian historian and activist Rebecca Solnit addressed this subversion of the message of climate action. “Climate change is violence,” she states, and more importantly, “climate change is anthropogenic.” And in this equation she directly implicates “carbon barons,” whom she says get a pass on their violence because of their position in the economic system. “If you’re tremendously wealthy, you can practice industrial-scale violence without any manual labor on your own part.” Within the rubric of “cost and benefit” the immorality of violence has been diminished, she claims. So much so, that now “the message is that ordinary people will behave badly in an era of intensified climate change.”

And this principle seems important not only for its historical perpetuation, but also for its continuation in the way that global governance is bracketed within the existent rubrics of capitalism. Activists like Ruth Nyambura have complained that the text which is emerging from the summit “proposes [the same] market solutions that brought about the climate crisis.” And yet, from the strong appearance, and outrage of the activists gathered in Paris, it is apparent that this realization comes as somewhat of a shock.

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This may, at least partly, be due to the accelerated levels of state violence around the COP. Protestors at the Summit, who spoke out against corporate crimes against the earth have been forcibly escorted (shoved, grappled and carried) away from the public. Indigenous communities, regardless of localized “advances” in their land and sovereignty claims have been barred from the negotiation table entirely. Environmental activist continue to be held under house arrest, under the state’s an anti-terror procedures. And, while such legally implicated, and Human Rights Watch suspects as Narendra Modi enter the fray with a political voice, others like José Bové (who staged this amazing three-part protest against the import of GMO beef, McDonalds Inc., and sanctions against small businesses by the US Agricultural lobby) are constrained in their mobility, and criminalized.

And, against the backdrop of teargas and arrests, the plebes have been talking: the appalling failures of this COP have clarified where global power structures stand vis-a-vis the general public.

Things are worse than ever– with attendees like India’s Prime Minister Modi, whose speech belied his government’s goal to double coal production; and leaders of the so-called developed world, who have subverted the entire purpose of the summit, by bracketing all commitments to targets that limit global warming under “voluntary,” while their countries’continue to profit from the precursors of climate change at an unmatched rate.

This, despite smog levels in Beijing reaching 35 times greater than WHO safety levels, the first wave of climate refugees fleeing from the Marshall Islands, and the unprecedented flooding in Chennai.
Paris-flower trample

Screenshot from Democracy Now footage. Riot police trample on memorial site for victims of November shootings.

The strange consanguinity between escalating securitization measures, couched within “counter-terrorism” legislation, the decreasing rights of citizens to protests, and the increasing rights of corporate “persons” has certainly stood out sharply against the timing and circumstance of the Summit. The topic of Climate Change which had so recently been a non-topic, has only become a matter of action within the rubric of existent state and corporate actors.

Instead, climate action is considered in terms of its threat to states’ sovereignty , rather than scarcity. (For some perspective, see  US Department of Defense contingency “road map” regarding climate change as a “threat multiplier”.)

In this equation, to silence the citizenry is clearly more than just “precaution.” It stands out as an affront to democracy, and speaks volumes to the existent world leaderships’ partiality to the same corporate and financial networks which have blocked environmental consciousness, and the rights of citizens to speak.

So, in the wake of these serial failures by global leadership to ensure the safety and longevity of global persons over the security of global economic expansion, we have to ask ourselves: who should we really be fearing the most?


[1] Davis, Mike. The Late Victorian Holocausts. UK: Verso Books. 2000. P.9.















Dr. Hani Faris discusses Syria at UNAC-Vancouver AGM

unacto1The United Nations Association of Canada’s Vancouver branch was most pleased to welcome Dr. Hani Faris to be our keynote speaker at our Annual General Meeting last week. Dr. Hani Faris, an Adjunct Professor in the Faculty of Political Science at UBC, spoke on the topic of Syria and gave a cogent analysis discussing both historical aspects and the current civil war.

Dr. Faris began his speech by paying heed to the long history of Syria, noting that Damascus is the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world.   He also mentioned the highly complex nature of modern Syrian society and dissuaded the audience from focusing on stereotypes.

Screen Shot 2014-04-11 at 7.53.45 PMIn specific reference to the civil war, Dr. Faris discussed the role played by the Arab uprisings, but also made an important juxtaposition with power politics and strategic interests of world powers in the region. Original calls within Syria for civil democratic change were radicalized as arms poured into the country. UN efforts to come up with a solution have been consistently hampered by power politics: the Geneva Protocol of June 2012 was rejected at the UN Security Council, and Kofi Annan resigned his position as UN emissary to Syria in protest against further militarization of the conflict. Negotiations continue, but remain on shaky ground.

In conclusion, Dr. Faris encouraged the audience to focus on the human cost of this situation. On the day of his speech, news outlets were reporting that Lebanon had welcomed its 1 millionth Syrian refugee. Refugees have also been pouring into other neighbouring countries and there are estimates of 4-6 million internally displaced people still within Syria.  Until both sides decide that a military solution is not the response, peace remains elusive.

In the meantime, it is falls to the UN and non-governmental organizations to ease the suffering of people on the ground.   And it is up to us to maintain pressure on our governments to support work towards a peaceful solution.

Screen Shot 2014-04-11 at 7.53.02 PMThe evening wrapped up as Dr Faris took audience questions and then met with UNAC members, students from Farleigh Dickinson University and other guests.


Photo: UNAC-Vancouver Vice-President George Somerwill hosted the Q & A portion of the evening with Dr. Hani Faris.

Special thanks to Farleigh Dickinson University for hosting the UNAC-Vancouver’s Annual General Meeting.

Join us for our Annual General Meeting: Thursday April 3

unacto1The Vancouver Branch of the

United Nations Association in Canada presents:

Dr. Hani Faris on Syria

Where? Fairleigh Dickinson University 842 Cambie St., Vancouver

When? Thursday April 3, 2014

7:00 p.m. Annual General Meeting, Reports and Election of Officers
7:15  p.m. Speech followed by Question and Answers Dr. Hani Faris

Screen Shot 2014-03-22 at 4.25.49 PMAbout Dr. Hani Faris

Dr. Hani Faris is the President of Trans-Arab Research Institute, a non- profit educational organization. He is an Adjunct Professor in the Faculty of Political Science, UBC. He has held academic positions in Kuwait, several universities in USA, and Canada. He has authored many books and academic articles on Middle East. He served as advisor to Canadian Institute for International Peace and Security.

UNAC-Vancouver 2014 flyer: 2014 UNAC-Vancouver AGM Flyer v2

A Turbulent Week at the UN

Human Rights Committee Report on the Vatican

This week two UN reports appeared high in the headlines. They dealt specifically with the plight of children. Neither offered any good news, but it is essential that these issues are kept in the mainstream so action to prevent them can be top of the agenda. The first report[1] followed an investigation into the Catholic Church’s handling of Child sex abuse. The report was damning and has elicited a strong rebuke from the Vatican. The UN panel accused the Vatican of “not acknowledging the extent of the crimes committed”, nor have they, in the panel’s view, “taken the necessary measures to address cases of child sexual abuse and to protect children.” The panel reiterated a charge against the Vatican, which has been made numerous times before, that it has for decades put its own reputation and interests above those of children who have suffered while under the church’s care.  Pope Francis was the only member of the Vatican leadership who garnered any sort of positive feedback from the panel who described him as “progressive”. The Vatican responded to the report, the first in 14 years, claiming it had been “unfair” and had “distorted” the facts by failing to include the child protection measures that had been implemented by the Holy See.

 Secretary-General Report on Children and Armed Conflict in Syria

The second report[2] was based on UN investigations into the treatment of Syrian children during the country’s three year old civil war. It found that children in Syria are not safe from combatants on either side of the conflict. The report estimated that at least 10,000 children have been killed and “grave violations…had been carried out by all parties to the conflict”. Widespread reports of torture, sexual abuse, incarceration in government institutions and recruitment of child soldiers by the opposition, paint a starkly grim picture of the day to day lives of the most vulnerable in Syria.

UN Mission in South Sudan

In an effort to provide some grains of positivity from this update of the week at the United Nations, I came across some positive news (hidden amongst the awful news) from South Sudan. Under-Secretary-General for Peacekeeping Operations Herve Ladsous commended as a huge success the UN’s decision to allow 85,000 civilians onto 10 peacekeeping bases around the country, to shelter them from vicious fighting. Ladsous commented that had the action not been taken, “it would have been many thousands or tens of thousands of civilians who would have been killed. I think it shows a great example of what we do.”[3] The UNMISS focuses on three pillars, the protection of civilians, human rights and the creation of an environment in which the humanitarian actors can do their work.

Situation still anarchic in CAR

Since my last post on the Central African Republic, the Muslim Seleka Rebels have disbanded after the coup leader Michel Djotodia, stood down under strong international pressure. He was replaced by Interim President Catherine Samba-Panza. Sectarian fighting between the ‘former’ Muslim Seleka Rebels and the majority Christian militia anti-Balaka has worsened despite the presence of nearly 7,000 African Union and French troops. Reports coming from Human Rights Watch today, detail the instability of the situation. A man, accused of being a former Seleka member, was lynched by members of the CAR armed forces. The callous murder was made all the more ominous as it took place moments after the Interim President’s motorcade had left the area having re-introduced the army as the stabilizing force in the country[4]. The Central African Republic Armed Forces (FACA) faded into the background following the coup last March. It was hoped that its re-emergence today backed by Interim President Samba-Panza, would bring some level of stability. This incident casts huge doubt over that plan.

Post by UNAC-Vancouver website writer Barry Hynes.