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Activists say their voices are stifled by increasing rules and restrictions at COP28 climate talks

This year’s United Nations climate talks may have seen record numbers registered to attend, but activists who have spent years demonstrating at the annual event say their space to voice their demands is shrinking year on year. is really happening,” she said. (APVideo/Lujain Jo)

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DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (鶹ýapp) — This year’s United Nations climate talks may have seen record numbers registered to attend, but activists who have spent years demonstrating at the annual event say their space to voice their demands is shrinking year on year.

Held in Dubai in the United Arab Emirates — where broad laws tightly restrict speech — climate activists have been protesting at COP28’s Blue Zone, which is considered international territory. Demonstrators say there have always been strict regulations for protests at COPs, but they say actions this year have been further limited in terms of the number of people allowed to participate and which climate issues they’re allowed to address on any given day. It’s a stark contrast, activists say, to the growing presence of the fossil fuel industry, where those linked to the industry number around 1,400, according to an Associated Press analysis.

“There’s always been a lot of restriction on civic space inside of COPs, but we are really seeing a trend of it increasing,” said Lise Masson, of Friends of the Earth International. “We have to say how loud we’re going to be, what’s going to be written on the banners. We’re not allowed to name countries and corporations. So it’s really a very sanitized space.”

The U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, who is in charge of climate summits, said in a statement that “space is available for participants to assemble peacefully and make their voices heard on climate-related issues” and their regulations are “in line with longstanding United Nations Climate Change guidelines and adherence to international human rights norms and principles, within the Blue Zone.”

Masson stressed that even that though tight country laws meant that protests were limited this year, is also a problem activists have come across in Western countries, such as COP26 in Glasgow in 2021.

“We also can’t fall into the narrative of global north countries who are coming here, walking the halls of the conference center, saying, ‘look how restricted civil society is here.’” she said. “In the global north as well, we’re seeing a massive crackdown on civic space in the global north, in Europe, in the U.S. ... Glasgow was the most inaccessible COP we’ve ever seen because of the violence of borders” like visa restrictions, as well as restrictions on civic space, she said.

COP28 organizers had pledged to make the conference inclusive. A statement from organizers reiterated their goal to have “an inclusive COP” and said it has “dedicated spaces and platforms for all voices to be heard across both the Blue and Green Zone.”

“We continue to welcome applications to the COP28 Voice for Action Hub, where people are already assembling peacefully around a variety of topics. Applications in the Blue Zone are reviewed exclusively by UNFCCC under the longstanding guidelines determined by them,” the statement said.

But Mitzi Jonelle Tan, a climate activist from the Philippines who’s also attend COPs in Sharm el-Sheikh in Egypt last year and in Glasgow, questioned whether that inclusivity extended to activists.

“When we talk about inclusivity, the question is who are we including? And it’s definitely we’re seeing more corporations, more fossil fuel lobbyists and more of the fossil fuel industry,” Tan said.

COP28 President Sultan al-Jaber, who’s also the head of the Abu Dhabi National Oil Co., previously said it’s important for the oil and gas industry to have a seat at the table when discussing how to slash emissions from their industries. The CEOs of oil and gas majors like TotalEnergies and Exxon attended the talks.

Some of the rules in place have meant that some activists have had minor run-ins with security staff and organizers.

Earlier this week, an animal rights activist wearing a lion costume was ushered aside by security personnel, although not part of a protest. Protests are not allowed in the middle of the day because of the heat, but activists say that’s when the lunch crowd is out and paying attention to what demonstrators have to say.

Some action areas have been shut off in recent days, which organizers say is for maintenance reasons, according to activists. The UNFCCC did not address questions sent by APon specific claims made by activists.

But Tan asked: “Why did it just so happened to be the best spot to put actual pressure on the world leaders?”

U.N. rules also say flags of nations are not allowed — Masson said this is so criticism is not targeted at any one country — but regulations extend to support of countries as well.

“When we want to fly the Palestinian flag here, it’s in solidarity. It’s upholding, honoring that flag. And we’re still not being allowed,” Masson said. Activists replaced the flag with images of a watermelon — a symbol of Palestinian resistance that bears the same colors.

Permits to protest have to be applied for in advance, “and if you don’t get the permits, you can get de-badged, you can get kicked out,” if you still choose to go ahead, Tan said.

“Sometimes it’s not even that they’re not approving it, it’s just that there’s a lot of things and if they’re getting a lot of requests, they’re not able to get back to you in time for your scheduled protest,” Tan said. She had previously applied for a permit for a protest with Filipinas on land defenders and Indigenous rights, but didn’t get the permits on time.

Vanessa Nakate, a climate activist from Uganda, said there are hurdles for many — especially those in the global south — to even get to the talks.

“For me, it has been a bit easier, maybe because of the visibility I have and the number of people I’m able to reach. But that has not been the same for my colleagues,” Nakate said.

But she urged that activists should persist despite the growing red tape around attending and demonstrating at the summits.

“As much as it’s challenging, we need to be in this space to let the world know what is really happening,” she said.

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Sibi reports on climate change from India and South Asia