Monday, November 29, 2010

Access, Security, and Democracy

It is hard to imagine that the experience of the Copenhagen conference last year wasn't part of the reason why relatively inaccessible locations were chosen for this conference. While the Bella Center in Copenhagen was not downtown, the mass transit system is so efficient and interconnected in Denmark that security was constantly a concern for the Danish organizers and the UN. Marches in the streets were common and at one point, a group of self-described anarchists lay siege to the Bella Center and tried to break down the barricades. I would be surprised if there were marches in the streets of Cancun.

It has been nearly twenty years since I spend significant time in Mexico and even back then, it was not unusual to see police sitting in the backs of pickup trucks bristling with heavy arms. The checkpoints on the road and military presence surrounding the conference center is a whole other level of deterrent. Instead of the pedestrian-friendly mass transit culture of Scandanavia this years conference has been literally relocated to a gated resort community designed to limit access and keep people out. To protect those inside from whatever dangers and distractions, real or imagined, prowl beyond the walls.

Mexico itself has been having some unique security problems of their own lately, but I doubt that narco-gangs are the real reason behind these elaborate security measures. Which begs the question, who are they trying to keep out and what threats do they really pose?

For a conference organizer, protest marches or organized displays are surely a headache and pain in the tookus but they rarely escalate into anything resembling a riot or violent outburst. Even the anarchists causing so much trouble last year were less invested in the issue of climate change or mitigation than they were in simply disrupting a large scale event drawing tens of thousands of people and media outlets from around the world.

One possibility is that the gated community is less designed to keep out those that don't belong than it is to keep civil society at arms length. The fact that the negotiations/deliberations themselves are being held at a separate venue which is more restricted and difficult to get to than the main location of the conference effectively means that there will be less representation possible from members of civil society: non-governmental organizations, intergovernmental organizations, youth organizations, business and industry, researchers and the media. This follows the Copenhagen talks when the last week of the conference was marked by ever shrinking access to the Bella Center by members of civil society.

The United Nations was constructed as an open, democratic organization where voting members are nations but non-voting members (civil society) always have a seat at the table. It is this same ideal that lies at the heart of the brand of democracy people in the U.S. pride themselves in. In fact, one of the reasons why agreements are so incredibly difficult to reach in the United Nations is that it operates on the principle of consensus. Any voting party has the ability to delay or say no (which is an issue I'll take up in a later post).

I don't think the illustration of the U.S. and the UN are completely separate for as we have seen, the impulse to restrict access for expediency is a fundamental challenge to democratic principles whatever the institution. Making access to any meeting, conference, or debate a logistical puzzle has the effect of winnowing out those with the least resources to jump those logistical barriers. It is disingenuous to pretend otherwise. So just how democratic are our democratic institutions?

One of the most cited reasons for restricting access to (fill in the blank) is always the fear of insecurity - the threat from the outside. Whatever is prowling beyond the walls of our gated communities that has unkind intentions towards us, our families and our institutions. But to what extent do we allow security threats, real or imagined, to violate the principles and ideals that give governing institutions their authority?

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.