Opinion: Can worthwhile conversations happen at COP27? 

COP27 begins next week and this year’s host is Egypt, an authoritarian country accused of human rights abuses. Journalist Georgie Hughes considers whether productive talks can take place when the host country has a history of persecuting critics and activists.  

In just over a week, delegates will be touching down in Egypt for one of the most important conferences of the year: COP27. The United Nations Climate Change Conference offers a space for nations to come together to attempt to answer the increasingly pertinent question of how we prevent climate catastrophe. But with the host nation accused of human rights abuses and said to be one of the most repressive regimes in the world it remains to be seen how effective the talks will be this year.  

Back in July a group of environmentalists sounded the alarm with a letter, detailing their concerns over the conference being held in a country where rights to freedom are repressed and vocal critics of the government are imprisoned. The group, including prominent figures, such as Naomi Klein, Caroline Lucas and Bill McKibben, believe COP27 will be used as an opportunity to ‘whitewash human rights abuses in the country.’  

person holding there is no planet b poster

‘We are alarmed at the Egyptian authorities’ unlawful restrictions on the rights to freedom of the press, of expression, association, and peaceful assembly, the severe constraints they have imposed on civil society, as well as their repression of peaceful political opposition and misuse of counterterrorism legislation to silence peaceful critics,’ the group wrote.  

One prisoner particularly of concern is British-Egyptian activist Alaa Abd El-Fattah, a technologist and political activist, who has been on a hunger strike for over six months in protest of his unjust imprisonment. Abd El-Fattah has spent most of the last decade in prison, after playing a role in the Egyptian pro-democracy rebellion in 2011, his last sentence based on terrorism charges. The activist is calling for the release of thousands of people detained without charge, a call Klein, Lucas and others are echoing to signal that participants can speak freely at COP27 without reprisal.  

But with only a handful of days left before talks begin, it looks unlikely the estimated 60,000 political prisoners will be released in time for the conference. With human rights being at the heart of discussions on the climate crisis, this doesn’t set the best precedent for the conference. Climate and human rights activists have also been told they will have to cancel any events they had planned for the conference’s opening on Monday, unless they have a meeting with a head of state. Egypt has put this down to tightened security measures, but COP’s activists have previously set up exhibits at past COPs in the UN-managed ‘blue zone’, where campaigners, scientists, politicians and business leaders can share ideas.  

Without the opportunity to speak to delegates there are fears key issues will be missing from debates and the media, as press access is also likely to be restricted. Voices which are already marginalised within the climate movement may also go unheard, such as indigenous leaders who are on the frontlines of the climate crisis. Can we trust politicians to take decisive action when they’re not presented with all sides of the debate?

white concrete building under blue sky during daytime

In a country where researchers must seek government approval before accessing data on pollution and Egypt’s environment, it seems questionable that meaningful talks will take place. In an atmosphere of fear and intimidation, the few Egyptian civil society groups which have been permitted to attend the conference have been told they can’t talk about more ‘sensitive’ environmental issues. Human Rights Watch has reported that any discussions related to water security, industrial pollution and environmental harm from real estate, tourism development and agribusiness will not be welcomed by security forces.  

There is also the fact that Coca-Cola is one of the main sponsors of the event. Named the worst plastic polluter four years in a row by Break Free From Plastic, Coca-Cola is blatantly the wrong choice for a sponsor. With so much at stake, we need courageous choices and bold ambition if we are to limit emissions and meet the 1.5°C target for a liveable planet. We cannot afford greenwashing and denial.  

Greta Thunberg has accused countries of engaging in a lot of ‘blah, blah, blah,’ without taking meaningful action. At this year’s COP there is a huge risk this will happen again, just as the world is running out of time to put protective measures in place. With Egypt’s cover up of human rights abuses and secrecy surrounding its environmental credentials, it’s difficult to believe truly productive conversations will be had at the conference. It’s only with pressure from activists, who have the opportunity to speak the truth, that real progress can be achieved.  

Photo by Li-An Lim and Tienko Dima


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