Among the traffic jams, food vendors and bustling streets, visitors from around the world are gathering in Bangkok, Thailand to discuss international wildlife policies and conservation issues. This year marks the 40th anniversary of the Convention of International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). CITES, recently reaching 178 member countries, is the oldest multilateral environmental agreement and is generally regarded as one of the most successful examples of international cooperation on the environment.
CITES is well known in the international community as a comparatively quick and effective decisionmaking framework. This is due in part to the requirements of a two-thirds majority for the adoption of a proposal. Others treaties are not as straightforward. For example, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) requires a consensus among countries, often resulting in lengthy debates that may span several years before coming to a decision. This was evident at the 18th UNFCCC Conference of the Parties (COP18) in 2012, when countries finally agreed to a decision that was supposed to have been adopted at COP17 in 2011. Even then, this was only an agreement to reach consensus on the creation of a new treaty by 2015.
The two treaties also differ in terms of implementation. Depending on the threat to a species from international trade, member countries to CITES may propose a species listing on one of three appendices, ranging from voluntary precautionary management at the national level to mandatory international trade controls. By comparison, the outcomes of UNFCCC involve aspirations to change domestic economic energy and transportation structures, implement carbon control measures and work towards adaptation and mitigation targets.
As two researchers from the Yale Center for Environmental Law & Policy (YCELP), and students at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies (FES), we are witnessing the quick and effective environmental policymaking of CITES in action at this sixteenth meeting of the Conference of the Parties (CoP16). It’s a chance to see how important conservation messages, after building upon citizen support and scientific understanding, are moved through the system from stakeholders to policymakers to become a part of the global policy agenda. (Our colleagues who attended the 18th Conference of the Parties to the UNFCCC this past year in Doha, Qatar witnessed quite a different process.)
Several major topics are on the CoP16 agenda, including the protection of elephants and sharks and strategies for reaching global environmental sustainability goals.
The conference opened with strong support for elephant protection from the Prime Minister of Thailand, Yingluck Shinawatra, which she described as an integral part of Thai culture. Elephants have been a recurring theme in the CITES negotiations, as ivory trade continues to increase and populations become more threatened. Other distinguished visitors expressed their support, including UN Environment Programme Executive Director Achim Steiner and Prince William, who sent in a personal video message on the urgency of elephant conservation. They also mentioned the explicit need to guard against shark exploitation – which is where we come in.
Last month, we helped organize a symposium on shark conservation at FES with classmates Leah Meth and Onon Bayasgalan as part of a course on international organizations and conferences. Leah and Onon are also the driving forces behind the related Shark Stanley campaign – which is itself part of a broader effort to gain support for the protection of shark and manta ray species at CoP16.
The Shark Stanley campaign is an example of the behind-the-scenes efforts to achieve new legal standards in the international community. In conjunction with our work at YCELP, our involvement at CoP16 has taught us how important CITES is as a tool for successfully managing the Earth’s valuable species and ecosystems.
Sunday’s opening ceremony included several statements on the need for following through on the aspirations put forward at the 2012 Rio+20 conference relating to the Sustainable Development Goals. To this end, CITES has served as a promising platform for agendas on natural resource conservation, and it also has provided a collection of lessons learned that can be applied to other efforts towards global sustainability. The success of CITES is undoubtedly due to its ability to enable action on international commitment. As described by Secretary-General John E. Scanlon, CITES “stands out,” and the decisions made at CoP16 will “find their way into legislation, regulation, and operating practices across the globe.”