Unhappiness over the delay in setting a new date and perhaps new venue for the 18th Conference of the Parties to the UN’s Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) has boiled over into the open.

The Switzerland-based IWMC-World Conservation Trust (IWMC) and U.S.-based Ivory Education Institute (IEI) have both written open letters to the Chair of the CITES Standing Committee asking for an immediate decision on when and where the long-planned 18th Conference of the Parties will be held. After the horrific Easter Sunday attacks in Colombo, the original meeting was postponed from its May 23 opening. Since then, the Secretary General, the Secretariat, and the Chair of the CITES Standing Committee have been virtually silent on their plans for CoP18.

“I believe the 18th Conference of the Parties must be held soon if the nations of the world are to meet their responsibility to protect flora and fauna species in danger of extinction,” said Mr Godfrey Harris, Managing Director of the Ivory Education Institute. This was an apparent reference to the recently released UN Report that found human pressure on nature’s animals and plants is threatening more than 1 million species with extinction.

Now more than ever, CITES cannot dilly-dally and shillyshally in coming up with a date and host country for CoP18. Moreover, the Convention clearly gives the Standing Committee the responsibility to act on urgent matters. The serious security issues still present in Sri Lanka is just such an emergency matter. The IWMC has suggested that the Standing Committee meet in urgent session in June to announce the new dates and site for CoP18.

In two separate letters to the current chair of the CITES Standing Committee, Canada’s Carolina Caceres, the IWMC and IEI have both taken the position that CoP18 should not be held in Sri Lanka.

“The Secretariat should be requested to prepare available options – to the exclusion of Sri Lanka – for a CoP18 to be held within a period of six months between October 2019 and March 2020,“ said former CITES Secretary General and President of the IWMC, Mr Eugene Lapointe. “The Secretariat should also be requested to develop procedures aimed at facilitating the changes in delegations and/or registrations, as well as other elements pertaining to the postponing of CoP18, affecting all participants. ”

Mindful that the time to plan and organize a meeting of the size and complexity of a CITES Conference of the Parties is so short, Mr Harris suggested that Ms Caceres make a particular effort to encourage countries that have recently hosted a CoP to do so again. “I have in mind South Africa, Thailand or Qatar as potential hosts with proven facilities and organizational capacity to accommodate CoP18,” said Mr Harris.

In addition, Mr Harris urged Ms Caceres to contact the CITES Management Authority in each member state to determine which Parties might be willing to host CoP18 between October 10, 2019 and December 20, 2019 or between February 1, 2020 and April 3, 2020. This more precise span of dates, within the period suggested by IWMC, would avoid conflict with any major national or religious holiday.

“If there is anything that the observer group can do to support you and your fellow Standing Committee members in setting a new date and venue for CoP18, I would be happy to lead the way in my capacity as Managing Director of the ivory Education Institute,” said Mr Harris.

The two pro-sustainable use western NGOs note with concern that the ongoing terrorist threat and civil unrest in Sri Lanka after the Easter Weekend bombings that killed more than 250 people and injured hundreds more are a clear signal that Sri Lanka is not a safe place to host CITES CoP18 in the near future.

“Wise move,” said an American who retired to Sri Lanka, reacting to the open letters to CITES issued by the Ivory Education Institute and IWMC-World conservation Trust. “We will miss your visit this year, but the local situation is far from being resolved. Religious tensions are the longstanding cause of the current eruption. All tinder needs is a match.”

The CITES Secretariat in a statement issued on 10 May 2019, stated: “The Secretariat continues to monitor the security situation in Colombo closely through the Sri Lankan authorities and the United Nations Department of Safety and Security.”

This suggests that the CITES Secretariat might have adopted a wait and see position, before announcing the new dates for CoP18. But this is surely inconveniencing a number of governments and organisations anxious that important wild species management decisions be made in a sound manner.

“Many of us have put our schedules on hold awaiting the decision of the Standing Committee on the revised dates and potentially different venue for CoP18,” said Mr Harris of the Ivory Education Institute. “But putting off medical procedures, advanced educational courses, important work assignments, and legally mandated projects indefinitely cannot continue.”

Mr Lapointe told Ms Caceres, the Chairperson of the CITES Standing Committee, that he was fully aware that cancelling CoP18 in Colombo will constitute a serious financial blow to the government of Sri Lanka.

“It is very unfortunate, but I do not believe there is another way around,” said Mr Lapointe. “The risks it carries from a security, safety, and lack of professionalism, efficiency and adequate premises perspective – are just too high.”

Given the fact that upwards of 4000 delegates, observers, journalists, staff, suppliers and others need to be accommodated at a CITES Conference of the Parties, interest in a resolution of where and when the 18th meeting will be held is extremely high.

By Emmanuel Koro

About the Writer: Emmanuel Koro is Johannesburg-based international award-winning environmental journalist who has written extensively on environment and development issues in Africa.

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