Campaigning at UN Convention meetings – an internal briefing for Friends of the Earth
Many environmental problems transcend international borders. Governments have developed a
complex of multi-lateral environmental agreements to control them. The procedures through
which these agreements – Conventions and Protocols – are reached and updated vary from
issue to issue. But all have certain features in common. In particular, all seem to
involve periodic meetings, conferences or summits, under United Nations auspices, of
civil servants and Ministers from different countries – at which agreements are reached.
Friends of the Earth International, as a campaigning environmental group, wishes to
influence the outcomes of these meetings. This briefing is to help Friends of the Earth
Campaigners by pointing to some of the lessons we have learnt from past campaigns.
It first gives a flavour of an international meeting, and then considers logistics, an
issue that is almost taken for granted in national campaigns, but which is critical to
the success of campaigns at international meetings. It then looks at working practices
within the Friends of the Earth International team and between FOEI and other groups
before considering campaigning tactics.
International negotiations necessitate periods of intense campaigning many miles from
home (and many miles from the normal office support systems). Typically, an international
meeting will take place in a large hotel or conference centre. For the period of the
meeting, the hotel or conference centre will be United Nations territory – and access
will be open only to accredited participants and observers. Rooms within the centre will
be turned into offices. Bars will be given over to exhibition space. There will be banks
of computers for participants to use. Meeting rooms may be available for ‘side events’ –
fringe meetings – and actions and fly-posting may be allowed in the corridors.
Civil servants and Ministers will meet in plenaries, in small contact groups, in country
groups and in bilaterals, and will generally mill around – from 10:00 am to as late
midnight or beyond. Some of these meetings may be open to observers. Many of the most
interesting will be closed. Periodically, new ‘texts’ will be released for part or all
of the agreement that participants are discussing. Eventually, after three or four days,
or maybe two weeks, an agreement may be reached – often in the dark hours of the morning
before the meeting closes.
It really pays to think through the logistics of how campaigners are going to be operate
in such a strange environment: where are you going to stay (you can’t sleep each night
on the conference hall floor), what sort of people you need in your delegation, how are
they going to work, how will they consult with each other etc. etc.
Perhaps the first issue to consider (after, what are you trying to achieve?) is who will
you need with you to have an impact.
Delegates in Friends of the Earth International delegations come in all shapes and sizes,
and play a variety of different roles. The number you can bring will depend on how much
money you’ve got – and how many Friends of the Earth groups are prepared to send a
delegate. Typically, a delegation may comprise:
· the international coordinator for the campaign concerned – who leads the
· a number of national campaigners from member groups, ranging from experienced
old hands to virtual new-comers.
At small meetings this may be adequate. But at larger meetings, if no further
differentiation of roles is planned, the coordinator will quickly be overstretched –
especially if they’re also trying to lobby their own government as well. As a result,
experienced lobbyists may become frustrated and angry and new-comers confused and
It is therefore worth thinking about breaking up the roles of the delegates. Some roles,
we’ve found useful to designate in the past include:
· an old hand to watch over the politics of the delegation – welcoming new-
comers, managing expectations, smoothing ruffled feathers and advising the coordinator;
· a media officer(s) – with media accreditation
· an actions coordinator
· experts to take responsibility for particular parts of the negotiations
· a campaigner to lobby the coordinator’s Government (so s/he doesn’t have to)
· an administrator to run the office, act as a contact point – and control the
· coordinators for particular language groups – to take care of people who don’t
speak English and to arrange translations.
· someone with graphic design skills
This differentiation of responsibilities can be achieved either by persuading particular
delegates to take on particular roles or by bringing people specially for the purpose.
Given the importance of continuity of administration, it makes sense for the
administrator at the meeting to be the person who carried out administration in the run
up to it – the person who did the accreditation, booked the hotels and the office-space,
shipped the materials, agreed who was coming and who would get paid for what etc.
As international meetings are different to other campaigning arenas, it is worth aiming
to get a core of experienced people along – especially if they have worked together
Friends of the Earth’s success depends on part on the mix of countries delegates come
from. It is worth thinking through the politics of the meeting and making sure we have
representation from each of the major parties or country groups.
Ensuring the right mix of people attends the meeting requires planning at least six
months in advance. Southern participants will probably need funding, as may particular
experts. The coordinator (or their administrator) will need to make sure every delegate
is accredited (if in doubt, accredit everyone!). S/he may also need to book hotels
(sometimes before you know who’s coming), flights and write letters of invitation so
delegates can get visas.
Finally, don’t forget the home team! You have to have people at Underwood Street who can
do interviews, put out press releases, field calls, chase information you’ve left
behind, put news bulletins on the web and so on. Ideally, this team should mirror almost
exactly the delegation you take to the meeting. At the very least, specific roles need to
be agreed (including a team leader in the EWNI office). If possible, they should be
involved in strategising. It is imperative that they are kept well-informed during the
You should also consider setting up home teams or agreeing roles with people at other
Friends of the Earth offices around the world, including the International and European
At a small meeting, it may not be necessary for the Friends of the Earth delegation to
have its own office. At a large meeting it is essential. At large meetings, delegates can
spread out all over the place and finding people can be a real hassle.
The office acts as a ‘control centre’ for the delegation. It provides a resource where
they can work, a venue where they can meet and a ‘home territory’ where they can chill
out. The office also acts as an advertisement for journalists and government delegates.
To be useful, the Friends of the Earth office has to be in the Conference Centre or at
least in the ‘cordon’. Renting such offices can be very expensive. If budgets are tight
it may be possible to share an office with another group or to take over one of the
offices given free to ngos. There are also often ngo meeting rooms you can use.
Needless to say you should make sure your office has the telephone, computer and meeting
room facilities you need. It is definitely worth getting some lockable cupboards. You
should also bring a ‘doggy bag’ of office supplies – blue-tac, pins, scissors, string,
staplers and so on.
There are usually large banks of computers for delegates to use at international
meetings. However, there are occasions when a laptop (and portable printer) is extremely
useful – taking notes of meetings, working from your hotel room and so on. These may
need special adaptors to work abroad, and you should get IT to find out what you need.
Remember to take a supply of 3½ disks as even if you have your own laptop and printer,
you’re bound to want to use another machine at some point. Take a number of disks as
you’re bound to lose some. Mark them so you know they’re yours.
Once away from Underwood Street, campaigners rely on ‘hotmail’-type accounts for e-
mail. However, these accounts have certain disadvantages. Many have limits on the number
of messages that can be sent in a day (eg: 100). This limits circulation of press
releases. Furthermore some offices you will want to e-mail have systems that treat
messages from hotmail accounts as junk mail.
At present, FOE staff cannot get access to their Underwood St e-mail accounts while
away – nor to their e-mail address books, so take yours with you.
Venues for large meetings, such as COP6.5 in Bonn, are huge. Finding other members of
your delegation, let alone government representatives, can be a nightmare. In the absence
of landlines, mobile phones are a godsend.
However using Friends of the Earth mobiles abroad is extremely expensive (because of
roaming charges). An individual can easily run up a £1000 bill in a 2 week period. You
can cut these costs by hiring mobiles locally. However, this only cuts costs by a third,
because you’ll still get calls on your FOE mobile and you’ll still get and make
international calls on your hired mobile – especially if some of your own delegation
bring their mobiles from home. Also, pre-paid mobiles run out of credits very quickly.
And you end up having to carry two mobiles.
Hopefully, over time as roaming charges come down, this problem will solve itself.
Sometimes photocopying at international meetings is free. Sometimes delegates have to buy
pre-paid cards. It would be worth checking with the meeting organisers beforehand so you
don’t incur any unforeseen costs. If there is a charge for photocopying, it’s a good
idea to check out whether there is a cheaper print-shop nearby for large jobs.
Campaigners at international events need money for a whole variety of expenses, including:
· paying hotel bills
· meals and drinks
· local travel (though this is often free for accreditated delegates)
· photocopying or printing special leaflets, posters or badges
· hiring costumes or equipment for actions
Staff at Friends of the Earth (England, Wales and Northern Ireland) can claim back all
reasonable expenses (not alcohol) provided they can supply receipts as proof of the
expenditure. And in practice, the Finance Team will pay expenses, even if not every
receipt is not provided.
The Finance team can also pay out a cash float or a payment into your account in advance,
if it is given sufficient notice. In such circumstances, you still have to collect
receipts to demonstrate the expenses you’ve incurred – as the advance payment is a
loan, not a gift. The payment you receive will usually be in sterling, but you can use
receipts of currency exchanges you make in order to claim bank charges if you have to buy
money of a different currency.
If you are given a cash float which is then distributed to other FOE staff, you should
get each person receiving cash to sign a receipt for the amount they’re given. You can
use these receipts as proof you’ve given them the money and the Finance team will only
chase you for the amount you’ve kept for yourself.
Given the large amount of money campaigners might need while away, you should think
through how much you want well in advance. That way Finance can make a payment into your
bank account, enabling you to order travellers’ cheques. If you have to pay a premium
for these, you can claim it back. It may also be worth taking a credit card, if you have
one. You can claim expenses using your credit card statement as a receipt.
Coordinators should to try to calculate likely expenses in as much detail as possible.
They should check the needs of each member of the delegation (including those from other
countries). If Finance can pay for anything in advance (eg: definite hotel bookings), get
them to do so. In practice, however, unforeseen circumstances can lead to sudden demands
for large amounts of cash (or limit your ability to pay using a credit card). It
therefore makes sense to take a large reserve you can draw on if necessary – but don’t
tell anyone you’ve got it.
Finally, as coordinators and campaigners are likely to be busy lobbying and doing media
work at international meetings, you should consider whether it makes sense to devolve
responsibility for finance to your administrator. They will have booked the hotels, hired
mobiles and liaised with southern participants so they should know how much needs to be
paid for what. They’re also much more likely to be in the office to make payments when
Building the team – away and at home
Friends of the Earth delegations at international meetings will comprise people from very
different backgrounds, many of whom will never have met each other before. They will
include old hands and experts as well as novices and generalists. Some will be fluent in
four languages. Others may only speak one – and not always English. Some will have clear
ideas of what they want to do. Some won’t.
Building such a disparate group of people into a team for two weeks of intense
campaigning is not easy. But here are some tips for doing so:
· agree policies, strategies and working arrangements as far as you can, via e-
mail or a separate meeting, well before international meeting starts.
· hold a final strategy session the day before the international meeting opens,
to get final buy-in on strategy, tactics and working arrangements. Try to persuade as
many of your delegates to attend this as possible.
· hold a daily meeting of the delegation (08:30 is a good time) either at a
convenient hotel or preferably in your office.
· ask delegates whether they’d like an afternoon catch-up meeting (16:30 in a
bar in the conference centre)
· try and hold a delegation dinner as early as possible in the conference.
· find someone with the relevant language/cultural background to befriend each
new-comer – especially those who don’t speak English.
· hold a review session – the day after the meeting is over.
As the meeting unfolds, you may be tempted to use the morning meeting for strategy
discussions. This is pointless. Delegates will be too rushed to consider strategic issues
and any longer discussions will have to be held in the evenings.
At the pre-conference strategy session, it is also worth agreeing some ground rules for
the way Friends of the Earth delegates should behave toward each other. For example,
· every Friends of the Earth delegate comes to the meeting wanting to help
achieve the best outcome. Different delegates will know different things. They may
therefore have different views about policy, about strategy and about tactics. Delegates
should respect each others’ views and try and find out why they think differently when a
· delegates can get very busy at international meetings. Delegates can turn their
backs on other delegates. They can be sharp or dismissive. They can lose their tempers.
At all times, when approached, delegates should welcome the presence of other Friends of
the Earth delegates. If they’re talking confidentially or do not wish to be disturbed,
they should say so in a friendly manner and make sure they speak to the other delegate as
soon as they can.
· delegates who have turned their backs on another delegate, been sharp,
dismissive or who’ve lost their temper should apologise in person as soon as they can.
· delegates who’ve been badly treated should accept such apologies with grace.
To help build the team, you should aim to prepare and distribute a contact sheet of
delegates’ e-mails and mobile phone numbers (update it regularly) and a schedule of
planned events. If you have an office, these can be displayed on the walls along with,
for example, key lobbying messages for the day.
Cooperation with other groups
Cooperation between NGOs is far more important at international negotiations than in
other arenas. Information is power and ngos need to exchange information with each
other. Competition between NGOs is far more noticeable (they could be in the next room).
The chance of different actions being held at the same place and time is far greater.
Conflict over a meeting or press room booking is inevitable. This necessitates learning
different ways of working – for everyone, even media coordinators.
Procedures and ‘rules’ for NGO cooperation seem to vary. For some Conventions (eg:
climate), there is a semi-official, UN-funded coordination group which organises a daily
meeting. There is a tradition of daily press conferences organised by the main groups
(with a tradition that FOE, Greenpeace and WWF each have a speaker). For other
Conventions, other practices might apply.
It really makes sense for coordinators to talk to people who’ve been to a given
Convention meeting before to find out what’s expected – and what you can get away with.
One tip that’s worked well at climate negotiations is to open the Friends of the Earth
coordination meetings to sympathetic campaigners from smaller ngos. Delegates from small
ngos often have few other channels for information-sharing and can, if they are expert,
greatly add to our intelligence.
International meetings can be the occasions for intense activity. Civil servants and
Ministers are negotiating over a text that could literally save the world. They are
usually doing so behind closed doors – but in a room you can see – from early in the
morning to late at night for up to two weeks at a time. Proposals can appear at almost
any time. Rumours fly, but the texts negotiators are actually working from are often
difficult to obtain. At the end of the meeting, an agreement is announced (usually) and
everyone pats themselves on the back.
In such an environment, many campaigners are tempted to rush around from one meeting to
the next trying to keep up with what’s going on, trying to get a given text, trying to
find the people they’re supposed to be working with, trying to find a given person (or
anybody) to lobby. Others give up in frustration. Both approaches can be equally
ineffective (though the first, if controlled, is essential).
Some general rules are worth remembering:
· government positions are largely influenced by national interest, on the one
hand, and domestic public opinion on the other.
· campaigning before the meeting starts – to raise awareness and expectations –
is therefore as important as campaigning during the meeting.
· media work during and particularly at the end of the meeting is important for
shaming villains – and hopefully changing positions in the future.
· direct lobbying and information provision can influence government positions,
especially those of smaller countries, but it can only do so on details.
Expert lobbyists take centre stage at international meetings, not because they have much
direct influence, but because they are the only people who can find out, let alone
understand, what’s going on.
Experienced, knowledgeable people, with good contacts, are far more important for direct
lobbying than lots of people. Very often what’s needed is for one person from a given
country to approach a member of that country’s delegation. Or, for one person who’s
followed a given issue to approach the convenor of the relevant contact group. Breadth of
people (in terms of numbers of countries) and numbers of people are more important for
influencing positions before the talks start than at them.
However, you will want your team to include lobbyists from each of the major country
groups. Good campaigners from southern countries are particularly important.
In the long run, it can be just as important to lobby other ngos and to expose corporate
bad practice as to lobby Government delegates.
Media coverage at international meetings is almost totally dependent on the talks
themselves. Disputes between major players on major issues get covered. If little is
happening in the talks, there is not much we can do to get them covered. That means
taking risks – planning ahead for meetings we think will be significant, scaling down
activity at those we think won’t.
At a given meeting, most journalists will file repeatedly (to demonstrate their
existence) but only expect two stories to appear in press or a news bulletin:
· “talks have started – this is the problem and these are the issues”
· “talks have finished – this is the result”
For longer meetings, they may also hope to get coverage for an interim story, perhaps
when Ministers arrive, on “talks have been underway all week, this is where they’ve got
to” and if they are lucky a story on the night before agreement is reached (or isn’t):
“talks gridlocked – delegates meet into the night!”
The success or not of our media work depends largely on whether we get quoted or
interviewed for these stories. We can boost our chances by:
· publishing, about three weeks before the meeting starts, well-researched
background briefings on the issues being discussed and the politics of the discussions
· organising one big, spectacular action just before or at the beginning of the
meeting (or halfway through if it lasts two weeks)
· publishing, during the meeting, daily summaries of progress and occasional
short-sharp analyses of particular issues. These don’t get much coverage in themselves,
but they remind journalists that we know what we’re talking about.
· being visible the night before the meeting finishes (and, if possible, doing an
· getting a very rapid response out at the end of the meeting (and, if possible,
organising an action to portray the result).
Occasionally, a really good analysis or scoop may get coverage in its own right.
Generally, the media like to hear from one spokesperson from each group. Other ngos
profit from this, but we try and reflect the breadth of our support by putting forward a
range of people, including southern delegates. We gain from this, but at a cost.
Here are some tips worth remembering for boosting coverage:
· a lot of journalists hardly leave the press compound (public proceedings are
often broadcast there on close circuit television). Get your media officer to hang around
nearby, talking to the journalists.
· the tables/shelves in the press compound fill up pretty quickly with briefings
and releases. Print the Friends of the Earth press releases and briefings on bright green
paper so that they can be spotted easily.
· most journalists recognise very few lobbyists in the crowded corridors. Get
your lobbyists to where big badges saying they’re from Friends of the Earth.
· don’t forget that you’re trying to get coverage around the world (or perhaps
in a particular foreign country). It’s very tempting when you’ve got a story to run
over and tell the British journalists you know. Yet it could be just as or more important
to tell your German, Japanese or American colleague, so they can tell their journalists
There is a grand tradition of spectacular Friends of the Earth actions at international
meetings. And the actions we have done have played a major role in generating coverage
for our campaigns around the world.
However, the real action for the media is in the talks themselves. They won’t cover
protest just for the sake of it, unless it becomes violent. Actions, also, are an area
where ngos compete – so you guarantee the media will have a choice of actions to cover.
Finally, the security arrangements at international meetings limit the scope for
actions – unless you want to risk your entire delegation being thrown out of the meeting.
Months of preparation are needed for spectacular or mass actions. The involvement of the
Events team, from the start, will be crucial. Detailed negotiations will be needed to
secure permission to use the best sites. At Bonn, for example, the Boat action was the
only time when unaccredited people were allowed inside the meeting’s outer cordon. BUND
had to talk to three different police forces to get permission for this.
It is possible to do smaller actions at, or outside, many international meetings. The
ease of doing so varies depending on how big the meeting is and how nervous the UN and
host country government are. In theory, permission is needed for any action inside the UN
cordon – and they are particularly hostile to anything that might offend. Obtaining
permission can be difficult and time-consuming which limits the scope for spontaneous or
tactical actions to raise awareness about particular obstacles in the talks. Often
permission is only obtained after the reason why the tactical action was wanted has
passed. There is no point in doing an action outside the cordon at larger meetings, as
the journalists won’t come outside to cover it.
However, it can be worth obtaining permission and carrying out fairly formal actions to
support the campaigns of smaller Friends of the Earth groups – particularly if a tame
journalist can guarantee coverage.
Because of these difficulties, campaigners have focussed, in some meetings, on the use of
witty posters, stickers and badges. These, again, are unlikely to get coverage but they
are useful in creating a mood and attracting journalists’ attention. Unfortunately, at
some UN meetings, eg: COP6.5 at Bonn, the UN clamped down on posters and stickers – and
even stopped campaigners leaving StopEsso material on tables.
Finally, if the worst comes to the worst, it is worth thinking about organise a
spontaneous protest, without permission on the last night of the talks. The ngos did this
jointly at the Hague and got away with it.
It is also worth taking a box of props – Bush and Blair masks and so on – just in case
you get permission or decide to do something spontaneously. Check the whereabouts of
local joke and costume hire shops – and look round them to see what is available. Take
some Friends of the Earth flags, just in case you need them.
Stocks of relevant literature are extremely useful at international meetings – for
briefing journalists and government delegates, and for demonstrating the research behind
your case. But, less is often more. It’s terribly tempting to take large numbers of
everything you (or anybody else) has ever published, just in case you need it. This is
silly and expensive. You’ll only end up taking stuff back, or worse you’ll end up
dumping it. And you’ll probably find that what you really need is lots of copies of the
briefing you write when you’re already at the meeting.
It makes more sense to confine the materials you take in bulk to specially prepared or
very recent reports and briefings. You can take everything else you might want on disk or
put it on your web site, and then print it small numbers as you need it.
Exactly what materials you need will depend on the meeting. General position statements
are fine for early on in a protracted series of meetings. They are largely redundant if
the meeting is the last of a series, when you’ll need detailed briefings on the
It is also tempting to print up badges, stickers and posters for the meeting and to take
lots of these as well. Unless the meeting is early on in a protracted series, this is
probably a waste of money. Some posters are useful to identify your office (and to act as
‘signboards’ to it) and to announce your presence at the start of the talks. 50 should
be enough (keep some back as replacement ‘signboards’ for your office). Once the
meeting starts, any fly-posting you do should be tactical and spontaneous. Again, unless
the meeting is early on in a protracted series, you are probably best off checking out
where badges can be printed locally, and ordering these as needed, rather than taking a
whole load with you.
Make sure you take disks with your logo and all the templates you’ll need with you –
including those for making posters, placards, badges, banners and stickers.
International meetings contain lots of spaces for exhibitions and the UN fills up these
spaces with everybody and anybody. Often you’ll find that other ngos have taken large
spaces and have brought classy-looking exhibitions. This can be frightening. But
experience suggests exhibitions are probably not worth bothering about. They cost a lot
of money to make and a lot of someone’s time to keep clean and tidy. Unless you’re very
lucky, yours will probably be tucked away down a dark corridor or behind the toilets.
Don’t bother with them.
International meetings can be exciting periods of intense campaigning that will live in
your memory for ever. Alternatively they can become dark nightmares that make you want
never to set foot in a conference centre again. When nothing is happening, they can be
just mind-numbingly dull.
Being prepared and forewarned is as important with international meetings as any other
sort of campaigning – especially if you’ve never done one before. Talking to people who
have is the best way of finding out what you’re likely to face.