Tag Archives: United Nations

Regulate Synthetic Biology Now!

Patient DNA dataIn a triumph for the fight against the commodification of the global commons, the United Nation’s Convention on Biological Diversity has voted to formally recommend nation states to regulate Synthetic Biology (SynBio).

SynBio is a powerful new form of genetic engineering through which biologists are capable of turning living organisms into man-made factories through the manipulation of their genomes. Organisms created using SynBio are increasingly looked at as private property, since they have supposedly been created through human ingenuity. The result is a potentially sweeping privatization of existing life forms, as well as the creation of all sorts of new creatures who will be the hapless property of global agribusiness and pharmaceutical companies.

The vote by the UN Convention on Biological Diversity is an important step in signalling that such Frankenstein-like acts must be regulated and subjected to strict ethical standards.

As this report by SynBio Watch notes, the vote at the UN meeting was resisted fiercely by nations with significant SynBio industries. This is, no doubt, one of many battles to come in the effort to challenge SynBio’s enclosure of the global genetic commons.


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Another UN Climate Conference, another tragedy for the Earth

imagesThe 19th session of the conference of parties to the UNFCCC, the primary venue for dealing with climate change on an international level, is about to begin meeting in Warsaw, Poland. As the delegates fly in, it’s worth looking back at the results of the last round of negotiations, in Doha.

Following the conclusion of COP18 in Doha, a group of climate justice activists released reports stating that the “Doha deal will result in unprecedented ecological and social collapse.”

Is there any chance that COP19 will produce different results? The chance for change seems slight. Instead, we’re likely to see more green washing and more green capitalism.

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You Strike a Woman, You Strike A Rock!

womanWathint’ abafazi, wathint’ imbokodo’ – You Strike a Woman, You Strike a Rock.  This slogan has come to define the struggle of women against oppression in South Africa. The rallying cry originates in a 1956 march led by women against the apartheid regime’s odious pass laws, which controlled the movement of people of color within the country.

Despite the gains made in South Africa in the intervening years, women continue to face deep inequalities and oppression. The country has one of the highest rates of rape in the world, for example. For this reason, the tradition of women fighting back fearlessly against apartheid is an important one to remember during Women’s History Month.

Of course, South Africa is not the only country where women face enduring struggles against patriarchy. This weekend, women from around the world gathered here in New York at the United Nations for the 57th session of the UN Commission on Women. At a side event to the conference, a group of activists emerging from civil society networks that mobilized for last summer’s Rio+20 conference spoke out about the challenges posed to women around the world by unsustainable development.

imagesIndigenous women from Guatemala talked, for example, about having to walk for 2-4 hours per day in order to retrieve water for domestic use since extractive mining operations in their communities are consuming the lion’s share of public water supplies. An activist from Colombia talked about the often-violent displacement of women by the “green grabbing” activities of large-scale agrofuel production companies. Linking violence against women’s bodies with structural economic forms of violence, a woman from Fiji underlined the necessity of thinking (and mobilizing) across different scales.

An excellent report on the conference can be found here. And here’s a link to the Women’s Major Group, the organization founded following the Rio+20 conference to militate for a just and sustainable future.

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Climate Justice Durban – Arrival

COP17 – the 17th annual Conference of Parties, aka the Conference of Polluters – began on Monday in Durban, South Africa.  The Kyoto Protocol, to which most attendee nations (but not the U.S.) are signatories, is widely acknowledged to be in its death throes.

As in previous U.N. climate conferences, civil society organizations are mounting a counter-summit, a step that is particularly important given the significant reduction in the number of NGOs allowed to register for the conference.  But will global civil society be able to exert any influence on the powerful nations of the world? How much traction can a radical anti-capitalist critique of over-development gain under current conditions of global economic crisis? Will rising inter-imperial competition between nations such as the U.S., China, and Brazil spell the end of the Kyoto Protocol and a complete abandonment of all attempts to regulate the world’s increasingly chaotic environment?

Sitting waiting to sort out housing after arriving on a red-eye flight to Durban, I met Dr. Landry Mayigane, a young veterinarian from Rwanda who is one of the organizers of the youth delegation to COP17.  He said that the young people from around the globe whom he helps to organize are feeling very pessimistic about the current meeting.

According to Landry, there is little hope that any substantial forward progress is going to come out of a meeting held under the current global economic downturn.  The point here is pretty obvious: global elites are taking the current economic crisis a pretext to impose austerity rather than – as they should – an opportunity to facilitate a just transition to a truly sustainable society.  One way that such a transition might be effected is through a Million Climate Jobs initiative – a campaign being spearheaded, at least in organizational site, by a guy I ran into last night: Jonathan Neale.

He also talked about how disillusioned many civil society organizations became after the Copenhagen climate summit.  The huge mobilization resistance groups engaged in there failed to produce any meaningful movement, and, it could be argued, the situation has deteriorated significantly in terms of international negotiations since then.  For example, Landry noted that just two days ago, the Canadian government announced that it is going to pull out of the Kyoto Protocol.

The evening ended with me sitting bleary-eyed through a meeting of the Climate Justice Network as they debated whether to back a press conference to be organized by five prominent groups (e.g. Friends of the Earth – Africa). There was quite a lot of debate about whether to move forward with this initiative given the fact that many in the People’s Space cannot get into the conference; significant numbers of people expressed concern about the impact on the People’s Space of holding meetings “inside.”  Where, some wondered, would “outside” be if “inside” was so sanctioned?  This debate I think underlines how marginal social movements (and the 99% in general) are to the entire UN process as presently constituted.

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Digital Activism

Activists are increasingly turning to online resources to help bring about progressive, grassroots-empowering social change.  Clay Shirky wrote about the power of social networking in accessible and thoughtful terms in Here Comes Everybody.  In a more scholarly vein, Jeff Juris’s book Networking Futures: The Movements Against Corporate Globalization explores the global justice movement’s use of networked technology and horizontal organizational forms.  More recently, Social Text organized a moderated forum on the role of networked dissident technologies in Iran following the disputed election of summer 2009.

I recently learned of two interesting initiatives to build awareness of the possibilities for networked activism.  The first comes in the form of the Tactical Information Collective’s film Ten Tactics for Turning Information into Action.  The film, and the website that supports it, offer a kind of DIY manual on how to use digital media to bring about social change.  There are some fascinating case studies included here, and the organization’s non-Eurocentric orientation is particularly impressive.  Another strength of TIC’s work is their emphasis on thinking carefully about the ethical implications of digital activism, including the danger that online interventions by human rights campaigners can be tracked down and used against them by abusive regimes or individuals.

Also of note along these lines is a recent report from the United Nations Foundation on the role of New Technologies in Emergencies and Conflicts.  The emphasis here is on the use of networked technology in improving responses to emergencies and conflicts, as well as in rebuilding efforts.  Like TIC’s film, the UN report offers some fascinating profiles of organizations that are developing the potential of digital activism in interesting ways.


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