Waste Management and Pollution Control

Q and A with Mr Sefanaia Nawadra, Director-General of SPREP.

1 June 2023, Paris France - The first scientific findings of marine plastic debris were published in 1972 and reported on small plastic particles found in the Sargasso Sea. Ten years later in 1982, students onboard a ship in the North Atlantic Ocean began counting plastic debris on the ocean surface and in 1996, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch was discovered.

Today, plastic pollution on land and at sea cause irreparable harm to those environments and to biodiversity and human health.

In 2022, more than 190 Governments agreed to develop an International Legally Binding Instrument (ILBI) on plastic pollution, including in the marine environment, through five sessions of an Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee (INC) that began at the end of that same year.  Known as INC-1, the first Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee was held in Punta del Este, Uruguay from 28 November to 2 December 2022.

The INC-2 is underway in Paris, France this week. 12 Pacific Islands are among 194 countries taking part in negotiations. One of the outcomes of INC2 is the preparation of a zero draft of the plastics treaty. We talk to Mr Sefanaia Nawadra, Director-General of SPREP to hear about the progress of the negotiations so far and what lies ahead for the Pacific:

Q: Thank you so much for your time, let’s begin by sharing your thoughts on the progress in negotiations so far?

A: “We're finally getting into the substantive content of the zero draft by getting input from countries on what they feel should be in it. The first two days was a bit frustrating for most of us except the few  countries and interests that don't want this to go ahead as fast as it's been planned, and there was a lot of blocking of the process by abusing the point of order, nit picking on rules of procedure, voting processes and other procedural issues over the last two days. Thanks to the Chair and those facilitating the different groupings, we've managed to go beyond that and there will be some discussion over the next few days on what should be the basis of the zero draft for INC-3.”

Q: The Pacific has been very vocal and leading the call for ambitious targets. How do you think the Pacific has done so far?

A: “The Pacific island countries and SIDS in general always have a big role to play in these global negotiations as they have shown in the past with the UNFCCC, UNCLOS, CBD and waste conventions. It's because we have the high moral position because we are not big polluters, we don't contribute to the issues that have caused these problems in the first place, but unfortunately we are amongst the first countries to feel the impact of these actions. This is why when we speak, the others listen, because our context plays on the conscience of those who are here, even those who oppose the positions that we take. We need to continue to be the world’s conscience , continue to utilise every avenue to get our views across to ensure what we want in the legal instrument is articulated during the negotiations.

We need to also fight to keep the special circumstances and consideration that has been given to SIDS, as it applies in this case, just as they do previous negotiations and codified in global instruments that have been put in place. If anything, the special circumstances and case for SIDS is even stronger now than it was in the 1990s, when the biodiversity and climate change convention INCs and the preparatory process for the Earth Summit in Rio first accepted them into global governance instruments and mechanisms.”

Q: Do you think we'll get a zero draft by the end of this process?

A: “Yes, I think we will get a zero draft. People tend to over -complicate things. I think everyone knows what we need to do, the options are limited, there are many things that can be done at national and regional level that doesn't need to go into the zero draft in too much detail. I think what we need to be concentrating on is where we need global cooperation and commitments. We really need to use this forum to articulate how we want these global arrangements to be put in place. They can then be supported by the things that individual regions, groupings and the national governments put in place at the regional, subregional and national level.”

Q: What do you think lies ahead?

A: We have a few more days to come up with a zero draft and I think it’s possible in fact imperative that we do so, but everyone needs to be working in good faith and articulate their positions clearly. Then comes the job of the Chair, the facilitators and the Secretariat to compile this into a zero draft that can come out of this process to be considered in INC-3. I think there was some surprise by some members and parties because members in the grouping were expecting to negotiate that at this session. But I think the first job is understanding what different members, different parties want, so that they can then accommodate them within the zero draft.”

Q: You've had a lot of experience in these international negotiations. Do you see similarities and perhaps differences between the plastic INC and other negotiations?

A: “Many of the things are similar, the use of rules of procedure to block things and voting to muddy the waters, this is not new. This is something that those who want to delay or block a process use all the time. It was DeJa’Vu, like being in a replay of other negotations. The other one is the long hours that people must endure and for us as SIDS, we need to be coordinated because of our small numbers. One thing that is different is the level of expertise that we now have within Pacific and SIDS countries for negotiations. And this is a testament to the years and effort that we've spent getting to engaging and building capacity at this level.

When I went to my first international negotiation, I was in my late twenties and we had almost no experience amongst the whole group, even those who were older diplomats at the time. This was the start of Multilateral Environmental Agreement (MEA) era. We didn't have anything before that. Now we do and there’s a lot to fall back on. The collective memory and the expertise of those who have been involved in that process has been passed on. For me, I see that as my key role, to help provide the comfort and confidence so our current crop of Pacific Negotiators who have all the ability reach their full potential and fulfill what their countries, communities and families have sent them here to do – speak clearly and effectively on their behalf.

If anything, the Pacific is again demonstrating how we consistently punch above our weight at global negotiations.”

Q: Lastly, can you share any special memories from over the years?

A: “A lot of hard work goes into the negotiations but there's also a lot of fun that people have. You have to as a way to balance things out and to keep perspective and to maybe remind yourself that there's a bigger world outside the negotiations.

I recall in Geneva at the second Climate Change COP, there was a rugby test we all went to watch in the old town in Geneva. It was at Molly Malone’s, an Irish Pub that catered to the expat Anglo community. We didn't know that the place was the clubhouse for one of the local rugby clubs. In the middle of the match and after a number of Guinness tankards, one of the delegates from PNG and I, we were the young ones then, got co-opted into a game for that club the day after in France. We travelled down to France with the team and all of the Pacific delegates came to watch and support. With these things it not only provides an outlet for relaxation but builds camaraderie between our delegations.”

The second Intergovernmental negotiating committee to develop an international legally binding instrument on plastic pollution, including in the marine environment is taking place in Paris France from 29 May to 2 June 2023. The Pacific Islands are represented by the Cook Islands, Federated States of Micronesia, Fiji, Kiribati, Nauru, Niue, Palau, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Tuvalu and Vanuatu through the support of the Government of Australia and the United Nations.

They are supported by the Secretariat of the Pacific Regional Environment Programme (SPREP), working with partners the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat, Office of the Pacific Ocean Commissioner, Environmental Investigation Agency, Centre for International Environmental Law, University of Wollongong, WWF and Massey University.

For more information, visit: https://www.unep.org/events/conference/second-session-intergovernmental-negotiating-committee-develop-international