CITES Does Not Follow Standard U.N. Divisions
BANGKOK China and the United States join forces, Norway and Japan defy the European Union, and nobody gives a hoot about Israel. Meanwhile, African solidarity is shattered as divisions emerge between Kenya and the continent's southern neighborhood.
This is clearly not your run-of-the mill United Nations conference.
Alliances and disputes at the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) do not follow the usual U.N. patterns, suggesting that the world of animals is far removed from that of humans on the global diplomatic agenda.
"You have different kinds of fault lines here. You don't get the kinds of traditional tensions that you find in other U.N. bodies," British Environment Minister Elliot Morley said on the sidelines of the conference, which ends on Thursday.
Some of the political partnerships at CITES, which regulates global trade in wild flora and fauna, are unusual to say the least.
Often at loggerheads on the U.N. Security Council, where they each have a permanent seat, the United States and China banded together to place trade restrictions on Asian yew trees, which provide the compound for one of the world's top-selling chemotherapy drugs.
Norway has seen fit not to join the European Union, but it shares many of that organization's values and is often in agreement with it. But mention whaling, and the verbal harpoons are unleashed quickly.
Norway is a staunch ally of Japan on this issue, which accuses the West of "cultural imperialism" for its refusal to endorse a practice that many in Europe and North America view as barbaric.
Minimal Foreign Ministry Involvement
"At CITES, environment or agriculture ministries talk directly to each other, so they don't always have the same agenda as their foreign ministries," said Susan Lieberman, the head of the delegation for conservation group WWF International.
This seems to be the case with Africa, which often presents a united front to the West on issues such as the human rights record of Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe. A pariah in the West, which has accused him of election rigging and attacking the media, Mugabe faces little or no criticism in other African capitals.
But throw ivory into the equation, and sparks fly between Kenya and southern African states such as Namibia and Botswana.
Namibia was thwarted in its bid at this CITES meeting to be allowed an annual export quota of 2,000 kg (4,400 lb) of ivory.
Kenya says such a move will be a red rag to poachers, who will gun down its elephants and its wildlife rangers as they seek to launder "dirty" ivory with fresh legal supplies.
Southern African nations snort "nonsense" and say the best way to ensure the survival of the world's largest land mammal is to put a price tag on it.
Some of these divisions are reflected in the community of nongovernmental organizations, with Kenya firmly allied with groups like the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), which seems opposed to anything that could involve killing wild beasts.
Other conservationists argue that the only way poor rural people will tolerate big and dangerous animals in their midst is if they can make some money out of them.
And what about Israel?
"I'm glad not be the center of attention for a change," said one Israeli attending the meeting.