Politics of Poverty

Ideas and analysis from Oxfam America's policy experts

“We will not be silent” — Protests at oil, mining transparency conference highlight global threats to civil society

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Ian Gary of Oxfam America and Tutu Alicante, Executive Director of EG Justice during the EITI conference protest. Photo: Ian Gary / Oxfam America

Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative flouts process and principles.

This post was co-written by Isabel Munila, Senior Policy Advisor, Extractive Industries at Oxfam America.

We’re here in Lima, Peru, for the conference of the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI), a typically staid meeting of the “transparency industrial complex” where governments seek to burnish their image through showcasing their adoption of this global norm-setting exercise.

Yesterday, though, was high drama and included a protest inside the swanky, new Lima Convention Center. Civil society objections to interference in their ability to speak out and choose their own representatives on the EITI global board  reached a boiling point.

EITI relies – and prides itself on – its “multi-stakeholder” model of governance, which gives equal power to civil society, government and industry. Each pillar is allowed to organize its own selection process for the board. Publish What You Pay managed a transparent and independent process to select civil society board nominees, as it has in the past,resulting in slate of five nominees.

The EITI secretariat – outside the rules of the process – tried to parachute a sixth nominee into the slate of civil society nominees. As a result, Publish What You Pay activists from all over the world and other civil society groups refused to enter the meeting for the “Members Association” – the highest governing body of EITI assigned to approve board nominees – if this sixth name was on the slate of nominees. Chants of “We will not be silent!” and “No number 6!” (you had to be there) rang throughout the conference hall.

Despite the protest, EITI chair Clare Short – without the presence of a major constituency – railroaded  a slate of new board candidates and board chair through. The vast majority of civil society – including Oxfam – believes these decisions to be invalid and against the rules and principles of EITI.

In advance of the meeting, members of the Publish What You Pay coalition civil society tried to work toward resolution but this proved fruitless. As Simon Taylor of Global Witness said today, “This situation never needed to happen and it wasted thousands of hours of people’s time.”

Making EITI decisions at the international or national level without all three constituencies fully involved sets a very dangerous precedent. Around the world, governments have tried, or are trying, to influence civil society selection in national “multi-stakeholder group” processes or to insert GONGOS – government-oriented NGOs – into the process.

If such a shameful scene can transpire at the EITI International Conference with the eyes of the world watching, you can only imagine what is happening at the national level. As Oxfam America’s President Ray Offenheiser said yesterday during a conference side event, civil society groups are under attack around the world. “These are not isolated cases but part of a disturbing trend. Success for EITI will depend a lot on how serious EITI is in policing civil society space.”

From Guatemala to Cambodia, from Azerbaijan to Equatorial Guinea and right here in Peru, citizens, activists and journalists are being harassed, jailed and killed in defense of their lands and their fight against corruption. Our protest yesterday was in solidarity with citizens under threat around the world. Transparency cannot have a transformative effect without an ecosystem of robust accountability.

Effective participation in initiatives, consultation and consent processes and government engagement depends on the protection of freedom of association, assembly and speech. The principle of self-selection for civil society around the world is under threat. EITI needs to be part of the solution, not part of the problem.

We operate by the rules of the game or we don’t. EITI must face this crisis head on, decide if it wants to model trust-building and participation or mimic some of the bad trends we are seeing around the world. Obviously, we recommend the former.