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Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (Immunities and Privileges) Order 2021

Volume 814: debated on Monday 6 September 2021

Considered in Grand Committee

Moved by

That the Grand Committee do consider the Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (Immunities and Privileges) Order 2021.

My Lords, this instrument was laid on 7 July in accordance with Paragraph 10 of Schedule 1 to the International Organisations Act 1968. It confers privileges and immunities in support of the 26th Session of the Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change: COP 26. That will take place in Glasgow from 31 October to 12 November this year. This order is required so that the UK can comply fully with the obligations of the host country agreement that we have negotiated with the secretariat of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change.

As president of COP 26, we are hosting the biggest event of this kind that the UK has ever seen. It presents us with a unique opportunity to demonstrate our global leadership on the issue of climate, delivering our objectives to accelerate worldwide action to tackle climate change and to deliver a green recovery and sustainable jobs. We are committed to delivering a whole-of-society conference in Glasgow and are working with the Scottish Government, the Welsh Government and the Northern Ireland Executive to ensure an inclusive and ambitious conference for the whole of the United Kingdom.

During the opening days of COP 26, we will host a world leaders’ summit. We are expecting up to 120 world leaders to accept the Prime Minister’s invitation to attend in person. The summit will set the stage for 12 days of talks. Teams of negotiators, government representatives, businesses and citizens will work together to develop solutions to the challenges that are now global priorities for us all. While interlinked, the world leaders’ summit and COP 26 are separate events in administrative terms. This SI deals with COP 26 only. Separate provisions are being made for participants in the world leaders’ summit.

A core principle of this framework is that functional immunities be accorded to all those performing functions in connection with the conference and all those invited to the conference. Ensuring that all participants feel that they can discharge these functions without fear of official or legal consequences is a fundamental requirement of a successful COP. We expect to welcome more than 25,000 participants to Glasgow and recognise the need for them to be able to perform their functions freely. If we were to accord privileges and immunities to all, however, we would be going far beyond what we would consider functional need. In particular, protections regarding freedom of expression and freedom of assembly already exist under UK domestic law.

Negotiations have taken place with the UN, at the highest levels, to keep the number granted privileges and immunities as small as possible without compromising participants’ freedom to function. We have reassured the secretariat and the UN that the extensive protections that exist in UK domestic law as regards freedom of expression and freedom of assembly negate the requirement for the widespread granting of privileges and immunities.

I am pleased to confirm that we have been successful in reaching agreement that we shall confer privileges and immunities on only three categories: UN officials who do not already enjoy them; the delegations of member and observer states, otherwise known as the parties; and core personnel from the Clean Development Mechanism, the Green Climate Fund, the Adaptation Fund and the Global Environment Facility. These privileges and immunities include immunity from arrest and detention and from suit and legal process for certain individuals while they are exercising their functions in connection with the conference. It does not grant personal immunity or inviolability, nor will it extend to British nationals, permanent residents or their spouses or partners.

We have carefully considered the effects of the ongoing pandemic and the interplay between privileges and immunities and a COP held in that context. We have agreed with the UN Secretary-General and the Executive Secretary of the UNFCCC that a robust Covid management plan will be put in place and that the observance of those provisions will be enforced through a code of conduct which all participants will be required to accept.

Along with our colleagues in the Scottish Government, Glasgow City Council, public health bodies and the UN system, we are continuing to monitor the pandemic and are developing a comprehensive package of measures to help protect participants and the local community from the risk of Covid transmission during COP 26. The measures we have identified include vaccination, quarantine arrangements, bespoke test, trace and isolate procedures, hygiene protocols and enhanced ventilation. We are strongly recommending that participants be vaccinated, and the UK will work with the UN to provide vaccines to COP 26 participants who would otherwise be unable to secure them.

This instrument forms a necessary part of the UK’s compliance with the obligations in the host country agreement to be signed by the UK and the UNFCCC secretariat. It balances, on the one hand, the desire to limit the granting of privileges and immunities to a minimum, and on the other, the COP’s founding principle that all participants should be able to voice their legitimate opinions without fear of legal repercussion. It avoids setting unwelcome precedents for UN conferences held in countries which do not have the level of personal freedoms that we enjoy here in the UK, for instance by limiting freedom of assembly, which can allow the general public to express views through peaceful demonstration. It is a fundamental element of success as we demonstrate to the world that the UK is a global power that respects the rules-based international system and can respond to an ever-changing global environment.

We will continue to join forces with our global counterparts, civil society, the private sector and those on the front line of the fight against climate change to inspire action ahead of COP 26. We are firmly resolved to uphold the principles of freedom of expression, inspire debate and lead a movement towards consensus. In this way, we can achieve our ambitious goals to reduce emissions and rebuild through a green economy.

The UK is clear in what we want to achieve through our COP presidency. This instrument is an important step in welcoming the world to Glasgow so that the international community can agree decisive action to win the fight against climate change. I beg to move.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his introduction to this SI, which is obviously necessary in line with our obligations as host nation. He talked about the three categories of people who will be granted immunity. Can he give us an indication of how many in total that will be? Can he also go a little further in explaining the extent of immunity from suit? He said that it related only to actions relating to the duties of these delegation members in connection with the conference. However, if they act illegally while attending the conference outside it are they immune from prosecutions for, for example, being drunk and disorderly?

Can the Minister tell us what is the nature of the privileges and immunities relating to personal baggage, which is mentioned specifically, and does that mean that baggage is exempt from searches? If so, how will the Government ensure that these privileges are not abused and what degree of scrutiny, given what I imagine is a fairly large number of individuals, will there be to ensure that such immunities are not provided to individuals who could pose a security risk?

I shall go beyond the specifics of the SI and ask the Minister about the granting of visas for the associated events that will go on around the summit, for instance, the youth summit. I declare my interest as a vice-chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Africa. He will be aware of the deep concern expressed in its report a year or two ago about the persistent failure to grant visas to people from Africa, particularly young people. Again, when I was a member of the governing council of the International Planned Parenthood Federation, our youth representatives were almost always not allowed to join us at our six-monthly meetings in London because they had been refused visas. Can he give some assurance that, conducive with all the necessary security and other factors, we will provide access to young people who represent the youth in their countries?

My Lords, I join the noble Lord, Lord Oates, in saying that the instrument is an essential part of hosting COP 26; it is a long-standing convention with summits held away from the UN headquarters. As the Minister said, we are also implementing a host-country agreement. With COP 26 now only a short time away, the Government must use it as our last and best hope of a global breakthrough to limit temperature rises to 1.5 degrees.

As we have heard, the order reflects the immunities and privileges instruments that the House has debated in recent months, such as the order on the Bank for International Settlements. In this case, privileges and immunities will be received by representatives of parties and observer states, officials of the specialised agencies of the UN and select other representatives, such as those from the Adaption Fund, the Green Climate Fund and the Global Environment Facility. While that is standard practice for the first group—representatives of parties and observer states—I reiterate the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Oates: what risk assessment has the department made of the possibility of hostile individuals or states abusing their immunities and privileges while in the UK? Also, in relation to the privileges granted to UN officials, the list in the order includes only specialised agencies. Does that mean that attendees from other UN bodies, including the UN Environment Programme, will not be given immunity? Was that issue raised during negotiations on the host agreement?

The period for which immunities and privileges apply is between 31 October and 12 November, which reflects the slightly extended duration of the summit, which is now set to begin on 31 October rather than 1 November. When the decision was made to extend the summit, the reason given was that it would allow additional time to complete its work. Can the Minister expand on that and explain why the summit was extended? I have no objections, certainly if it means that we reach agreement, but it would be good to have a better understanding of the decision.

I turn to the host agreement which the instrument relates to. In addition to agreeing to the immunities and privileges, which the Minister mentioned, as well as Covid arrangements and all the requirements that we are undertaking to make the summit safe, one of the other commitments made in the host agreement is that we must

“provide facilities that are environmentally sound and in accordance with the ideals provided for under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change … the Kyoto Protocol and the Paris Agreement.”

Can the Minister explain exactly what steps we have taken, along with the devolved Government in Edinburgh, to meet that objective? Given that the host agreement also refers to a “separate supplementary agreement” for “pre-sessional meetings”, can the Minister confirm whether any further instruments are expected as a result of that agreement? Will we be extending immunities for those particular sessions?

In conclusion, this is a decisive decade in the fight against climate change and environmental breakdown but the world is currently not on track to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement. Therefore, COP 26 is a critical moment for our planet and our country and we can all hope that the Government will use this event to keep alive the hope of limiting global heating to 1.5 degrees centigrade. I look forward to the Minister’s assurance on the questions I have put to him.

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lords, Lord Oates and Lord Collins of Highbury, for their questions and points on this statutory instrument. I am grateful too for their recognition that this is in line with the obligations on us as the president of COP and, indeed, with long-standing precedent. I will address the questions that they have posed today, and if I miss any, I hope that they will forgive me for writing with further detail, but I shall attempt to cover all the points that they raised.

The noble Lord, Lord Oates, asked about the extent of the immunity. The UNFCCC requirement is to grant

“immunity from legal process in respect of words spoken or written and any act performed … in connection with”

participation in COP 26 to the registered COP 26 participants under the agreed Article 2 categories. Many participants in COP 26 and associated meetings will already enjoy privileges and immunities by virtue of their function or position if they are a Head of Government or have diplomatic status, for instance. It is standard practice, as the noble Lord recognised, for host Governments to grant appropriate privileges and immunities to UN-associated international conferences, based on the UN general convention of 1946.

The privileges and immunities accorded to participants in COP 26 and associated meetings will apply only when participants are exercising their official functions at the conference and associated meetings. The purpose of the privileges and immunities is not to benefit individuals but to ensure that they are able to perform their official duties smoothly and efficiently. We expect all participants to respect our laws and regulations. I hope that addresses the question on the extent.

The noble Lord, Lord Oates, asked how many people will be combined within the three categories mentioned. Obviously, it depends on those participating in person, but I can give a figure of around 12,000 people. The noble Lord also asked about personal baggage. That will not be immune from search, but official papers and baggage will be protected.

The noble Lords, Lord Oates and Lord Collins, both asked about security risks. We are partnering with the United Nations, and the UK will have the opportunity to vet all participants. Their privileges and immunities granted under this SI are limited to their official acts.

The noble Lord, Lord Oates, asked about visas. Visas for other meetings will depend on the status of the meeting, so if it is part of COP 26, the COP rules will apply. That is primarily a question for the Italians as it will apply from 28 to 30 September but I will certainly follow up the points he raised, particularly on Africa.

The noble Lord, Lord Collins of Highbury, asked about the rationale for the extension of the dates. I cannot speak about the policy extent of COP more broadly today but, from the point of this statutory instrument, the dates cover the dates where we would expect people to be in Glasgow performing those official duties. He asked whether other statutory instruments would be needed for supplementary meetings. We do not think other statutory instruments will be required.

I hope that addresses all the questions but, as I say, I will make sure that I consult the official record and provide answers to any that I have not. With gratitude for noble Lords’ support, I commend this order to the Committee.

Motion agreed.