Shut out: Why the United Nations is no utopia –

Posted: March 31, 2021 at 6:33 am

Kera Sherwood-O'Regan was running out of voice by the time she made her stand.

It was December 2019, during the final stages of the last climate summit before Covid hit.

The United Nations climate talks were meant to end on a Friday, but countries had haggled, delayed and resisted their way through the night on Friday, into Saturday, then into Sunday.

Even New Zealands official government delegation had slept on the floor for two nights running.

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Things were no better for activists. Unable to leave the building in case they missed something, people were sleeping under desks and jackets, living off chocolate bars and Uber Eats pizza deliveries, which proved tricky to get through security. There wasnt much choice the conference centre eateries had closed, and negotiations were being extended by the hour. Those who couldnt afford to change their flights had to abandon the meeting.

Theyd been promised a prize for surviving until the end, though. Civil society and indigenous groups have no formal standing at climate summits, but the organisers had promised them a chance to address the delegates when negotiations finished. This was their chance to be heard by ministers, journalists and they hoped the public.

By the time they got their turn to speak, tensions and emotions were running high.

Reuters news agency captured some of the highlights on camera.

The speeches were heartfelt and impassioned, but the most striking moment in the news video is a line by Sherwood-O'Regan, a young Ki Tahu woman with dark hair, red lipstick and a vivid blue cloth draped across one shoulder. (Ki Tahu is sometimes pronounced Ngi Tahu. This article uses Ki Tahi at Sherwood-ORegans request.)

Her words became the key quote of a Guardian caption, accompanying the video of the speeches: Stop taking up space with your false solutions and get out of our way.

The slight catch in her voice has its own backstory, as does the vivid blue prayer cloth.

Jason Boberg/Supplied

Kera Sherwood-O'Regan says her illusions about the UN process were shattered pretty quickly.

But, before we get to that, lets clear up one thing. Sherwood-ORegan knows shes lucky to be able to attend these summits at all. Unlike many, she can save up the $10-15,000 to get there, and her academic studies in political science help her speak the conference lingo.

She has well-known family and two marae, both of which she gets to visit. Her grandad, or poua, on her dads side is Sir Tipene ORegan, the professional company director and former long-serving chairman of the Ngi Tahu Mori Trust Board. Her marae are Te Rau Aroha in Awarua/Bluff, and Moeraki. Her dad is archaeologist Gerard ORegan, the curator Mori at Otago Museum. Her mum, Viv Sherwood, is Pkeh, works in sustainability and grew up in Auckland. Together, they made an environmental activist with a strong sense of indigenous rights.

None of that makes these summits easy, though. Madrid was her third, but, right from her first one, in Bonn, Germany, in 2017, she noticed a pattern. [Indigenous people] are the first to be tokenised, as soon as it would be a good look to have some indigenous people doing prayer or singing some songs.

[Yet] when it came to the negotiation room we didn't get to participate at all.


Kera Sherwood-O'Regan speaking at end of the marathon UN climate summit in Madrid.

Without formal standing, indigenous activists must spend their time lobbying national delegations to speak up for their peoples interests. Sometimes, theyll make headway, only to discover the country they were dealing with has made a side deal with another nation.

For disabled people, a group among which Sherwood-ORegan counts herself, even getting around the conferences is challenging, with big crowds, barriers, and long distances between meeting rooms.

You... come out of your politics degree thinking that the UN is the place where this great diplomacy is meant to happen, and where there are going to be these great standards of human rights, where people's voices are able to be heard, and where indigenous people can have a say, she says.

That illusion was shattered pretty quickly.

The Madrid talks were gruelling even for veterans of the art.

Sherwood-ORegan was there volunteering with the International Indigenous Peoples Forum. The 28-year-old has fibromyalgia, a condition associated with chronic pain and fatigue. Shed been sleeping on a couch squab, and the heating in the conference centre seemed to have been turned off, along with the food supply. It was just bitterly cold, she says.

Of course, no-one had prepared to stay the night in the freezing cold. We had to set an alarm to wake up every hour or two to check the (live bulletin) board and find out if we were going to be asked to give our statements at 3am or something. Later, shed find she'd contracted pneumonia and pleurisy.

When her allotted time rolled around, she was running on adrenaline. Then came the bombshell.

The proposal was put forward by the (climate summit) presidency, that they just weren't going to hear any of the statements, and that we could all just email [them] in.

The words popped out before shed fully thought them through.

I just shouted, from the back of the room, You can give us our damn two minutes, and it was kind of frightening, at first. It started coming out of my mouth, and then I was like, oh god, I'm going to get thrown out. It's forbidden to cause a ruckus or have a scene in those negotiations, and in previous years we've been kicked out just for having somebody take photos who's not an accredited photographer.

The only thing that really helped was that everybody else joined in, and some countries came in and said, We support allowing civil society to have their say.

Her speech, when she got to make it, came out powerfully, with only a hint of a quaver.

She told the delegates: We are experts on climate. We are the kaitiaki, the stewards of nature.

The Guardian headline called the activists furious. But was she?

I think I maybe came across as quite exasperated, because it was really high stakes it was really high tension. And I didn't really have very much voice left. But one of the things I find very frustrating... is the framing [of] indigenous activists just as angry indigenous people. People just write it off as, Oh, you're just angry all the time. And it's not that we're just angry all the time.

We're literally here, still having to say, Please let us in the room. We get to the end of this massive conference that has cost people so much, financially, emotionally, culturally. And then, in the final minutes, where you'll finally get your two minutes of space... they wanted to take that from us.

One message Sherwood-ORegan wanted to get across was this: listen to our solutions. People on marae in New Zealand are planning for, and fighting, climate change, despite most of them never having been to a climate summit. We had side events happening with indigenous people on panels, talking about the innovations they have at home, about the way their community operates to reduce their own carbon emissions, and to do so in a way that preserves their culture and language, she says.


Jacinda Ardern gives the opening speech at the 2019 UN Climate Action Summit in New York, shortly before the Madrid meeting.

Yet, earlier in the conference, a group of mainly women and indigenous people had been thrown out by police for protesting, an incident that organisers later described as unfortunate.

Another time, Sherwood-ORegan and others were almost trampled in a media scrum, which was trying to get to Greta Thunberg, as they attempted to cross the crowd to get to their office. Sherwood-ORegans tweet about the incident got thousands of likes, Twitters version of agreement.

Ironically, one of Thunbergs topics that day was telling the assembled crowd to listen to indigenous people.

It was quite disheartening, because I think Greta herself has worked really hard to be a good ally to indigenous people, says Sherwood-ORegan.

On the other side of the corridor were indigenous people working our asses off just to get people to pay the slightest bit of attention.

Jason Boberg/Supplied

Sherwood O'Regan is weighing up the risks of attending the next climate summit, in Glasgow.

As for the prayer cloth, its story is happier. Shed introduced herself with her pepeha during a talanoa with young indigenous people held at the New Zealand pavilion. Shed mentioned Aoraki/Mt Cook was her maunga ariki, her mountain, information which made its way to another indigenous young woman at the conference, Niria Alicia Garcia. Garcia had been involved in protecting indigenous waterways in California and knew that, before World War 2, Chinook salmon eggs were taken from the McCloud river near Mount Shasta and brought to the Rakaia river in the South Island. Sherwood-ORegans iwi had hosted the Winnemem Wintu people when they visited to see about repatriating some of their endangered salmon. The blue cloth features three mountains Mt Shasta, Hawaiis Mauna Kea and Sherwood-ORegans home mountain Aoraki.

Sherwood-ORegans carefully considering whether shell go to the next summit in Glasgow, if its held in person in November, given the possible health risks Covid poses.

The Madrid summit ended in compromise: almost 200 countries present would put new pledges on the table before the next summit, in an attempt to ramp up efforts to combat heating. Crucial negotiations to set the rules for using international carbon credits couldnt be concluded, and havent progressed quickly enough without in-person meetings.

Those carbon trading rules have implications for indigenous people. A sore point at the Madrid conference was the weakening of safeguards meant to protect the rights of local people when countries are claiming credit for building carbon-cutting projects. The mega Alto Maipo hydropower scheme in Chile, for example, could be eligible to sell carbon credits offshore, despite alleged human rights violations over local water and grazing.

Meanwhile, most countries existing pledges to cut emissions have been rated lacking. New Zealands own, independent Climate Change Commission has told our Government it should increase its pledge.

But, says Sherwood-ORegan, in any case, much of the real climate action happens on the ground.

If Thunberg wants to pass the mic to indigenous climate activists, Sherwood-ORegan wants to pass it again, to people doing the work far from climate summits.

The most important action is the stuff that's happening at home, that people don't see on a TV screen, or getting whipped up in the media, she says.

Were not going to solve all these issues at the UN.

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Shut out: Why the United Nations is no utopia -

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