Saturday, 27 March 2010

FOOC, CITES and the minefields of international relations

It was my son Michael who persuaded me that I should listen to that great BBC Radio 4 and World Service programme, ‘From our own correspondent’ – FOOC, as we aficionados like to call it, as in ‘FOOC, that’s a good programme’.

The BBC is a much maligned institution. It has become so thoroughly paranoid that it recently announced a series of cuts which, though it denies this, seem designed to pre-empt the far worse hatchet job likely to be done to them if the Conservatives form a new government in a couple of months, as most of us expect, or dread, depending on our point of view. Sadly, Labour has not been particularly well-disposed towards our great broadcasting institution either, but I imagine the BBC rather fear that compared to an incoming Tory administration, persecution by the present lot will look like gentle chiding by a kindly parent. And I suspect they’re right.

Of course, the Conservatives may still not get in – their lead has fallen from 18% to 4% – but that’s another story.

Anyway, I’m deeply irritated by the British tendency to undervalue the very things that we actually do well. The BBC is one of them. And though it’s best known for its TV, it does excellent radio too.

The format of FOOC is simple. A few pieces read directly to the microphone by a correspondent in some out of the way place, like Ashgabat, Kabul, Paris or New York. There are no interviews or studio guests. It’s basically a transposition to the radio of the format of a comment piece from a newspaper. One of the better newspapers.

Today, FOOC included a piece from the CITES conference in Doha which, and I only mention this because it will come up again later, is the capital of the Gulf state of Qatar (Gulf as in ‘the one we don’t call the Persian Gulf any more, since we fell out with Iran’).

For those who haven’t been following this event, CITES is the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species. It recently refused to ban trade in blue fin Tuna. That decision was a victory for Japan, which used all its diplomatic muscle as well as its financial strength (they used promises of aid to buy votes, which in my book is pretty well indistinguishable from bribery) to prevent the ban being adopted.

It’s curious that people can decide not to make any sacrifice from their Sushi platter now, even at the price of having no blue fin Tuna for it at all in a few years time. Or ever again.

As it happens, I’ve noticed that people seem to get pretty strange when it comes to fishing. In Europe too, fishermen get terribly upset whenever a new quota is proposed. They resist any steps that might harm their living today, even if the alternative is to have no living at all tomorrow. They should take a look at the Grand Banks off the Canadian Atlantic Coast: it used to be said you could walk ashore on the backs of the cod; today fishing in the Grand Banks has collapsed.

Then again, if you’ve ever been cornered by fishermen telling you about the joys and excitements of what they wittily refer to as their ‘sport’, you won’t need me to tell you that they’re a pretty special breed.

In any case, it wasn’t what FOOC had to say about the content of the CITES conference itself that tickled me, it was the account of what happened when delegates were called on to test their voting machines. The chairman asked them to vote on whether Doha was the capital of Qatar – just as a test, you understand. Virtually everyone answered ‘yes’, but Cameroon and Croatia answered ‘no’.

Now is this simply ignorance? I’m sure that there are lots of people, myself included until a couple of hours ago, who might have struggled to name the capital of Qatar. But these guys have been living there for the last year or two, for God’s sake.

Or were we being given a glimpse of a hidden agenda? Are Cameroon and Croatia working on inevitably rival plans to incorporate Qatar into their own territory making Yaoundé or Zagreb, respectively, the capital?

Even more interesting was the case of China, which abstained. Is this because China just likes to abstain? Letting things happen but not being seen to support them? They do it all the time at the UN. Or perhaps they just don’t like casually using their vote, on either side of a question, without having extracted some concession first. You know – for recognition, even by CITES, of Chinese sovereignty over Tibet, they would be prepared to acknowledge the status of Doha. With all the necessary reservations, of course. Then again, given what an extraordinarily centralised and bureaucratic regime China is, perhaps they felt that they weren’t authorised to express a view without consulting their government first. Finally, perhaps it was simply a consequence of Google’s withdrawal from mainland China, leaving Chinese delegations without reliable access to general information.

So a few minutes of FOOC this morning gave me a good half hour of amused speculation this afternoon. Well done BBC. And good call, Michael.


Awoogamuffin said...

Glad you enjoy them too!

Yes, the fact that the Chinese abstained was hilarious

You know, I'm very close to finally catching up with my podcasts! It's taken four months but I'm also up to the present day. Amazing!

David Beeson said...

I've spent most of the weekend listening to old 'In Our Time' broadcasts - I feel quite educated this morning as a result.