A Strong Stand for Elephants at CITES

October 2, 2016

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Photo Credit: Cristian Samper © WCS

CITES made a strong statement for elephants by urging the closure of domestic ivory markets. What does it mean in real terms? Here are the details from Susan Lieberman, WCS's VP of International Policy.

Exactly what does this mean for the sale of domestic ivory globally?

The most important point is that it is a formal endorsement by the CITES Parties—the member governments—of the closure of domestic ivory markets. It won't magically close the markets, but it's a recognition that they need to close.

This is a compromise. That means that many countries wanted there to be no caveat "...that is contributing to poaching or illegal trade", while others wouldn't sign on without that. The reality is that ALL markets contribute to illegal trade and poaching. This way, it focuses more on the importing countries—the next time there is a big seizure in an importing country with an open market, it will put more pressure on them to close their market.

Does it carry the force of law internationally or within the individual States that are parties to CITES?

Resolutions are not legally binding. But they represent the will of the Parties—and that is one reason it is important that it will be adopted by consensus and not by a vote. But it is binding on the Secretariat. Some countries up until now have refused to even recognize or discuss the closure of domestic markets, or to accept that recommendations are within the purview of CITES; that will now be put to bed.

Is this just symbolic?

No—rather, it is a strong message that CITES is on the path to putting an end to ivory sales. Not all governments see it that way, but when we look back to CoP17 and 2016, I believe it will be seen that way.

Does the resolution move China/Hong Kong and others closer to closing their domestic ivory markets?

China, including Hong Kong SAR, have already said they will close their markets. And China was strong on the issue in the Working Group. This will help ensure they close their market soon.

Is there a timetable around this resolution?

No, but it does say governments need to do this as a matter of urgency.

Are there verification measures to ensure Parties are complying?

Yes. For the first time, Parties are required to report to the Secretariat on the status of the legality of their domestic ivory markets (including implementation of this Resolution, "including efforts to close those markets that contribute to illegal killing or illegal trade"). That will now get reported to CITES Standing Committee meetings, and the next CoP. It elevates the issue, and will increase pressure on countries that have not closed their markets—focusing attention on those countries that are a particular problem. This is a big step.

Does the resolution prevent the re-opening of domestic trade in the future?

Unfortunately, no. The CoP has the right to change any resolution at any CoP, but that would take a 2/3 majority, which is not going to happen. And the CoP can adopt any problem, but again, that takes a 2/3 majority.

What will be the most immediate impact of the passage of this resolution?

Increased attention will be focused on countries that are a major problem for ivory trafficking, particularly importing countries—and there will be pressure on them to close their markets ASAP.

No one can ever say again that CITES cannot take a position on the issue.

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