Stories from COP17
How intelligence agents monitored activists at the 2011 climate talks
In 2011, as the COP17 climate talks were set to take place in Durban and thousands of people planned to take to the streets in protest, several environmental groups and social justice activists reported getting calls or visits from Crime Intelligence officials. This was reported by leaders of Abahlali BaseMjondolo, the South Durban Community Environmental Alliance, and environmental group groundWork. The line of questioning they reported ranged from specific plans for protest action, to questions about the broader politics and activities of those involved – for example, Abahlali was questioned on its conflict with the eThekwini Mayor.
These experiences concerned the police’s Crime Intelligence division. However, new revelations in the recently leaked “Spy Cables” suggests that the State Security Agency may have had a similar mission: among the leaks is a secret agreement between the SSA and Zimbabwe’s Central Intelligence Organisation to exchange intelligence about COP17, including “monitoring of pressure groups and social media networks”. Surprisingly, this has not received media coverage.
Read the full document here:
When questioned on it in 2011, police spokesperson Vish Naidoo was quoted as saying, “They will be asking lots of questions to identify threats to the event, so that we can prepare ourselves. This is in no way intended to intimidate people. We have a constitution that defends the freedoms of expression and association… This is what we have done in relation to all the other major events that South Africa has hosted.”
As Jane Duncan has argued, this may sound reasonable, but it means that officials were already assuming that activist movements could veer into criminal activity. It also ignores how easily this can intimidate political opponents. Some activists involved in COP17 also expressed concern that some of the people attending their meetings may have been sent by intelligence agencies.
The apparent spying on civil society at the climate talks was not the first such incident during a large international event. Des D’Sa says that SDCEA had similar experiences with intelligence agents (although he is not sure from which structure) during the FIFA World Cup in 2010, the World Conference against Racism held in Durban in 2001, and the World Summit on Sustainable Development held in Johannesburg in 2002.
In the lead-up to the World Summit on Sustainable Development, the Anti-Privatization Forum (APF) also reported that NIA had tried to question its members on their plans – even attempting to recruit an informer.
TAKE AWAY QUESTIONS
• When people feel that they are being watched or are under suspicion, could that intimidate people or silence some voices in important debates?
• Do intelligence structures start with the assumption that activist organisations or movements could be dangerous or untrustworthy?
• Could major events become a pretext to intrude into the lives and privacy of local activists?