The COP26 Blue Zone: UN or UK Territory

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When thousands of Glasgow residents queued up earlier this year to receive their covid vaccination at one of Scotland’s largest concert venues, I doubt many of them were thinking about the fact that the space where they were receiving their jabs would soon come under UN control. With the TRIPs vaccine waiver animating international law discourse at the time, it was nearly impossible not to reflect on the privilege of the citizens of a very few states in comparison to the deprival of the citizens of the many states that would soon be represented at COP26 in the very same space I was receiving my vaccine. Due to a combination of ‘vaccines, visas and quarantine requirements’ this may be the whitest COP ever.

For the venue which saw the delivery of almost 5,000 vaccines per day is now a part of the COP26 Blue Zone. This Blue Zone is where the key negotiations between world leaders takes place. Only those accredited by the UNFCCC may access this space. There is also a ‘Green Zone’ which is managed by the UK Government who have organized a series of civil society events, exhibitions, and workshops.

The COP26 site map
Source: Get Ready Glasgow

While the delivery of vaccines was a logistical triumph, the logistics of COP26, from the perspective of the particular place, raise many complex legal questions on everything from domestic policing to the very meaning of sovereignty. In the runup to the COP26 conference, the Blue Zone has been variously described as ‘international territory’, ‘UN territory’, ‘still [UK] sovereign soil’ and ‘private space’. The question of who exercises what forms of jurisdiction and where, has concerned politicians and public authorities but has been dealt with in a remarkably inconsistent and unclear manner. In this post, I problematise the status of the Blue Zone and by drawing on insights from the fields of critical geography and social constructivism think about how this situation may offer us insights into the concept of territory in international law.

International Territory, UK Soil or Private Campus

The ‘Scottish Events Campus’ was officially ‘handed over’ to the UN on Friday 29 October 2021. The Blue Zone has now been constituted and, for the duration of the next two weeks, placed under UN control. And yet, the legal status of the space has left more than a few observers and stakeholders confused. For example, a January 2020 Police Scotland briefing indicated that:

‘The Conference centre is handed over to the United Nations (UN) on Friday 06 November until the end of the Conference. During that time, the UN retain control of the site (known as the Blue zone) which will become International Territory and fall under International Law’.

This statement carries significant ramifications not only for the practical organization of on-the-ground policing and the logistics of recording and investigating any crimes that may occur within the Blue Zone. If the Blue Zone were indeed an international territory, it would also have profound implications under international law, not least for the question of UK’s sovereign rights and prerogatives over this part of Glasgow.

The position was reversed by Police Scotland Assistant Chief Constable who confirmed that:

‘There was some miscommunication, but we have now received clarification. The United Nations will take control of the campus on the Sunday morning before the conference starts on 9 November. Within that area is a designated area called the Blue Zone, which will be under United Nations control and will be patrolled by United Nations security guards. Initially, it was believed that that zone would be defined as international territory, but I must be clear that that will not be the case. We now have legal advice that says that the zone will still be sovereign soil and will still be under the jurisdiction of Scots law and the Lord Advocate [the chief legal officer of the Scottish government].

The simplest way that I can put it, from an operational perspective, is that we are, in effect, treating the zone as private space. When Police Scotland deals with any matter in private space, we can enter only at the request of the owner of the property, under warrant or, in extremis, when there is a threat to life. That will be the basis on which we will police the blue zone.’

The shift in legal assessment is remarkable: having ruled out the possibility of the Blue Zone being international territory, the new statement brings in three further conceptualisations of its spatial character. Firstly, it is said to be a space subject to the jurisdiction of Scots law (the sources of which include legislation passed by both the Parliament of the United Kingdom and the Scottish Parliament). Secondly, it is identified also as the UK sovereign soil. Thirdly, and not least curiously, it is also said to be effectively equated to ‘private space’.

Finally, the website of Police Scotland continues as of 1 November 2021 to say that ‘The Blue Zone is where the official negotiations take place. This is a UN-territory and subject to international law.’ This idea of it being UN or international territory is widely reported in mainstream media (see here, here, here and here).

So, what exactly then is the legal status of the Blue Zone? There seem to be at least five competing conceptions on offer: international territory, UN-territory, a space subject to the jurisdiction of Scots law (as opposed to international law, setting aside the question of whether Scotland is always simultaneously subject to both Scots and international law), UK sovereign soil, and private space. This may at first glance seem to be nothing more complex than choosing the most appropriate label. And yet each of these labels indicate in practice a very different arrangement of the bundle of rights that can be exercised in relation to the Blue Zone, not least in terms of determining which actors have the authority to control the exercise of other actors’ rights within that space. If the Blue Zone is UN territory, then the fact that only those accredited by the UNFCCC may enter its space is less like the scenario of a private club refusing admission to non-members and more akin to a border control scenario where the accreditation rules function in a similar way to a visa or passport regime. The crucial difference, of course, is that in the former case Scots law clearly applies as the governing legal regime, providing a system of overarching guarantees, protections, and remedies, inter alia, against potential discriminatory practices on the part of the club’s administration and other human rights violations. But if it is UN territory, where are the equivalent protections and remedies? Who is to be held responsible for this being the ‘whitest ever’ COP?

(Re-)Interpreting Territory

The traditional international law response to all of this is that the Blue Zone continues to be a part of UK territory, where the UK alone exercises sovereignty; as part of its sovereign prerogative, the UK has invited the UN to host an event in its territory, wherein as an act of courtesy it has extended to the UN certain temporary privileges.

A different way of approaching the question of the Blue Zone’s status and character as a legal space, informed by critical geography and social constructivism, could conceive of it as being UN territory, but this involves unthinking the concept of territory as physical geography. Territory, in this view of things, is not understood as simply the spatial container for sovereignty, such that whoever’s territory the Blue Zone may be – UN, UK, or the people of Scotland – by implication must have sovereignty over it. Instead, territory is a space that is constantly produced and reproduced through the practices of actors exercising authority. The territory of one actor may be temporally bound by a three-week period. It may overlap the same physical geography as the territory of another actor that controls a different bundle of rights, powers, and prerogatives.

The concept of control, as it is understood here, must be exercised by someone or some institution. For a legal regime that ‘simply’ has a spatial dimension to instead constitute a territory, there must be an actor exercising some element of power to discipline the exercise of rights by other actors within the space. The familiar concept of territory in international law understands only states to be capable of exercising this form of power. That is a normative and nonempirical assumption. From the perspective of social constructivism, abstract normative theory tells us little about the practices of social actors. Are states the only actors able to control the exercise of others’ rights in relation to the physical geography identified as state territory? Can other actors discipline activities taking place in that same physical geography? If the answer to the first question is ‘no’ and the second ‘yes’, then the traditional concept of territory may have outlived its use.

Is the Blue Zone a UN territory or is it a UK territory? The approach suggested here, and that I developed in my PhD, allows us to say, without any contradiction, that the Blue Zone is the territory of an international organization that ‘maps onto’ territory of the UK. The UN manages who accesses the Blue Zone and its Joint Operations Centre is responsible for security within the Blue Zone. Police Scotland may only enter the Blue Zone by invitation. While Scots Law continues to apply in many ways, its application is limited. It is limited for example, by the fact that UN officials have immunity, for whom much more than for anyone else the Blue Zone thus embodies the idea of a UN territory. The bundle of rights to exercise powers and prerogatives of control, in this sense, one might say, has not so much been ‘taken away’ from the UK state as reassembled between a different combination of state and non-state actors.

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Zsuzsanna Deen-Racsmány says

November 2, 2021

Thank you for an interesting and novel analysis of this recurring problem!

I think the (Draft) Agreement between the UK and the UNFCCC Secretariat is also relevant here:

https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/999912/TS_16.2021_UK_Secretariat_UNFCCC_Draft_Agreement_COP_26.pdf

See e.g. Article 10(12):
"The pre-sessional meetings/Conference/UNFCCC meetings premises specified in Article 1
above are premises of the United Nations in the sense of Article II, section 3, of the General Convention
and access thereto is subject to the authority and control of the secretariat. These premises shall be
inviolable for the duration of the pre-sessional meetings/Conference/UNFCCC meetings, as well as
during the setup and dismantling periods as detailed in the memorandum of understanding to be concluded pursuant to paragraph 2 of Article 9 of this Agreement."

And I suppose the MOU referred to in this provision may also be of interest. I for one would be very interested to see it!