Montreal, Canada – Earlier last month, Cristiana Pasça Palmer, a former Romanian environment minister, told staff at the secretariat of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), where she has been executive secretary since March 2017, she was “at a crossroads where I must accept that due to a mixture of factors increasingly affecting my health, I am unable to continue this journey and lead the CBD Secretariat on the road to the UN Biodiversity Conference in China”.

Documents seen by Climate Home News describe a chaotic work environment at the secretariat, widespread staff illness and resignations and allegations that Pasça Palmer discriminated against African staff members on the basis of their race.

They also show she had fallen into conflict with the bureau that represents national governments that have signed the convention. This culminated in a top Egyptian official and former executive secretary accusing her of improperly intervening in deliberations over the renewal of her contract.

Pasça Palmer declined to be interviewed for this article or respond to the allegations, repeating that she was taking time off to be with family and recover from health problems.

The upheaval at the secretariat comes at a critical moment. Scientists warn more than one million species face extinction, many within decades. At the CBD’s 15th major conference (Cop15) in October 2020, countries will try to agree new targets and processes for the protection of biodiversity over the next ten years.

These will replace the 2011-2020 goals, brokered in Aichi, Japan, which have almost universally failed to draw a response from governments. Observers are calling it the “last chance” to avert total breakdown of the natural world. It is also hoped the 2020 meeting will bolster the use of nature’s own solutions to slow the rate of global warming.

The role of the secretariat and the executive secretary is vital in assisting national governments to find agreements during complex negotiations.

UN executive secretaries often become global spokespeople for their remit. This was an element of Pasça Palmer’s job in which observers say she was highly effective, raising the profile of the convention through media interviews and meetings with political leaders around the world.

In her resignation announcement to staff, she said “biodiversity and nature are increasingly regaining their central role as a critical emergency”, noting “growing and unprecedented support from many heads of state and governments”.

But as her advocacy and punishing travel schedule gained traction, Pasça Palmer’s relationship with the Cop bureau – a body of 14 officials elected to represent the convention’s member states – became strained.

A major source of tension was Pasça Palmer’s reaction to an article published in the Namibian, that country’s largest daily newspaper, on 29 August.

The Namibian reported that African members of the bureau were concerned with Pasça Palmer’s management and reports of discrimination from within the secretariat. A document, allegedly prepared by the officials, said “Africa supports no extension of the term of the executive secretary” when her contract expires in March 2020.

In an email to the bureau and the Egyptian Cop presidency in the week following the story’s publication, Pasça Palmer called the document “derogatory” and asked for help investigating whether African members had “any association with the article” and whether the document represented a “unanimous view from the African region”. She said she had spoken to African representatives who were not aware of the document and asked the bureau to issue a disclaimer.

It was an overstep. In an indignant email a week later, Hamdallah Zedan, a representative of the Egyptian Cop presidency and himself a former executive secretary of the CBD, said her request and questioning of Zedan and African officials “shockingly interferes in and undermines an intergovernmental process and entity” and was done with “unbelievable audacity”.

His email was sent to members of the bureau and Pasça Palmer’s direct boss UN Environment executive secretary Inger Andersen.

“Ms. Pasca-Palmer [sic] is asking, in the name of transparency, the bureau to take a favourable position or at least to quickly make its position clear about her request for an extension of her contract. This is inappropriate and unacceptable,” Zedan concluded and asked Andersen to take “appropriate measures”.

A month later, Andersen wrote to member states to announce “with regret” Pasça Palmer was leaving the CBD. Neither the UN nor Pasça Palmer would comment on whether these events were linked.

While her behaviour breached norms around the traditional subservience of the executive secretary to member states, Pasça Palmer’s complaint that the note did not represent a whole-of-Africa position were backed up by CHN’s own investigation.

Several African national representatives – not part of the bureau – were not aware of the document’s existence when contacted by CHN. This leaves open the possibility the note was fake, or prepared by African members of the bureau without consultation with other African officials.

Melesse Maryo, Ethiopia’s top CBD representative and a member of the bureau, would not confirm or deny the document’s authenticity. He told CHN it was not “the Africans’ views” that caused Pasça Palmer to resign.

“The issue is not important for [Africa]. Things have been met already because of some other reasons. Because she got sick physically and she resigned,” he said.

Alongside the souring of relations with member states, staff at the CBD secretariat in Montreal, Canada had become increasingly demoralised, according to preliminary findings by auditors from the UN’s Office of International Oversight Services (OIOS), leaked to CHN.

The national governments who are members of the convention requested the audit, which is a routine practice for UN bodies. The final report, which the UN said was being “finalised”, would have allowed Pasça Palmer to respond to the findings. It is not yet public.

In interviews, staff told auditors there had been a breakdown in trust with management and Pasça Palmer’s busy travel schedule made her unavailable. This made the secretariat a “conflictual and stressful” place to work.

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