Remembering Martin Khor: Journalist, Lawyer, and Climate Activist

Khor contributed greatly to the development  discourse of the global South. He also wrote extensively for the Economic & Political Weekly, particularly on climate change.


Early on 1 April 2020, renowned journalist and economist, Martin Khor, passed away in Penang. During the course of his illustrious career, he was the Executive Director of the South Centre since 1 March 2009. He was also an advisor to the Third World Network, of which he was also formerly, director for. Khor had also been a member of various committees associated with the United Nations (UN), that worked for global development projects. 

The Chief Minister of Penang, Chow Kon Yeow, extended his condolences to Khor’s family, while the president of the Consumers’ Association of Penang, of which Khor was the secretary, said, "He was an intellectual who communicated in a simple manner to reach out to the people. He worked tirelessly for a just and equitable world economic order. He also gave up his job as a civil servant in the Ministry of Finance, Singapore.” 

Khor contributed greatly to the development discourse of the global South. Publications like the Inter Press Service, where he wrote editorials, have commemorated him by republishing his work. 

Khor also wrote extensively for the Economic & Political Weekly, particularly on climate change, and reported the proceedings from various climate summits for EPW. Not only was his reportage detailed to the minute, but it stood apart for the depth of his analysis that cut sharply through his narrative. 

In this reading list, we remember Khor by reiterating the importance of his work on climate change. 

The Real Tragedy of Copenhagen

Khor was extremely critical of the Copenhagen Accord, which was drawn up after the UN climate conference in December 2010. He noted that it was only three pages long, and left out everything that should have been more important. He discussed the unfairness with which the developing countries were treated during this conference and pointed out that the larger failure was that it should have been designed as a stepping stone, and not as a final conclusion to the climate discourse. 

It was the intention of the conference chairman, Danish Prime Minister Lars Rasmussen, to first get a small group of leaders to reach an agreement and then to ram it through the COP (Conference of Parties made up of all 193 members of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change), giving the full membership little time to consider the document. However, decisions at the COP are made by consensus, and objections from several developing countries, first to the undemocratic process and second to the content of the Accord, meant that the COP only “took note” of the document, and did not “adopt” it. In UN terms, taking note of a document gives it a low status. It means that the meeting did not approve or pass it, and did not view it either positively or negatively.

The non-adoption of a three-page document from a secretive small meeting of some 26 leaders that should not even have taken place should not have spelt a disaster. Unfortunately in the immediate aftermath of the conference, it was projected blaming countries like Venezuela, Bolivia and Sudan, that spoke up against the process in the COP.

Doha 2012: A Climate Conference of Low Ambitions 

In 2012, the annual UN Climate Change Conference was in Doha and concluded on 8 December. Following the conference, Khor wrote that the commitments made by developed countries were low, particularly with regard to emission cuts and climate financing for developing countries.  He, therefore, called it a climate summit of “low ambition,” where though the conference adopted many decisions, the main ones were on the Kyoto Protocol’s second period in which some developed countries committed to cut their emissions of greenhouse gases for the period 2013-20.  

It was already 4 am on Saturday 13 December. The conference should have ended on Friday 6 pm. The conference had thus moved into “extra time,” and with a new referee. Could the president salvage an agreement which could not be reached after two weeks of fierce contest under the co-chairs?

The minister quickly got into the act on 13 December morning, meeting with all the groups with their different views, and with the ministers of key countries like the United States (US), European Union (EU), China and India. A breakthrough came when a critical demand of the developing countries seemed to be accepted by the president, and more importantly, by the US.

It was the issue of “common but differentiated responsibilities” (CBDR), a term that is prominent in the UNFCCC denoting that all countries have to act but the developed countries have to undertake greater emission-reduction commitments because of their role in creating the climate crisis (they are responsible for most of the cumulative emissions in the atmosphere) and of their higher economic status. Developing countries also have to act, but their actions are to be supported by finance and technology transfer. In fact, a key provision of the convention (Article 4.7) states that the extent to which developing countries take climate actions depends on the extent to which developed countries meet their commitments on providing financial resources and on technology transfer to developing countries.

Understanding the Lima: Climate Conference A Proxy Battle for the 2015 Paris Agreement 

In 2015, Khor wrote that the Conference of Parties of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change in Lima that had taken place in December 2014 was a prelude to the bigger battles in the international climate change discourse, which would conclude with an entirely new climate agreement in Paris in December 2015. Given that it took two whole weeks to decide a simple agenda in Lima, Khor was sceptical about the time it would take for countries to arrive at resolutions in Paris, which had far more contentious and difficult negotiations on the table. 

At the time the conference was scheduled to close, on the night of 12 December, the majority of developing countries told the plenary session that they could not accept a draft decision that had been prepared by the co-chairs of the Durban Platform Working Group. They found the draft did not contain the issues that were important to them, and that it was skewed in favour of the developed countries.

Accepting such a draft would put the developing countries at a serious disadvantage when the negotiations start this year. There will be three or four intensive meetings in 2015 that will climax with the signing of the Paris agreement in December.

One by one, the developing countries and their groupings spoke up in criticism of the co-chairs’ draft. 

An Assessment of the Rio Summit on Sustainable Development 

For Rio+20, however, Khor wrote that the summit was not the failure that many thought it was.  Particularly, he analysed the main outcomes of the new "sustainable development goals," which he thought brought out the complex nature of the environmental challenges that were before the world. 

The United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, more popularly known as Rio+20 commemorating the 20th anniversary of the 1992 Earth Summit, ended with expressions of deep disappointment from broad sections of members of the media and the environmental non-governmental organi­sations who saw little new commitments to action in the final text that was adopted by the heads of state and government and their senior official.

This was understandable as much had been expected from the Rio+20 summit, the biggest international gathering of world leaders this year. There was unhappiness and frustration that the hundred heads of state and government who came to Rio de Janeiro were unable or not asked to take decisive actions. There was a sense that the speeches, round tables and panel discussions at the huge Rio Centro conference venue were part of a ceremonial function for the political leaders, while the tough decisions required by the crises were avoided or postponed.

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