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Pacific Islands ready to fight

Today's CaribbeanThe island states of the Pacific are outraged at what they regard as indifference by industrialized countries of the effects of climate change on their survival and, in some cases, their very existence.

Meeting in Fiji at the Pacific Islands Development Forum (PIDF) in early September, heads of government were militant in their readiness to confront the world’s polluting nations in Paris in December at the UN Climate Change Conference.

Attending the PIDF as a participant, I was impressed by the determined stance taken by Pacific Islands leaders. The clear message was “enough is enough”.

Fiji’s Prime Minister Voreqe Bainimarama delivered the message most forcefully when he told the forum that they had gathered to discuss “the single greatest challenge of our age –– the threat to the entire world and especially small island developing states posed by climate change”.

His assertion was fully supported by every other leader who spoke at the forum, most significantly by Tuvalu’s Prime Minister Enele Sopoaga, whose country’s existence is severely threatened.  In a compelling statement, he said the last option for his country was “to migrate to another nation” –– a real prospect, as any further rise in level of the sea will drown his country.

Sopoago told a silent and attentive audience of over 300 representatives from Pacific countries that his people
“do not want to leave their forefathers and dead relatives behind”.

Along with Tuvalu, the Marshall Islands and Kiribati are also confronting extinction.  But, the Fijian prime minister, in a combative mood, declared: “We in the Pacific are not prepared to simply sit back weakly and allow this to happen . . . . We are gearing up for the biggest struggle Pacific Islanders have ever faced –– the fight for our survival.”

And, he added: “We intend to take the fight with other island and low-lying nations all the way to Paris.”

At the end of its meeting, the PIDF issued The Suva Declaration –– a collective statement by all the Pacific Islands governments, private sectors and non-governmental organizations –– setting out the joint position that they will take in Paris. They have resolved not to be sidetracked from demands for meaningful reductions in carbon emissions by the industrialized countries and binding cuts to arrest the current rate of global warming.

Prime Minister Bainimarama was at his most forceful when he described those who refused to make such cuts as “the coalition of the selfish” and declared that they would “stand condemned in the eyes of the world”.

The Suva Declaration is an important statement to the international community, not only because it reflects the resolve of Pacific small island states to stand up against climate change, but because it is the stance of all them. It is a fully inclusive position adopted by all the islands in the region regardless of constitutional status, language or ethnicity.

It assumes a greater significance because it is the agreed standpoint of governments, the private sector and
non-governmental organizations. Therein lies its power.

The strong position jointly taken by governments, private sectors and civil society of all Pacific countries is an example to the Caribbean region. The governments of the 15 member countries of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) have also made a strong collective statement on climate change and have articulated a joint approach to the Paris meeting. But, unlike the Pacific, other Caribbean states, including the independent states of Cuba and the Dominican Republic and the many dependencies of France, the Netherlands, the United States and Britain, are not part of the single chorus of raised voices. Neither are the region’s private sector and civil society.

What made this coalition possible in the Pacific is the PIDF, established three years ago as an inclusionary body of governments, private sector and civil society. Each has equal status in the forum whose concentration is the development challenges facing the region. Fijian prime minister Bainimarama, who played a pivotal role in the creation of the PIDF, said that the Pacific Islanders “wanted something more inclusive, a platform for our civil society organizations –– the genuine voice of the grass roots in the Pacific, and for the private sectors –– the principal generators of the jobs on which our people’s welfare depends”.

At the PIDF in the Fijian capital, the governments and other participants signed a charter for the organization giving it a legal personality and recognition as a representative diplomatic organ of Pacific countries.

All of the governments made it clear that they did not regard the PIDF as an alternative or rival to the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) –– a grouping of 14 Pacific islands with Australia and New Zealand. They see the PIDF’s role as complementary to the work of the PIF with the only difference being that it excludes Australia and New Zealand, the two most powerful members of the region.

Representatives of several Pacific Islands governments argue that the development concerns of the Pacific Islands ought to be considered in their own councils, particularly as sometimes those concerns put them at odds with their bigger neighbours. To the concurrence of his colleague leaders of the Pacific Island states, the Fijian prime minister told the gathering of more than 300 participants that it was time for “those members of the PIF who are not small island developing states to step back from the table to allow us to determine our own agenda and chart our own course”.

The Pacific small island states certainly set their own agenda on climate change in The Suva Declaration which is the common position they will advance together in Paris.   The fundamental policies, set out in the declaration, are very similar to those adopted by CARICOM Heads of Government at their summit last July. There is, therefore, ample room for the Pacific and Caribbean small island states to collaborate in Paris to stamp on the consciousness of the world that far greater than any other threat to mankind’s survival is climate change. Small island states that are already its victims will not go down without a fight.

(Sir Ronald Sanders is Antigua and Barbuda’s Ambassador to the United States, and a senior fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London, and Massey College, University of Toronto. Responses and previous commentaries:

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