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In the face of climate displacement – sovereignty should be assured

Last week, one of the humblest leaders in the Pacific, from one of our smallest most vulnerable nations, Hon. Enele Sopoaga, Prime Minister of Tuvalu, lashed out at former Prime Minister of Australia, Kevin Rudd, for a proposal that was very much reminiscent of the days of colonialism.

Rudd proposed an arrangement with Pacific countries such as Tuvalu, Kiribati and Nauru - requiring them to give up their rights to sovereignty, rights as citizens of those islands and rights to the resources within their exclusive economic zones and in return Australia will help relocate them and give them Australian citizenship. Essentially, it is trading your fish, resources, identity and ocean domain for an Australian passport and a spot on their piece of land. 

When I first read the proposal – it reminded me very much of the stories we learned in the history of our  own country, when the merchants and sailors arrived with mirrors and glass – brought around the Chiefs, broke the mirrors into a million pieces and offered it to the Chiefs for thousands of acres of land. But our Chiefs and Leaders are no longer of the same mind-set, and we have progressed. Sopo’aga was therefore very quick to point out how preposterous the idea was.

 

Sovereignty

In the essay Rudd proposes that Australia should be responsible for relocating island nations in the case of submersion as a result of the impacts of climate change on oceans.

His premise is that if islanders want to survive – then they should give up their independence and sovereignties to become Australians and in return they will be offered full rights and protection by Australia. He even goes so far as to use the term “climate refugees.”  

Sopoaga said: “We are a fully independent country, and there is no way I’m going to compromise our rights to fisheries resources, our rights to our immediate resources.”

For the people of Tuvalu and indeed for Pacific islanders who are facing the same threat, it’s not about merely moving to another country or surviving after the ocean takes over their fragile piece of land.

It’s about maintaining their independence, holding on to their identities and keeping their culture intact in the face of diminishing coastlines. It’s about the history of their people, the languages, the oratory, the mythologies and the strong sense of place, tied to land, that somehow, in the face of its entire submersion, need to be preserved.

 

Displacement

When these islands submerge in fifty to a hundred years’ time, which is a very likely possibility, and they have to migrate to other islands or countries in order to survive – Rudd infers that they have to give up their identities as sovereign nations when they move, in this case, to Australia. 

But if we go by the premise – that it is by no fault of their own that they are now having to relocate, then indeed, Australia holds some responsibility – given that they have one of the highest per capita emissions of carbon dioxide in the world.

But that responsibility should not incur stripping nationalities from small islands but rather to assist Pacific islands in preserving identities, maintaining sovereignties and in migrating with dignity. This was after all, not our doing. 

Displacement therefore goes beyond the sense of place – but rather the identity of a people. A good way of viewing this at a small scale is viewing the island as a family or village. Just because you leave your village doesn’t mean you are ousted from your family, or cut from your ancestral lineage or are stripped of your right to your Chiefly ties and history.

 

Survivors

Moving from a disappearing island does not mean abandoning one’s identity. It is a very sensitive issue, because those who are being displaced due to climate induced disasters, are not voluntarily migrating, they are essentially being forced to do so, out of necessity. They are not refugees, but survivors and citizens of nations who have gone underwater, not by their own doing. 

It would be unfortunate therefore for a nation who is not facing the same threat to offer assistance in exchange for the sovereignty of islands.

This is a gap in international law and one which will soon have to be addressed given the urgency of the climate crisis for low-lying atoll nations.

For now, for the people and Government of Tuvalu, they are an independent sovereign nation in full control of their resources and whose culture and identity as a people remain intact.  

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