Laying the foundations for a Climate Change-ready Samoa

Early this week Samoa played host to the 2nd Pacific Islands Roundtable on International Humanitarian Law (I.H.L.), which was convened in partnership with the International Committee of the Red Cross (I.C.R.C.).

The crux of the discussions at the May 14-15 conference in Apia revolved around IHL and how it affected the region and the world, and whether there is an overlap between the law, its shortcomings in times of conflict and climate change.

The conference attracted delegates from 12 Pacific Island states and included representatives from the I.C.R.C. and international organisations such as the Commonwealth Secretariat. As the co-host of the 2019 roundtable discussions, Samoa hoped to build on the success of the first roundtable hosted by the Government of Fiji in 2017, as well as share its own experiences in IHL and how it tackled some of the challenges it faced at the national level as a small island state.

But before we delve into the discussions at the Apia roundtable and look at its relevance to Pacific Island states, we should define IHL and what it entails for Samoans.

The I.C.R.C. definition of I.H.L. is as follows: “It is a set of rules which seek, for humanitarian reasons, to limit the effects of armed conflict. It protects persons who are not or are no longer participating in the hostilities and restricts the means and methods of warfare. IHL is also known as the law of war or the law of armed conflict.”

And are issues connected to I.H.L. relevant to modern-day small island states like Samoa and its people? Yes. How? Climate change. Why? Food security and poverty challenges — brought on by the impact of Climate Change — can have a long-term effect on a country’s progress and prosperity.

In September last year, a report released by the United Nations’ Food and and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) pointed to Climate Change as the leading cause of increasing global hunger. 

The heads of the F.A.O., the International Fund for Agricultural Development (I.F.A.D.), the UN Children’s Fund (U.N.I.C.E.F.), the World Food Programme (W.F.P.) and the World Health Organisation (W.H.O.) appealed for an “integrated approach” to tackle the effects of Climate Change on food production systems.

“If we are to achieve a world without hunger and malnutrition in all its form by 2030, it is imperative that we accelerate and scale up actions to strengthen the resilience and adaptive capacity food systems and people’s livelihoods in response to climate variability and extremes,” the leaders said.

The Commonwealth Secretariat director (peace and governance), Katalaina Sapolu, made reference to the impact of Climate Change in her presentation at the Apia conference.  

“Extreme weather conditions can lead to water shortages, food shortages, when crops die it can lead to starvation. And a hungry man is an angry man,” she said.

“It is in those moments, when you have the effects of climate change, extreme poverty and extreme hunger; people will crowd to areas where they will get resources. If there is not enough space, all of that condensation of people in one small area, can lead to conflict.”

But questions remain on the linkages between Climate Change and conflict with Georgia Hinds, the I.C.R.C. Pacific Regional Legal Advisor, telling the recent conference in Apia that it is an issue that they continue to struggle with.

“What we (I.C.R.C.) are trying to do is hear from affected populations about their lived experience, to share our observations about the fact that when we do see populations that are affected by climate change, it affects the especially vulnerable – the elderly, the disabled, as does conflict,” she explained.

“As a lawyer I am also skeptical about being too hasty in making these causal links, and it is certainly not something that the I.C.R.C. has found so far that if we have climate change, therefore there will be conflict,” she said at the roundtable.

And while the debate continues on the linkages between Climate Change and conflict, we cannot downplay the connection between migration and potential conflict between the migrants and the host communities. 

These scenarios are already at play in Papua New Guinea, where Climate Change-affected communities in the northern coral atolls of the Autonomous Region of Bougainville, are relocating to the main island of Bougainville and hope to complete the migration programme by 2020. Thankfully, their migration has been trouble-free, except for funding hurdles. Unlike Papua New Guinea’s Manam Islanders — who were displaced by a volcanic eruption in 2004 and evacuated to the mainland in Madang Province — and have already clashed with local landowners over access to arable land to make gardens. 

While the P.N.G. case studies are a far cry from life in Samoa — with most of its 197,000 people the recipients of effective Government service delivery, and communities’ adherence to the Fa’a Samoa ensuring respect for both the modern and traditional systems of governance — its possession of only 2,842 square kilometres of land (on Savai’i, Upolu and eight smaller islands) would over time put more pressure on the community as its population grows and the demand for land increases.

The country’s hosting of the 2nd Pacific Islands Roundtable on International Humanitarian Law in Apia recently, ensures the Samoa Government stays on top of the issue and together with other Pacific Island states and donor partners considers the formulation of effective policies to better mitigate the effects of Climate Change going into the future.

Have a wonderful Friday Samoa and God bless.

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