Is there a Tongan parliamentarian in New York to reflect on climate dialogues at the 71st United Nations General Assembly as proceedings unfold? Fortunately we do have someone for our South Pacific Kingdom, Lord Fusitu’a, the noble’s representative for the Niua Group to Tonga’s Legislative Assembly.
Fiji’s fame had shot up on the international stage with the appointment of the 2016 President of the UN General Assembly, Peter Thomson. He was “the first Fijian and first Pacific Islander to obtain this high-office at the UN.” Delivering the Fiji statement at the UN headquarters on September 20th, Prime Minister Bainimarama impressed on the audience that Peter Thomson’s nation “is honoured and proud.”
Why wouldn’t this small island state be proud? Thomson, a white male and Fiji national, gestured with humility and gratitude at his Prime Minister’s praise by putting his hand on his heart. In that fleeting moment, the political interchange between Bainimarama and Thomson emotionally evoked that old 1980s tourism slogan – Fiji, the way the world should be. That was before the 1987 military coup changed the Fiji Islands forever.
Fiji in 2016 had a political history of three coups led by Rabuka, Speight, and the current Prime Minister Bainimarama. Although the Bainimarama regime may not have acknowledged it, twenty-first century migration had shaped Fiji’s national development.
The majority of Fijian migrants to New Zealand were Indian by ethnicity, not indigenous Fijian. They sang from the same page when recounting why they had moved: coups, political instability, and an unpredictable economy contaminated by military takeovers of national government.
There was also the other migration: the climate induced kind. Fiji was used to orchestrating consecutive clean-up operations in the aftermath of cyclones and storm floods. Quite possibly, it was the only time Fiji collaborated with the Tongan navy neighbours. That cooperation extended to the legion of aid donors who had overrun and occupied the Pacific region.
On that point, Fusitu’a’s panel contribution to The Commonwealth side-event preceding the UN General Assembly was important. This Tongan noble’s representative emphasised that migration, triggered by climate change, was the urgent development priority for Pacific Islands countries.
It was an honour and a pleasure to be part of this auspicious panel to dialogue on what is one of the most pressing issues globally, within the Commonwealth and especially within the Pacific region and for Tonga. I spoke on climate change-induced migration.
As a lawyer, he understood better than most that climate migration had to be accounted for in international law. Therefore, the principles driving the establishment of a legal framework protecting climate migrants’ rights to sovereignty and natural resources, had to be clearly mapped out.
The Baroness Scotland [spoke] on the question of the new jurisprudence required to address migration and particularly climate change-induced migration with respect to sovereignty and natural resources.
Subsequent to this, was the reality that migration and resettlement, particularly for non-Westerners, was part of the modern history and collective identity of diasporic peoples.
Ambassador Mohamed’s recognition that the challenges of migration are not new to us.
This was not to downplay that Pacific Islanders, when faced with rising sea levels, battled against forced migration because they did not want to leave their islands. Rather, it pointed to the fact that climate adaptation – as in the case of Kiribati purchasing land in Fiji to relocate their nationals – did involve migration for islanders whose lands were no longer inhabitable.
Whether Bainimarama was internationally liked or loathed was secondary to the fact he had clout in Pacific regional politics. The Fijian Prime Minister’s statement at the climate change high-level event on September 21st at the UN General Assembly was hard-hitting. He purposely spoke out, telling member states they had a moral obligation to ratify the Paris Agreement regulating the world’s carbon emissions.
Industrialised nations must not allow small and vulnerable states to bear the brunt of their excesses. Some countries in our own region, are distinct to be submerged altogether if global warming isn’t arrested. We must act now before it is too late.
Prime Minister Bainimarama
Bainimarama came at climate change from a completely different angle and communication style to Lord Fusitu’a. The Tongan Lord took a diplomatic tone, legalistically framing his thoughts. But were their messages opposed? No, definitely not.
Climate “migration with respect to sovereignty and natural resources,” were the key words that Fusitu’a conveyed to the public. The Pacific fight to survive bad weather came down to this. If we have to migrate because of climate change, then what happens to us as independent states? Are we still counted as a nation, a country, and a people without our islands? Think about it.