From a distance, the United Nations General Assembly hall resembles a sea of suits in a variety of colours, sizes, and kinds. When you put away the vala tupenu and tau’ovala to suit up for the annual shindig at UN Headquarters in Manhattan, New York, does that make you one of them? One of what is the chorus call. One of those guys sleeping at the wheel for Tonga.
There was the tourism minister for the Tongan delegation, Semisi Sika. Eyes closed with hands clasped in prayer-like fashion, he looked as if he was sitting in church on Sunday taking a nap. Maybe he was, psychologically. The point is Tonga is not just a small island state, but a poor island state.
The poor Tongan taxpayer funds the UN gravy train for travelling ministers, parliamentarians, and senior bureaucrats. In all honesty, what work are they doing there, and how can ordinary Tongans hold them to account to ensure they are not wasting public money, not to mention, public confidence?
Without a doubt, the high-performance parliamentarian for Tonga at the 2016 UN General Assembly was Lord Fusitu’a. This noble’s representative for the Niua group rolled up his sleeves and did the hard yards, providing meaningful dialogue at meetings on climate change and sustainable development for SIDS – small islands developing states.
Radio New Zealand’s Koro Vaka’uta broke the story for mainstream media: Tongan noble calls for clearer laws on climate migration. The SIDS of the Pacific region had a list of development priorities they were pushing at high-level talks. Fusitu’a’s climate change expertise extended from his profession as a lawyer interested in how jurisprudence framed international human rights. He wanted legal definitions applicable to climate induced migration firmed up in international law and UN policy regimes.
And why wouldn’t he? The man was a barrister and solicitor, a legislator, and the noble and estate-holder for a volcanic island, Niua Fo’ou, on Tonga’s northernmost sea border. Neatly packed in his analysis of climate migration were heartfelt sentiments for his home island.
It would not only have an effect on the people [of Niua Fo’ou] who had to migrate but the legal ramifications of Tonga no longer having a populous on that island or in that area would mean questions would be raised about our claim to that particular island and the borders of our EEZ or economic zone, because of that migration.
Unravelling the knots binding sovereignty to land, sea, and national identity, Fusitu’a queried the permanence of Tonga’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ). If Niua Fo’ou people, his people, were forced by climate change to evacuate, then could the Kingdom’s national border be challenged or disputed in any way?
The legal rationale was oriented in the notion that possession is nine-tenths of the law. Physical occupation of a landed territory granted people a more convincing claim to property ownership than if they did not live on the land, or in the place and area, which they declared belonged to them.
The Pacific was the largest saltwater region and contested space on earth. Furthermore, there was no other planet to migrate to when human beings destroyed this one. Noting that, domestic politics inside Tonga presented overlapping difficulties to realising climate justice.
For ordinary Tongans, no one truly knew who was out there digging for gold at the bottom of the sea. The number of commercial licenses for mining companies the Minister for Lands, Lord Ma’afu, had approved was not public information made readily available. Why was that, and how did seabed mining conflict with environmental policy on natural resource conservation and climate resilience?
The contradictory national policies – commercial mining versus sensible environmental guardianship – were exacerbated by Prime Minister Pohiva’s management of the conflict. He didn’t settle the discrepancy, but worsened it. His statement for Tonga at the 71st United Nations General Assembly highlighted this.
As a small island developing state, or, in other words, a sea-locked developing country, our traditional and modern interest in the ocean will place the conservation and sustainable use of the ocean and its natural resources at the forefront of our interest.
Prime Minister Pohiva
Tongans are not politically naïve: we do know that national security interests are tied to our country’s territorial bounds in the Pacific Ocean. But for ‘Akilisi Pohiva to step up to the UN mic spinning an official line, when really, the ocean floor was getting sold off by his own government, was of no practical use to advancing Tonga.
What was the Pohiva administration’s take on national interests? Hocking off commercial seabed mining licenses to foreigners, and praying that it makes some money for the country. Not good news for a South Seas Kingdom.