Tiny Vanuatu Uses Its ‘Unimportance’ to Launch Big Climate Ideas

Nikenike Vurobaravu presides over a small country with a big role to play in climate diplomacy.

Rising sea levels threaten the very existence of his Pacific island nation of Vanuatu with a population of just over 300,000. Its best defense, he said, is to raise its voice creatively in international diplomatic negotiations.

From Vanuatu in 1991, the idea was that industrialized countries must pay the price for the irreversible climate damage that developing countries like Vanuatu’s have to face. Last month at the United Nations climate talks in Egypt, an agreement was reached — after 30 years of negotiations — to establish a fund to help poor countries cope with the loss and damage caused by climate change. Queen.

Earlier this year, Mr. Vurobaravu used the United Nations General Assembly podium for the first time to ask a fossil fuel “nuclear non-proliferation treaty.”

Now, he’s making Vanuatu’s most provocative offer yet. He wants the International Court of Justice, the world’s highest judicial body, based in The Hague, to consider whether governments have a “legal obligation” to protect people from gas hazards. consequences, and more importantly, whether failure to meet those obligations may have “legal consequences” under applicable international law. In short, it asks the court to say whether countries can be sued for climate inaction.

“We come up with different things,” said Mr. Vurobaravu, a quiet man with a drooping gray mustache that makes him look like a sad face emoji. As he said, being a small country with an unimportant history, Vanuatu has learned to innovate. “If you try to proceed the way others do, I believe we will not get very far,” he said.

The draft resolution was co-sponsored by 17 other countries, including at least one industrialized nation with a historically large emitter – Germany. Neither the US nor China support it.

Diplomacy may be Vanuatu’s only defense. Vanuatu has no army and no valuable goods except for tuna, which is increasingly leaving Vanuatu’s territorial waters as the ocean warms.

by Vanuatu draft resolution The request for a legal opinion from the International Court of Justice was up for discussion in mid-November at the General Assembly. Talks on word-for-word and comma-by-word are expected to take place in the coming months, with a possible vote in early 2023. To pass, the resolution needs a majority of the 193 member states. at the General Assembly. The votes of the superpowers and the small states are counted equally.

To understand Vanuatu’s exceptional outsized role requires understanding its unique history.

The islands, inhabited by indigenous Melanesian people since the sixth century BC, were ruled by Britain and France for nearly 100 years. Europeans were attracted to Vanuatu’s sandalwood in the early 1800s, then its land and labor. Settlers established cotton plantations, then coffee, bananas, and coconuts.

Vanuatu gained independence in 1980.

That’s when Mr. Vurobaravu, who trained as a lawyer, became a diplomat. He established his country’s foreign service.

In 1981, when Vanuatu occupy a seat in the General Assembly, his friend Robert Van Lierop, an American filmmaker turned lawyer, became the organization’s first special envoy to the United Nations. Vanuatu went on to help form the Alliance of Small Island States, or AOSIS, which has since become an influential 39-nation bloc in global climate negotiations. Mr. Van Lierop proposed a “loss and damage” mechanism in 1991, when a United Nations climate convention was being negotiated.

Mr. Vurobaravu said the idea to seek legal opinions from the International Court of Justice came from a group of law students four years ago. At that time, the capital of Vanuatu was hit by a Category 5 hurricane, Pam. The whole village was flattened. Crops were destroyed. One Early warning system has been documented with keeping the death toll low: 11 deaths.

Mr. Vurobaravu is 72 years old and the grandfather of two children. “The effects of climate change are getting worse and worse,” he said. “When I look at their faces and I think what they’ll be like when they’re 20, when they’re 30?”

Category 4 and 5 tornadoes are common now, and the November-March tornado season is also the growing season for subsistence farmers in Vanuatu. The last major tornado of 2020 hit his home island, Malo. For almost a year, the people of Malo relied on aid.

Currently, six villages on four islands have been relocated. Drinking water has become salty and they can’t live anymore. Cyclones and warmer ocean waters have destroyed the coral reefs and fish species many people inhabit. Dengue and malaria are on the rise.

That’s why when law students asked to consider whether existing international laws could be used to protect future generations, Mr. Vurobaravu said, he couldn’t refuse them. In his culture, he said, elders have obligations.

“They’re asking for government leadership, they’re asking for regional leadership, they’re asking international leaders to fulfill their obligations,” he said.

Last month, Mr. Vurobaravu sat in a small room at a noisy, crowded conference center in Sharm el Sheikh, where climate talks were held, and reflected on what had happened. requirements of the younger generation. He said he’s heard them ask, “Why are you so into fossil fuels?”

The legal opinion campaign is complicated by geopolitics. A similar effort more than a decade ago by two other Pacific island nations, the Marshall Islands and Palau, went nowhere, largely due to opposition from more powerful nations. (The United States has jurisdiction over the defense and security of both countries, and the U.S. Army has a missile defense site in the Marshall Islands.)

Vanuatu’s geopolitical ties are different. China is increasing its diplomatic influence in the Pacific, including with Vanuatu, which is introducing Chinese guide in its schools. Australia is its largest trading partner and the country is protected by Australia, New Zealand and France.

It has diplomatic eggs in many baskets, and its president has said he is unconcerned with pressure from rich, industrialized countries to abandon the campaign for an international legal perspective. “If they threaten us, do we stop? Will this stop? I doubt that, ma’am,” he said.

The draft resolution asks the International Court of Justice, or ICJ, to review existing laws, such as conventions on cultural rights and the Law of the Sea, to consider whether they protect current generations. and future from climate hazards. Several national courts have ruled in favor of activists’ cases, based in part on international law.

Michael Gerrard, a law professor at Columbia Law School who was involved in the earlier effort, said: “The ICJ’s decision is possibly the most authoritative statement to date on the obligations imposed by international law. put on countries to control their greenhouse gas emissions. by Palau and the Marshall Islands.

As Mr. Vurobaravu recounts, Vanuatu’s diplomatic strategy has been shaped by its history. Britain and France, rival powers, could never agree on almost everything regarding the administration of Vanuatu.

Vanuatu must map out strategies that larger, more powerful countries would have no reason to pursue, he said. “We have to learn to manage our unimportantness. And I know that sounds a bit corny and funny, but our people have had to do it for 75 years,” he said. “We still do.”


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