Student takes Pacific climate change issues to the UN

From left to right: Human Rights Officer Benjamin Schachter, School of Social Work student Rae Bainteiti, South American Network for Environmental Migrations Founder Erika Ramos and Envoy of the Chair of the Platform on Disaster Displacement Walter Kaelin.

The vulnerability of Pacific peoples to the impacts of rising sea levels is a pressing issue for Fijian-born School of Social Work student Rae Bainteiti, who recently returned from a Human Rights Council panel discussion in Geneva, Switzerland, where he was invited to deliver a speech on the topic.

The 27-year-old, who was educated in Fiji and now studies on Massey’s Auckland campus, was invited by the United Nations Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner to be part of the panel on human rights, climate change, and migrants and persons displaced across international borders. His focus was on the regional situation in the Pacific, including opportunities at the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).

“This was an amazing opportunity. To represent my people was a humbling experience – one that I consider the highest calling,” he says.

“Climate change exacerbates the magnitude and impacts of climate variability and natural disasters which threaten the very existence of Pacific nations because they are highly exposed to a range of natural disasters and the slow-onset effects of climate change such as cyclones, droughts, landslides, floods, volcanic eruptions, earthquakes and tsunamis,” Mr Bainteiti, a second-year student, says.

Pacific nations are comprised of thousands of islands over a large geographical area, which are politically divided into states and territories that include climate vulnerable places like Tuvalu, Kiribati, Fiji, Vanuatu, the Marshall Islands, Samoa and Nauru. Aside from New Zealand, all Pacific Island states are considered developing states by the United Nations.

Mr Bainteiti says the island populations vary considerably and many are constrained by daunting issues of poverty and unemployment. “The remoteness of the islands also contributes to their economic vulnerability because they are so dispersed that trading costs are high. Countries like Tuvalu, Kiribati and the Marshall Islands are atoll islands, which are particularly threatened by sea level rises.”

Several studies have highlighted how the movement of Pacific people is already happening internally, because of climate change, with little reference to cross-border migration, he says. “The Pacific region has not yet experienced a significant level of international migration due to a natural disaster. However, the exposure of some islands to climate change increases their vulnerability and differs between nations, as some have specific environmental, social and economic challenges that result in limited capacity to reduce vulnerability.”

He says frequent natural disasters could lead to environmental degradation in the long term that could result in mass migration of Pacific people. “Climate change is one of the main drivers of internal migration for Pacific people today and one that would cause external migration in the future. Climate change is a contemporary and ongoing challenge, one that is intersectional, cross-cutting and undermines our sustainable development.

“We are daunted by this global issue and the only thing we can do is learn to live with less. Less fresh water sources as the sea washes over our traditional water sources and less local foods as prolonged droughts, hotter temperatures and floods destroy food sources. These violate many of our human rights, such as our rights to life, food, water, health, housing, culture and identity among others,” Mr Bainteiti says.

“Relocation is a last resort, but if migration was to become our only option, it has to be carefully planned. When we migrate, we should do so with dignity,” he says.

Mr Bainteiti urged the Human Rights Council  to:

  • Provide a strong voice to reach the negotiations at UNFCCC by using a rights-based approach, focused on people, and a commitment to sustainable development;
  • Support the Framework for Resilient Development in the Pacific: An Integrated Approach to Address Climate Change and Disaster Risk Management - a regional framework for the Pacific that provides high level strategic guidance to different stakeholder groups on how to enhance resilience to climate change and disasters, in ways that contribute to and are embedded in sustainable development;
  • And support Fiji’s five leadership priorities for its Presidency of COP 23 – the UN negotiations on climate change being held in Bonn, Germany, next month - namely: Facilitative dialogue; Implementation guidelines and the Paris Agreement Rule Book; Gender, local communities and indigenous people’s platform; Adaptation and loss and damage; and Oceans pathway through 2020 that strengthens the ocean-climate change nexus.

Mr Bainteiti says all member states have the responsibility to address climate change as a human rights issue and fulfil their responsibilities. “Our future and very survival depends on the decisions and actions we make today. I am calling for world leaders to commit to building a better, more just world. One that is safe from the ravages of climate change for the generations to come.”

Mr Bainteiti has been working with non-governmental organisations in Kiribati since 2012 and is the co-founder of the Kiribati Children Campaigners Network, an organisation that campaigns for the development of young people in Kiribati by providing them with opportunities for training and activities through which they can improve their skills.

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