Why ASEAN is duty bound to help climate change-affected Pacific populations
The effects of climate change are now being felt in various regions of the world. Scientists have documented rising levels of sea and air temperatures. While hurricanes and floods are experienced in one region, droughts and disruption to rainfall are felt in another. In the polar regions there is the melting of glaciers and ice caps.The Pacific region with its low-elevation island nations dispersed in a vast ocean setting makes it particularly vulnerable to challenges from the physical environment. The region is predicted to be among those where the adverse effects of environmental changes can be felt the most. Coastal flooding due to unusually high tides displaced a number of people in the Marshall Islands, Kiribati and the northern coast of Papua New Guinea in December 2008. Already people are relocating due to saltwater inundation and contamination. The first batch of Carteret islanders had resettled in Bougainville island Papua New Guinea in 2009 on a plan that would ultimately transfer 1,700 residents due to increasing inhabitability of their atoll home. In 2005, President Anote Tong of Kiribati spoke before the 60th Session of the United Nations General Assembly on the need of atoll countries to consider relocation of their populations. In 2008 during the 63rd UN General Assembly session the President of Vanuatu noted the possibility that ‘some of our Pacific colleague nations will be submerged’(UN General Assembly, 2008).
The Association of Southeast Asian nations (ASEAN), consisting of ten western Pacific rim countries (including the Philippines) is the next door neighbour to the vulnerable Pacific nations. The Pacific is closer than many ASEAN residents suppose. Davao is closer to Palau than to Baguio: 981 kilometers compared to 1,164 kilometers. Indonesia’s easternmost provinces of Papua and West Papua (formerly part of Irian Jaya) share the island of New Guinea with the Pacific nation of Papua New Guinea. As such, ASEAN is in a unique position to push for heightened global awareness and action for the vulnerable Pacific populations facing the possibility of relocation. Yet, it is strangely silent on the issue. ASEAN has both moral and legal obligation not to turn its back on its drowning Pacific neighbours. Morally, ASEAN – or at least most of it – is part of the western fringes of the Pacific region. It is proximate to many Pacific nations, and it has both the resources and landmass to help: two of the world’s largest archipelagos are ASEAN members. The obligations of humanity require that everyone be they individuals or states, have the duty to prevent or minimize human suffering and distress. Most of us intuitively acknowledge a moral obligation to ‘relieve human suffering or distress’ when doing so would not equally endanger our life and limb. Such stems from our common humanity and is most manifest in one’s instinctive – almost reflexive- response to save a drowning person from a pool, either by ourselves or through another. Writing on the universal obligation to help famine victims of Bangladesh in the early 70’s, Singer posits that such an obligation extends to individuals beyond state borders. His argument is premised from the fact that suffering from lack of food and medicine is bad, and that it is within the power of other states to prevent or relieve the suffering in such a situation. Singer believes that the more privileged nations can do something to reduce the number of starving people without giving up the basic necessities themselves.
Legally, international human rights instruments mandate everyone to observe the duty to preserve life, the right to life being one of the foundational principles of international relations. ASEAN has legal obligations under international law towards potential climate refugees from the Pacific. Under international human rights law, the right to life is one of the foundational principles of international relations. ‘Everyone has the right to life’ mandates the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Corollary to the right to life is every person’s right to adequate food, clothing, housing and the continuous improvement of living conditions (ICESCR, 1966); everyone has the right not to be deprived of his or her means of subsistence (ICCPR, 1966). Climate change deprives people’s means of subsistence in a significant way; coastal flooding and inundation due to rising sea levels render islands uninhabitable. ASEAN may learn from the African Union (AU) experience. While AU accepted the UN Refugee Convention definition of ‘refugee,’ it expanded it to include those compelled to leave their country owing to ‘events seriously disturbing public order.’ Many scholars believe this includes the environmentally displaced.
ASEAN can choose to take on the easy path of insularity and parochialism as regards the looming issue of environmental migration, or it can take the high road by transforming itself into a dynamic regional actor pushing for clear policies on how to address it. Displacements are by nature traumatic and carry with them the impoverishments of landlessness, joblessness, homelessness, marginalization, increased morbidity and mortality, food insecurity, loss of access to common property resources, and social disarticulation (Cernea, 2000). ASEAN can do much to help its vulnerable neighbors. With its archipelagos and off shore islands it can open its doors to vulnerable Pacific populations. Resettlement may be permanent or else temporary, pending determination of the environmental migrants permanent home, as in the case of Vietnamese and Cambodian refugees. At the very least, ASEAN can help raise global consciousness and awareness in rallying the international community to collectively address the issue.