The Pacific Islands, Climate Change, Conventional Arms and Weapons of Mass Destruction: A Need to Act on All Fronts

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By Peter Barcroft

May 2, 2016

The recent, historic signing of the Paris Agreement on Climate Change was an event of immense importance, in particular for those countries most gravely threatened by the devastating effects of climate change. 175 countries signed the Treaty and Fiji was the first country to ratify it during an elaborate ceremony at United Nations Headquarters in New York on 22nd April, 2016. Kiribati, Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, Tonga, Micronesia and Vanuatu were among the signatories.

Fifteen countries on the day took the additional step of formally binding themselves as States Parties to the Paris Agreement, submitting their Instruments of Ratification simultaneously during the signing ceremony, among them a large number of small island developing countries on the frontlines of climate impacts. From the Pacific Islands, in addition to Fiji, were Marshall Islands, Nauru, Palau, Samoa and Tuvalu. Small Island States in other regions – including the Caribbean – are also prominent among the signatories and ratifying States of the Paris Agreement.

Climate change, unquestionably, is one of – if not the - greatest challenges of our time, and a particular, most immediate threat confronting the Pacific Islands region. Urgent, collective, sustained action is needed, and has been needed, for some time. Properly implemented, together – and in close coordination with - other vital existing efforts and initiatives at the national, regional and international levels, the Paris Agreement provides a genuine prospect to address the nation eroding and, ultimately, nation erasing effects of climate change.

Given the extraordinary urgency attaching to this task, it is perhaps rather easy, however – and certainly understandable – to lose sight of the complexities of the world we all inhabit today. Climate change is a clear and present danger to the world and to the Pacific Islands in particular. It casts a shadow over the very existence of a number of countries in the region. It must be a first priority. Arguably, however, at the same time, it should not be so at the expense of addressing certain other threats facing this region and indeed, as is the case for climate change, the world as a whole. These need not be mutually exclusive actions. In looking to deal with and prevent an unpalatable future before it happens, we should not overlook the very serious threats posed to the basic well-being of the region by other present day challenges. While climate change goes to the very heart of future existence – life as we know it - that future can also be greatly impaired – and, yes, even wiped out - if actions are not taken also simultaneously to address grave challenges on certain other fronts.

Climate change is not the only serious threat to future existence – even if perhaps the most pressing and photographically apparent one of our time – at least from a global perspective. The Arms Trade Treaty was adopted in April 2013, entered into force on 24th December, 2014. 130 countries signed this Treaty and, to date, 82 have ratified it. Its primary objective is to better regulate the international arms trade, in particular seeking to ensure that arms and weapons do not fall into the wrong hands. Serious crimes associated with armed and gender based violence, not to mention war crimes, crimes against humanity - and even genocide - have resulted in many countries worldwide to date on account of this heretofore inadequately regulated industry. The Pacific Islands has, sadly, in common with many other regions - not been a stranger to at least some of these crimes in recent years. In the region, Nauru, Australia, New Zealand, Samoa, Tuvalu, Palau, Vanuatu and Kiribati have all signed the Arms Trade Treaty.

Samoa, Tuvalu, Australia and New Zealand have ratified the ATT.

It is crucial that Palau, Vanuatu and Kiribati also, having signed, now proceed to ratify this vital treaty and that other countries in the region - such as Fiji, Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, Cook Islands, Niue, Micronesia and Marshall Islands to name but a few - also accede to this Treaty without further delay.

On account of the enormous misery, loss of human life, life altering injuries, rape, violence – not to mention the detrimental impact on development of countries – caused by the inadequate regulation and control of small arms and light weapons (also covered by the ATT) – such weapons are sometimes referred to as the true ‘weapons of mass destruction.’ In a day and age where unduly easy access to such weapons by terrorists is proving to be more than just a passing headache, yet another reason for prompt action in joining this treaty also presents itself.

Indeed, long before the ATT and climate change treaties were a 'twinkle in the eye’ of globally concerned citizens and became the ‘soup du jour’ of international treaty negotiators – and throughout the Cold War period from the 1970s through the early 1990s, the threat posed by Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) certainly exercised the minds of many and was front and center of international treaty deliberations. The Cold War may be long over (although some may see troubling signs of late of a flame being rekindled), but a new threat, largely unanticipated at the time of the negotiations of these treaties, has emerged. When the Nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty, Chemical Weapons Convention and Biological Weapons Conventions were all negotiated, decades ago, an ideological lack of trust between sovereign states was a guiding force that propelled negotiations forward – obliging States Parties to take essential remedial steps to reduce usage of weapons that could destroy cities, countries and – indeed, like climate change – the world. Terrorism – as we know it today – was still in its infancy. The fact that Non State Actors, including terrorists – were increasingly seeking to get their hands on these WMDs has only perhaps become more apparent in the past 20 years. In 2004, the UN Security Council adopted Resolution 1540 that imposes an obligation on all States to take steps to prevent the proliferation of such weapons into the hands of such ‘Non State Actors’. With alarming – nearly weekly – reports now of terrorists seeking to get nuclear, chemical and biological weapons capability – there has also been a realization that more must be done to improve universality and implementation of the ‘WMD’ treaties themselves. The end of the cold war led to these treaties falling off the radar screen – at least to some extent – of the international community. ; ISIS, Al Qaeda and Boko Haram are now helping to firmly putting them back on it.

Addressing climate change – and the grave global threat it poses - will only work globally if all countries join in the effort. No less is true for treaties that seek to better control and prevent access to, or usage of, Weapons of Mass Destruction. As it happens – one of those treaties – the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention – just this past year – celebrated the 40th Anniversary of its entry into force in 1975. Its Eighth Review Conference in November 2016 at the UN in Geneva will provide a vital forum to identify new ways it can be more effectively implemented among its 174 States Parties. The last country to ratify was Cote d’Ivoire just over a month ago at the end of March, 2016, indicative of a resurgent awareness in the importance of a treaty first drawn up nearly half a century ago.

As it has already so admirably done in international negotiations addressing climate change, and ahead of this 8th Review Conference on the BWC in November 2016, a unique and historical opportunity also now is on offer for Pacific Island States to make a crucial international contribution, individually and collectively, to securing the global community against another grave threat – biological weapons. Of the 22 countries that are not yet party to this Treaty, five – nearly a quarter - are from this region. In a region also long troubled by nuclear testing and strong supporters of the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons Treaty (NPT) and Nuclear Test Ban Treaty - largely due to the leadership, among others, of the Marshall Islands - if Kiribati, Micronesia, Niue, Samoa and Tuvalu could now all act and join the Biological Weapons Convention before the end of the year – it would represent another remarkable display of global leadership from the Pacific Islands region. (In the case of Vanuatu, some doubts exist as to its precise status vis-à-vis the BWC – a doubt that could be rapidly dispelled by prompt action to clear up any possible confusion.) And for the many countries in the region that have already ratified the BWC, a fresh examination of the effectiveness of domestic legislation to give force to the BWC within their respective legal orders, ahead of the 8th BWC RevCon in Geneva in November 2016, would also be a most important contribution. It is no good signing and ratifying a treaty if it is not properly implemented. Pacific Islands wide ratification of the BWC – as has already occurred for the Chemical Weapons Convention - would also underscore an inescapable, but not always acknowledged reality; in the world we live in today, we face, not just one, but several threats to life as we know it, none of which, sadly, can be neglected at the expense of another. Compartmentalization or a ‘silo mentality’ in tackling the most serious problems facing our generation (and future ones if we don’t get it right) is no guarantee for securing lasting global security. Even if more challenging, a holistic approach is the only way forward.

Peter Barcroft is the Director of Peace & Democracy Program at the Parliamentarians for Global Action (PGA) in New York City.

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