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Pacific left struggling in UN climate negotiations

By Jayden Holmes - posted Friday, 9 December 2011

Almost a year and a half has passed since the soccer World Cup and South Africa finds itself once again playing host to the international community. However, the stakes this time around are much higher than ever before, particularly for low-lying island nations of the Pacific.

In opening the latest round of the U.N. climate negotiations in Durban last week, South African President Jacob Zuma reminded us that Kiribati is the first country to declare that global warming is rendering its territory uninhabitable. The situation has reached the point that Kiribati is now calling for help to evacuate its population.

While it is true that Pacific Islands, like Kiribati, might stand to lose the most from climate change, they are currently amongst the least represented nations at meetings of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).


Numbers this year in Durban are lower even than those we saw last year in Cancun, with many parties sending delegations consisting of as few as two negotiators. Some have even had to outsource their representation to groups like Independent Diplomat or experts from other countries. Samoa, for example, has resorted to hiring a at the last minute an NGO delegate as a translator – a cheaper option than flying one over.

But compare these low numbers of Pacific Island representatives to Japan’s delegation of no fewer than 64 negotiators, or even Australia’s of 31, and we begin to see some disturbing patterns of inequality emerge. There exists a need to level the playing field, so to speak, between the developed and developing world in climate negotiations.

A general lack of funding and resources is seriously hindering the capacity of Pacific Small Island Developing States (SIDS) to participate in U.N. negotiations. Given the amount of information that needs to be processed, meetings that need to be attended and background administration work that needs to be done, even a delegation the size of Grenada’s (at as many as 13 negotiators) is likely to struggle to keep up.

At any negotiating conference up to six official meetings may run simultaneously. So in the case of countries like Kiribati or Tonga, that equates to four meetings that can’t be attended at certain times. Add to this problems like language barriers, discontinuity of representation, lack of diversity of expertise, and difficulties in accessing information and any delegation of similar size is going to have a very difficult time indeed.

So with delegations of these sizes, is it little wonder that year after year, negotiating round after negotiating round, we see the same pattern of apathy and inaction repeat?

The fact is, as long as these inequalities in the negotiating process remain, we are unlikely to see an outcome that genuinely reflects the interest of Pacific Island nations. Their voices provide the strongest moral impetus for action, by humanising the impacts of climate change, but are currently being drowned amongst the chaos that is the UNFCCC.


While efforts from various capacity building organisations and the U.N. Secretariat’s Voluntary Trust Fund For Participation have seen some improvements on these issues, there remains much to be done to increase their representation at international climate change forums.

And there are many ways in which this could occur.

To date, only two major negotiations (Kyoto and Bali) have actually been held in the vicinity of the Pacific region. Given the high costs associated with travel from Pacific Islands to places as far away as Marrakech, Copenhagen or even Durban, holding future UN negotiations in the Pacific region could help to increase participation and representation from these countries with the most at stake.

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About the Author

Jayden Holmes is a student at the University of Melbourne and a member of the Global Voices Australian Youth Delegation to the UN negotiations in Durban this week.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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