No Nation Is An Island: Pacific Regionalism Beyond The Moment

Patrick Quinn | Pacific Fellow

Far from being considered ‘small islands in a far sea’ by the international community, recent years have seen the Pacific Islands become a region increasingly at the centre of global geopolitical significance. Geopolitical trends and the ever-increasing spectre of climate crisis continue to point towards the reality that no nation is an island, not even in the Pacific. These pressures were once again centre stage at the 51st Pacific Island Forum (PIF) in Suva last month. Notwithstanding the notable withdrawal of Kiribati and ongoing subregional tensions, the leaders of the 14 Pacific nations who did attend the summit emerged from four days of talks projecting an image of regional “unity”, culminating in the endorsement of the 2050 Blue Pacific Strategy, before being rounded out with an Ellen DeGeneres-style selfie by Anthony Albanese.


Almost any discussion of Pacific politics, however, often invokes debate of the various opportunities and challenges that accompany the Pacific’s unique brand of regionalism at any one time. In a region with a long history of oceanic networks, a more recent colonial past, and which is currently caught between immediate geopolitical and subregional tensions, as well as the far-reaching impacts of climate change, any discussion of regional governance remains necessarily intertwined with conceptions of the past, present, and future. It is against such a backdrop that a bold grassroots initiative from a small group of students at the University of the South Pacific (USP) in Vanuatu has come to represent a unique and timely vision for action, which resonates with the global consequences of climate change as well as the time-bound nature of climate crisis and its implications well beyond our current geopolitical moment.


This September, Vanuatu will seek a mandate (initiated by the university students from USP) from the United Nations General Assembly in New York in an effort to request the International Court of Justice (ICJ) give an advisory opinion that “set[s] out with clarity the obligations of States under international law to protect the rights of present and future generations against the adverse effects of climate change”. While the exact form of the question is yet to be finalised, if successful, the proposal would see the ICJ issue its first authoritative statement on climate change. Such an ambitious initiative, moreover, represents a unique and timely example of Pacific regionalism outside more typical constellations of power. Although such a statement would be non-binding, it would likely become a fulcrum for future international climate negotiations, including legislation and litigation at the national level.


However, the prospects of the initiative getting to the ICJ is far from guaranteed. Vanuatu will need to secure a minimum of 97 votes at the General Assembly to establish a mandate for the matter to be referred to the ICJ. As an example, similar attempts, such as those by the archipelagos of Palau and the Marshall Islands tried and failed to gain necessary support in 2012, largely in the face of opposition from the United States. Unlike prior initiatives, however, Vanuatu’s push does not seek an opinion on reparations or damages, but is instead focused on the responsibility of states concerning the human rights of future generations.


While this is an ambitious task for such a small nation, the Pacific and regional support therein has already served as a force multiplier, with the move receiving support from the PIF this July, including from Australia and New Zealand. Moreover, while support from within the region is key to the initiative’s success, the implications of a successful vote in September hold important potential for how the region will continue to both relate to one another as well as the wider international community.


Crucially, the initiative speaks to the temporal as well as geographic dimensions of Pacific politics, both in the near and far term. To be sure, an advisory opinion will not “solve” climate change. Yet, by seeking to clarify what the minimum obligations of states are, both now and with respect to future generations, this exercise of Pacific agency sits at the heart of an important legal gap that promises realistic global change. The initiative, moreover, holds significant resonance with the 2050 Blue Pacific Strategy pursuant to a vision of the Pacific which is looked to on its own merit, transcending conversations which often locates the regions importance largely in the immediate strategic context of great power rivalry. In such a way, this initiative speaks to the unavoidably global nature of the challenge, one which is not isolated to any one part of the world nor any one point in time. A successful vote in September may prove an instrumental development promoting positive action at the global level and revaluing the weight of the Pacific and similar regionalism beyond our current geopolitical moment.


Patrick Quinn is the Pacific Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.