Posted inOpinion / Our region

Navigating Climate-Related Mobility and Human Security in the Pacific Islands

It is critical to ensure that human security approaches to climate mobility are integrated into and strengthen regional processes in the Pacific, writes Tim Westbury

The Pacific Islands security narrative is often dominated by voices and interests from outside of the region. At the recent Shangri-La Dialogue, among the hype surrounding geostrategic competition in the Pacific, Fiji’s Defence Minister Inia Seruiratu said that the “single greatest threat to our very existence is … human-induced, devastating climate change.”

Pacific Island governments have long recognised the need for an expanded conceptualisation of security that encompasses a human security perspective, most recently in the 2018 Boe Declaration, which recognises climate change as the “single greatest threat to the livelihoods, security and wellbeing of the peoples of the Pacific”. The Boe Declaration Action Plan, adopted in 2019, recognises the need to better anticipate, understand and contextualise the impact of climate change on security in the region, including its interactions with human security and conflict.

This reflects a recognition that traditional security approaches are insufficient to address the security challenges faced in the Pacific which cannot be considered in isolation. Climate change is threatening livelihoods, fresh water supplies and food security, causing adverse impacts on health and exacerbating poverty and inequality. Some accounts of climate security in the Pacific also point to risks of intrastate conflict and instability caused by population displacement and resource competition with consequences for regional security.

The impact of climate change on human mobility is a widely cited example of a risk to the human security of Pacific communities and is a recognised climate security risk pathway in the region. Mobility is increasingly likely to become a response to climate change for individuals, households, communities and potentially the population of atoll islands and nations. Climate change is expected to have profound consequences for the diverse mobility patterns in the region. But the human security implications of climate mobility will greatly depend on how it is framed and managed.

For example, traditional security approaches can promote border protection and view migrants as security threats. Despite legal and conceptual inaccuracy, depictions of “climate refugees” remain prevalent in the global discourse on Pacific climate security challenges. But this characterisation risks dehumanising and disempowering those who are affected by climate change and is broadly rejected in the region. It also discounts the complexity of mobility in the Pacific including its long history as a strategy for livelihood diversification and environmental risk management.

The region is also facing contemporary mobility challenges such as urbanisation and disaster displacement. Mobility decisions are multi-causal and are influenced by issues such as poverty, social exclusion and inequalities in access to land, capital and services. Economic and social factors, including access to knowledge, also influence the extent to which mobility is forced or voluntary, and indeed whether people move at all (often referred to as immobility).

There is a clear need for all countries in the Pacific to adopt measures to avoid the negative impacts of unplanned movement and to support people who are unable, or do not wish, to move. Mobility must be enabled by choice that accommodates the diverse aspirations and capabilities of Pacific people which resonate with the freedoms promoted through a human security approach (see UN General Assembly Resolution 66/290).

Human security provides a people-centred way to understand the relationship between climate change and security, and to guide mobility responses. But it is not a panacea and the criticisms of broad approaches to human security must be acknowledged. In this context it is important to demonstrate the value of a human security approach to climate mobility and be clear about how it complements established policy domains focused on security, resilience, climate change adaptation and sustainable development.

Pacific Governments are typically small and already face challenges in responding to competing policy demands and in service delivery. Alignment and policy coherence is fundamental. Human security focuses attention on the complexity of “everyday” insecurities faced by Pacific communities and the role of mobility in reducing vulnerabilities. It is also attentive to the rich cultural, political, historical and economic diversity in Pacific islands. A human security approach to climate-related human mobility should emphasise the importance of localisation, prevention, protection and empowerment.

Human security can provide analytical support for the national planning process and can guide norms for mobility governance.  Importantly, it also provides a framework to link security and development, supporting integrated actions that bring together the capacities of a wide range of actors across different scales. Clearly though, making human security operational is key to have any real impact at the national and sub-national levels. Human security approaches must recognise the importance of building capacity for responses that address local mobility challenges.

Operationalising human security will also require an operational definition, must reflect national level priorities, ensure ‘buy in’ across the whole government and should be monitored to access impact and effectiveness (as recognised in a review of the Pacific Human Security Framework 2012-2015). Conceptual clarity and contextualisation of a human security approach will be important.

A human security perspective can help us understand how mobility contributes to addressing insecurities and realising human rights for those who move and for communities of origin and destination. It is clearly the role of national governments to assess the value of adopting a human security approach, including taking steps to make it operational and allocating required resources for implementation.

The value of human security becomes evident when it is operationalised in a manner that advances policy approaches that have compatible goals and address inter-connected issues that contribute to vulnerability and build resilience. It is critical to ensure that human security approaches to climate mobility are integrated into, and strengthen, regional processes in the Pacific.

These ‘entry points’ include the proposed ‘refreshing’ of the Pacific Human Security Framework, regional discussions on climate-related human mobility and the development of National Security Strategies under the Boe Declaration Action Plan. To help address threats to the everyday security challenges faced in the Pacific, human security must be understood and contextualised in the region based on the lived experience of Pacific islanders and their mobility aspirations and capabilities.

This opinion was written by Tim Westbury, originally published at IDN on 23 August 2022, reposted via PACNEWS.

Tim Westbury is an international development practitioner with interests in climate security, human mobilities, regionalism and sustainable development. He has worked for the UN system over a 20-year period in Asia and the Pacific, including as Senior Sustainable Development Officer with UNESCAP in the Pacific. He holds a Master of Environmental Law from the University of Sydney and is undertaking a PhD at the University of Queensland focused on climate security and human mobility in the Pacific. This article is based on a policy brief published under the PCCMHS programme titled ‘Navigating human security and climate mobility in the Pacific Sea of Islands’.

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