OPINION | Treaty faces ‘throw away’ threat

Listen to this article:

Amatuku Island is one of nine atolls in Tuvalu. The Pacific nation is one of the first countries in the world to adopt the UNDP’s TBI concept. Picture UNDP
Enele Sopoaga delivers a speech when he was Tuvalu Prime Minister during the opening day of the World Climate in 2015. Picture: RNZ


The former prime minister and now opposition leader of Tuvalu Enele Sopoaga says he will scrap the Australia-Tuvalu Falepili Union treaty if elected to lead government in the upcoming election.

“I would certainly throw it away,” Sopoaga told RNZ Pacific. “Tuvalu is floating aimlessly without a rudder.” Tuvalu’s general election has been set down for January next year. Sopoaga said a key part of his campaign to become prime minister will be advocating for more transparency around the treaty.

“There is very amplified, loud opposition from the people of Tuvalu,” he said.

While Tuvalu shares a strong relationship with Australia, he believes the treaty attacks the sovereignty of the Tuvalu people. Tuvalu Prime Minister Kausea Natano told RNZ Pacific at the Pacific Islands Forum Leaders Summit in Rarotonga he “appreciates” Australia’s response to his request for support. He said the treaty would ensure Tuvalu was able “to maintain our identity”.

A key aspect of the Falepili Union is a new migration pathway which allows people in Tuvalu facing displacement from climate change “a special human mobility pathway” to settle in Australia. In return, Australia will have effective veto power over Tuvalu’s foreign security arrangements.

The issue was debated on the floor of Tuvalu’s Parliament last week. Sopoaga moved a motion requesting the people of Tuvalu have their say. “Unfortunately, my motion was voted nine to five – nine against from the government and five of us supporting my motion,” he said.

‘Killing the people’

Sopoaga said while Tuvaluans would effectively be relocating to Australia as climate refugees, there is no provision for moves like that in international law.

“The only definition of refugees refers to politically displaced people by political conflicts in their own country,” he said. “We don’t have conflict in Tuvalu.” Sopoaga also slammed Australia for exporting coal and said big polluters are the only “serious problem” facing Tuvalu. “Like what Australia is doing to coal mining, they are killing the people of Tuvalu. There is no conflict whatsoever,” Sopoaga said.

He did, however, highlight the benefits of Tuvalu’s long-standing relationship with Australia and stressed the need for better collaboration.

“The relations of Tuvalu with Australia are the best. “In fact, they are the best in bilateral relations that we can look at,” he said. But when it comes to climate change, impacts and relocation, “they have to be done properly,” he said.

‘Eliminating survival’

The former prime minister believes that in order to address climate change impacts or relocation “properly”, international agreements are needed.

“I would work personally on an international agreement,” he said. “You cannot just sprinkle around 200 or so people amongst the people in the population in Sydney. This is dangerous.

“You are actually physically eliminating the survival of Tuvaluan people.” Sopoaga said he will not allow his people “to be taken to a foreign land without knowing where they are going to be resettled”.

“In Alice Springs? Come on. Is the Albanese government going to pay for the rents of these poor people? “Who is going to give them an income that is more than enough to pay for their houses in Melbourne and Brisbane or elsewhere?

“There are ways of doing it in a better way.” He called for Tuvalu leaders to “stand up”. Sopoaga is not only frustrated with Australia’s total lack of climate ambition, which he said is causing the destruction of his home, but their AUKUS deal too.

“For Tuvalu to follow that type of ambitious, unknown treaty that Australia is pursuing with the UK and the US, you must be kidding,” he said.

He said these are the very things that Pacific countries should be against after singing the Rarotonga Treaty.

‘Please be considerate’

But Australia is not the only country in the firing line.

New Zealand’s new Defence Minister has said she is willing to explore a possible AUKUS agreement which Sopoaga has concerns about.

Former Prime Minister Chris Hipkins had previously said New Zealand was open to discussions with the defence alliance’s partners.

“I would urge my brothers and colleagues in the new New Zealand government to please to please be considerate,” Sopoaga said.

He highlighted the importance of the commitment to the Treaty of Rarotonga and slammed Fiji Prime Minister Sitiveni Rabuka’s ‘Zone of Peace’ initiative which Pacific leaders supported at the Leaders Summit in Rarotonga.

“What the hell,” he said.

“We are also already buying into what Japan is trying to dump into the Pacific Ocean.

“Is this a shift in the Forum policies or stance? This is really very sad.”

But circling back to the Tuvalu/Australia Treaty , overall Sopoaga said he just wants the best for his nation.

“Just looking at this very quickly, without the benefit of having studied this in detail, there are many other ways of improving the deal.

“We can do it much better. I can do it much better.

“You know there are several ways of skinning the cat, so to speak.”

RNZ Pacific has contacted Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade for comment.

LYDIA LEWIS is an RNZ Pacific journalist. The views expressed in this article are hers and do not necessarily reflect the views of this newspaper.