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Is This Climate Justice? The Australia-Tuvalu Falepili Union

Michael Coghlan, CC BY-SA 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

This is a guest post by Virginia De Biasio

In November 2023, Australia and Tuvalu, a small island country in the Pacific Ocean extremely vulnerable to climate change, signed the “Falepili Union” treaty. The treaty’s alleged purpose is to help Tuvalu to face the increasingly ravaging effects of climate change.

“Falepili” is a Tuvaluan word for giving to neighbours without expecting anything in return, as if they were family. It stands for the values of good neighbourliness, care and mutual respect. Not very surprisingly, the Falepili Union is a lot more than a friendly and mutually respectful treaty. Framed as climate justice, the treaty is underpinned by Australia’s geopolitical interests and a – not so respectful after all – form of neo-colonialism.

The context

Tuvalu consists of nine low-lying islands (no higher than 4.5m above sea level) and has a population of ca. 11,500 people. It is one of the countries that has contributed least to climate change. Yet, Tuvalu is one of the most vulnerable countries to the effects of climate change, especially sea-level rise. According to some projections, by 2050 half of the land area of the capital, Funafuti, will be flooded daily. Climate vulnerability is coupled with a lack of financial resources. Overall, Tuvalu is heavily reliant on foreign aid to combat climate change.

The Falepili Union was signed on 9 November 2023 by Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese and the former Prime Minister of Tuvalu, Kausea Natano. It was welcomed as the world’s first bilateral agreement on climate mobility. It establishes that Australia will provide increasing financial assistance for adaptation measures in Tuvalu (Article 2) and “a new human mobility pathway” for Tuvaluans (Article 3). Up to 280 Tuvaluans per year will be offered visas to live, work or study in Australia.

I believe that this kind of measures are key against the threat of sea-level. Climate adaptation measures seek to help Tuvaluans to stay in their homes with “safety and dignity”. Relocation measures establish a pathway for “migration with dignity” for Tuvaluans to successfully settle in Australia. What I think is problematic is that these commitments alone are not enough.

What is problematic in the Falepili Union?

The Falepili Union does not include any clear commitment to mitigation measures, such as the reduction of Australian fossil fuel exports. Mitigation is a key component in the fight against climate change. It involves reducing carbon emissions, cutting pollution, investing in renewable energy. Some critics argue that helping Tuvaluans and maintaining a “business as usual” approach to contributions to climate change is not a good-faith commitment to tackle climate change. Australia wants to assist Tuvalu against climate change. Then, why is Australia not actively seeking to mitigate climate change in the first place?

Additionally, other scholars accuse the Falepili Union of not promoting climate justice at all. The Falepili Union includes asymmetrical measures in the areas of security and stability. According to Article 4:

“Tuvalu shall mutually agree with Australia any partnership, arrangement or engagement with any other State or entity on security and defence-related matters”

Australia will have veto power on new agreements that Tuvalu wishes to make with other countries. Australia gains a strategic position in the Pacific Ocean. Tuvalu gains a dependence on Australia’s approval. In March 2024, Enele Sopoaga (Prime Minister of Tuvalu between 2013 and 2019) accused the Falepili Union of violating Tuvalu’s sovereignty:

“It is disrespectful of Tuvalu’s national interests, its sovereign interests, cultural interest, and a slight on Tuvalu’s ability to make strategic decisions on its own.”

Moreover, it is unclear whether Tuvaluans were consulted by their government before signing the treaty with Australia. Sopoaga has called the treaty “a secret deal” struck without involving Tuvaluans in the decision-making process.

Despite promises by the new Prime Minister of Tuvalu, Feleti Teo, to revisit the deal due to its threat to Tuvalu’s sovereignty, the Falepili Union was ratified on 9 May 2024. A new explanatory document clarifies the terms of the Falepili Union. It specifies that Australian involvement in Tuvalu’s decisions is necessary for security purposes. Every measure will be implemented “in the spirit of respect and amicable consultation”.

What “respect and amicable consultation” means is at best unclear, at worst is entirely hypocritical. Why does Australia not have to consult with Tuvalu before entering into new partnerships or agreements with other states? Australia keeps its territorial sovereignty intact. Tuvalu – in exchange for some limited form of assistance against climate change – becomes subject to Australia’s interference in its political decisions.

The right to self-determination – a fundamental human right – of Tuvalu is jeopardised. According to scholars, self-determination has an internal and an external dimension (see  Margalit and Raz and Iris Marion Young). Internally, a people (in this case, the people of Tuvalu) has the right to freely govern themselves through a mechanism of collective decision-making. Externally, a people should be free from undue outsiders’ interference.

The Falepili Union violates both the internal and external aspects of self-determination. Tuvaluans were not seriously consulted by their government on the terms of the Falepili Union. The treaty gives Australia the right to interfere in Tuvalu’s foreign policy decisions. The Falepili Union is a lot more than a mutually respectful climate treaty.

A call for real climate justice

The effects of climate change on island nations are becoming worse and must be urgently addressed. Helping Tuvalu (and similar small island states) is not a favour nor an option. At the end of the day, if Tuvalu is at risk of becoming uninhabitable, it is not their fault, but the fault of high emitters.

A fair climate treaty should not seek to advance any interests outside of Tuvalu’s. It should also include measures against contributions to climate change. “Falepili” means care and mutual respect. It does not mean hypocrisy, an asymmetry of decisional power and the perpetuation of a form of oppression. We should help Tuvaluans without asking for anything in return. We should give them assistance according to their terms, and – most importantly – without ulterior motives.

Virginia De Biasio is a PhD student at the University of York, working on natural resource justice, territorial rights and climate migration.


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1 Comment

  1. Antonio Cosimo De Biasio

    Articolo chiaro. Ma il mondo in che direzione sta andando?

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