Kiribati islands plan exodus faced with rising sea levels

Kiribati announces plans at Copenhagen for “practical and rational” exodus due to climate change. Violence and displacement in north western DRC suggests UN proposals for early drawdown may be premature. Spread of violence in Yemen could affect regional stability. Pirates seize another ship off the coast of Somalia. Hostage-taking in southern Philippines underlines Mindanao’s lawlessness. All this and much more in today’s security briefing.
Josephine Whitaker
10 December 2009

The Pacific island state of Kiribati has revealed plans to begin a “practical and rational” exodus of its population using immigration opportunities offered to skilled workers in countries such as Australia and New Zealand, before the island’s residents are forced from their homes by climate change.

The plans were revealed during an address from the Kiribati delegation to Copenhagen summit. Representatives of the small island state appealed for the Conference of Parties (the official name for those attending the climate change negotiations in Copenhagen) to reach an effective agreement, but also expressed hopes for an expansion of the opportunities currently offered by Australia and New Zealand, training immigrants to do in-demand jobs such as nursing, as well as offering citizenship and residence rights. Ultimately, such schemes might be used to relocate the islands’ 96,000 residents.

Although officials stressed that abandoning their country is a last resort, climate change is a reality for Kiribati and similar small island states. In Kiribati, salt water inundation and rising sea levels are already causing serious problems, with sections of the islands just 300 metres wide.

The openSecurity verdict: This appeal although chiefly an emotive appeal for action at Copenhagen, highlights the very real security implications of climate change for small island states such as Kiribati and Tuvalu – specifically, the problem of how to deal with people displaced by climate change-related factors.

Debate on the security implications of climate change is still clouded by disputes about the causes and effects of climate change. While some argue that security impacts such as displacement and conflict due to increasing resource competition cannot be empirically linked to climate change, others are convinced that an increasing number of conflicts and displacement situations can and should be attributed to the effects of climate change.

The case of Kiribati and other small island states is a particularly clear call to action for more secure countries to respond to the situations facing these ‘most vulnerable nations’, as climate change increasingly impacts upon their lives.

Responding to the worsening impact of climate change on human security, some analysts are calling for the inclusion of “survival migration” into international law, in recognition of the fact that the current legal definition of the term “refugee” is insufficient. While one can only be classed as a “refugee” if one is fleeing persecution and a direct threat to one’s life, the term survival migration describes those fleeing "an existential threat to which they have no domestic recourse" due to a combination of state collapse, livelihood failure and environmental disaster.

Warnings that climate change may displace up to 250 million people by 2050 make redefining such legal concepts all the more urgent. Academic wrangling over whether such changes can be directly linked to climate change should not distract from the responsibility of the international community, as represented at Copenhagen, to respond to such problems by reaching a meaningful climate deal that will give people of the most vulnerable nations a chance to survive.

Violence in north western DRC suggests UN drawdown may be premature 

Over 100,000 people have fled ethnic violence in Equateur province, in the north western Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) says. The fighting in Equateur, described by the UNHCR as an inter-tribal conflict between Enyele and Munzaya groups, has forced almost 80,000 people across the border into neighbouring Congo Republic since fresh fighting began in October over fishing and farming rights. Refugees in Congo Republic report ethnically motivated attacks by Enyele tribesmen on mainly Munzaya villages near Dongo village, where the violence first started. The fighting has further disrupted aid flows to this war torn country, with the World Food Programme putting its distribution program for Equateur province on hold due to rising insecurity.

Although this lesser conflict is unrelated to the ongoing war in the perpetually turbulent eastern DRC, the situation in Equateur has exacerbated instability across the country. The situation is in marked contrast to a recent report to the United Nations’ Security Council by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, in which he claimed that the DRC “is now largely a country at peace and is ready ... to embark on the next critical reconstruction and rebuilding phase.”

Ban’s statement reflects his recommendation that the mandate of the UN peacekeeping mission in DRC is extended for only a further six months, instead of the usual one-year extension. The contrast in Ban’s characterization of the DRC, and the current conflicts in Equateur, the Kivus and other areas suggests that his move may be politically motivated, rather than a reflection of the situation on the ground. DRC President Joseph Kabila is pushing the UN to begin a drawdown of MONUC (the UN’s peacekeeping mission in the DRC) by June 2010, to coincide with the fiftieth anniversary of the country’s independence – a call which chimes with a widely held desire in the Security Council to cut back on MONUC, the largest, most expensive and one of the most heavily criticized UN peacekeeping missions to date.

Escalating violence in Yemen threatens regional stability

The involvement of Saudi Arabia in the ongoing conflict between Yemeni security forces and al-Houthi rebels in the north could seriously undermine regional instability, according to a recent report. The conflict has been running on and off since 2004 between government forces and the al-Houthi rebels, a powerful local clan who claim rights to traditional autonomy under the Shia Zaydi imamate that ruled northern Yemen until 1962. The Zaidis, one of the most socio-economically deprived groups in the impoverished country, accuse the central government of discrimination and oppression.

In addition to the humanitarian emergency created by the conflict, with almost 200,000 people displaced in Saudi Arabia and Yemen, the recent spread of fighting north of the border has raised concerns that the conflict could destabilise the entire region.

Analysts are divided, however, as to whether Saudi involvement will further sour relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Although there have been some reports of Iranian support to the al-Houti rebels, these have not been verified. Iran has criticised Saudi intervention in the conflict, while Yemeni and Saudi officials have responded with accusations of Iranian support for the rebels.


Iran’s involvement is likely to have a host of negative ramifications for Saudi Arabia. Its intervention has already brought international criticism, and some suggest there is a potential risk of the conflict spreading to the predominantly Shia Najran province in Saudi Arabia. Although most analysts doubt the likelihood of a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran being fought in Yemen, the humanitarian and security consequences of the escalating conflict remain of grave concern.

Somali pirates seize Pakistani ship

Pirates off the coast of Somalia have seized a Pakistani ship, according to a statement released yesterday by the European naval force. The ship, the MV Shahbaig, with a crew of 29, was seized over 300 miles off the coast of Socotra on Sunday, according to the statement.

Piracy continues to go virtually unchecked off the coast of Somalia, disrupting shipping through the strategically crucial Gulf of Aden. The government of Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed continues to exercise little control outside the Somali capital of Mogadishu, let alone being able to control its territorial waters. Last week’s suicide bombing of a university graduation ceremony killed three cabinet ministers, brutally illustrating the vulnerability of the government.

Lawlessness in Mindanao continues in wake of political massacre

Armed “bandits” today took hostage and released approximately 65 students and teachers in the southern Philippine island of Mindanao, officials say, highlighting the ongoing instability of the island. The incident took place near Prosperidad town in Agusan del Sur province in the east of the island.

Government officials have reportedly successfully negotiated the release of the hostages with the group of approximately twenty armed men. The vice governor of Agusan del Sur province described the armed men as bandits, who had taken hostages while fleeing government authorities.

Although it is not thought that this incident is linked to the other troubles currently plaguing Mindanao island, such as the recent politically motivated massacre in Maguindanao province, and the forty year old insurgency led by Muslim rebels that has claimed over 120 000 lives and displaced two million people on the island, the hostage underlines Manila’s limited control over this region.

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