The Little Countries That Could

The atoll nation of Vanuatu is threatened by rising seas. “We had to learn how to manage our unimportance,” its president said. Mario Tama/Getty Images

This story has a familiar ring to it, if you are familiar with the history of Costa Rica going back to colonial times. Never a particularly “important” part of the empire, it thereby avoided many pitfalls typical of other countries in Latin America, and evolved into a stable democracy with progressive ideas and goals and achievements. We wish this little country in the Pacific comparable success by thinking outside the box, as its president says:

Emergency supplies being distributed after Cyclone Harold in 2020. International Federation of Red Cross, via Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

It wants a top international court to weigh in on whether nations are legally bound to protect against climate risks.

Nikenike Vurobaravu presides over a tiny country with a large hand in climate diplomacy.

Rising sea levels threaten the very existence of his Pacific Island nation of Vanuatu and its population of just over 300,000 people. Its best defense, he says, it to raise its voice creatively in international diplomatic talks.

From Vanuatu in 1991 came the idea that industrialized countries should pay for the irreversible climate-induced damage faced by developing countries like his. Last month at the United Nations climate talks in Egypt, an agreement was reached — after 30 years of negotiations — to establish a fund that would help poor countries cope with climate loss and damage.

Earlier this year Mr. Vurobaravu used the United Nations General Assembly podium to demand, for the first time, a fossil fuel “nonproliferation treaty.”

Now, he is dangling Vanuatu’s most provocative suggestion yet. He wants the International Court of Justice, the world’s highest judicial body, based in The Hague, to weigh in on whether governments have “legal obligations” to protect people from climate hazards, and more crucially, whether failure to meet those obligations could bring “legal consequences” under existing international laws. In short, it’s asking the court to say whether countries could be sued for climate inaction.

“We think outside the box,” said Mr. Vurobaravu, a quiet-spoken man whose gray downturned mustache gives him the appearance of a sad face emoji, though he’s anything but. As a small country that has historically been unimportant, as he put it, Vanuatu has learned to innovate. “If you try to proceed in the way that others do things, I believe we wouldn’t have gotten very far,” he said.

The draft resolution has been co-sponsored by 17 other countries, including at least one industrialized nation with a large share of historic emissions — Germany. Neither the United States nor China have endorsed it.

Diplomacy may well be Vanuatu’s only defense. Vanuatu has no army and no valuable commodity except tuna, which are increasingly moving away from Vanuatu’s territorial waters as the oceans warm.

Read the whole story here.

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