Australia-Tuvalu Falepili Union: Climate justice or defense treaty?

AU-Tuvalu Treaty

Australia's Prime Minister Anthony Albanese tweeted that the treaty “will safeguard Tuvalu’s future while respecting sovereignty.” Photo from the Twitter post Prime Minister Anthony Albanese

Australia and the south Pacific island nation of Tuvalu have signed a treaty that seeks to address the harsh impact of climate change. Both governments described it as a “beacon of hope” but some climate activists have dismissed it as a “defense treaty.”

The Australia-Tuvalu Falepili Union would allow at least 280 citizens of Tuvalu to either study or work in Australia each year. Fale pili is a Tuvali word that means “looking after your neighbor.”

Tuvalu, which has a population of 11,200, is a nation of low-lying atolls facing immense risk from rising sea water levels.

The treaty document states that “Australia shall arrange for a special human mobility pathway for citizens of Tuvalu to access Australia.” Australian Minister for Foreign Affairs Penny Wong adds:

‘Falepili’ reflects the duty of neighbours to care for, share with, and protect each other.

Respect is at the heart of the Falepili Union, and we will count on each other to support the aspirations and wellbeing of our peoples.

Tuvalu's Prime Minister Kausea Natano underscored that “it's not just a milestone but a giant leap forward in our joint mission to ensure regional stability, sustainability and prosperity.”

This will be Australia’s first climate-related agreement with a Pacific nation granting access to residents at risk from rising sea water levels. Prime Minister Anthony Albanese posted the following to X (formerly Twitter) after signing the treaty:

However, environmental activists note that the treaty is silent on the issue of phasing out of fossil fuels. Tuvalu Climate Action Network urged Australia to make a more decisive commitment.

It is imperative that Australia acknowledges the urgency of the climate crisis and takes assertive measures to diminish its dependence on fossil fuels. Offering residence or citizenship rights to Tuvaluans, though a compassionate response, does not halt the inexorable rise in sea levels.

In a thread on X, activist Lavetanalagi Seru wrote that Australia should back its words with concrete action:

The disconnect between the familial language in agreements and Australia's climate policies is stark. As family, there's an expectation of support and shared responsibility. How can this be reconciled when climate policies fall short of global expectations?

It's crucial for Australia to bridge the gap between rhetoric and action on climate change. Pacific Island nations face real and imminent threats, and these agreements should reflect genuine commitment, not just symbolic gestures.

Researchers Taukiei Kitara and Carol Farbotko also wrote in an editorial that the treaty “does not deliver climate justice for Tuvaluan people.” They asked an important question in the piece:

What measures will the Australian government take to ensure that Tuvaluan migrants do not end up facing more hardship in Australia than they might have at home, such as homelessness?

They added that the treaty would potentially undermine Tuvalu’s sovereignty: “It sidesteps the important question of Australia’s commitment to phasing out fossil fuels and contains considerable rhetoric around respecting sovereignty, but quite clearly erodes Tuvalu’s sovereignty on issues of national security.”

The treaty allows Australia to access Tuvalu’s territory, and also grants it veto power over security arrangements and defense-related matters involving the small island nation.

Pacific correspondent Barbara Dreaver wrote that the treaty should be called “Australia Defence Treaty in Tuvalu.”

The Australia-Tuvalu Falepili Union dressed up as a bilateral treaty – meaning it works for both countries – should really have been called the Australia Defence Treaty in Tuvalu.

Because that’s exactly what it is.

She explains how this will affect governance in Tuvalu:

Australia has tied up Tuvalu on all things defence and security. Tuvalu cannot enter into any partnership or engage with anyone else without Australia’s approval.

This extends to infrastructure. Say a country like Japan offers Tuvalu aid to help build a wharf in one of the outer islands, Australia has to approve it.

The agreement is a milestone for the two countries, but Tuvalu will have an election next year, which means that it can still be questioned if a new government is elected.

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