Interview with Tuvalu’s Foreign Minister Simon Kofe


With Tuvalu Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Kofe, speaking in Q and A mode in the margins of this week’s Pacific conference on statehood and protection of persons affected by sea level rise. The conference features global and Pacific legal experts and is dealing with “ground-breaking work that will influence a legacy for our children and future generations into perpetuity,” according to Forum Chair, Cook Islands PM Mark Brown in his opening remarks. With Minister Kofe as the keynote, his message on noting that legal instruments and policies are ultimately about people and livelihoods, resonated for many. “We have the power to make a significant impact by acting urgently and decisively” he told the meeting. For a short time before the event, he went into Q and A mode, and shared these thoughts on being in Fiji to talk climate, the latest IPCC report, and where we will be at 2050.

Simon Kofe: The Pacific, like Tuvalu, are at the forefront of the climate crisis, and scientists are predicting that Tuvalu with other low lying islands will be the first to disappear be fully submerged by the rising oceans. Scientists are saying maybe 50 to 400 years at most. So this raises a number of questions. You know- what will happen when these islands are fully submerged or even what happens for maritime zones if the ocean is encroaching on the land? And so this is what this meeting this conference is about this week is to look at the legal implications of sea level rise on our maritime boundaries and also on our statehood. And this is a very important discussion for the region. It’s important that we formulate a regional position on this issue on whether our statehood can continue, regardless of the impacts of climate change.

Q- Pacific leaders have been very direct, forthright, persistent raising their voices on this issue since 2021… Why is it so important to have that legal basis (in the conference) for the next step?
It’s important because all the existing international laws, conventions, like the law of the sea, do not provide any legal framework or to address issues, such as the effects of sea level rise on our maritime boundaries and also our statehood. And so it’s important that we formulate a position because this is a whole new area of international law. And I believe that the Pacific will be pioneering in this area of international law.

Q- What powers your interest and your passion in this area?
A–Well, firstly, we live with the realities of climate change. Tuvalu is one of the smallest countries in the world. Flat islands, the average height of the land above sea levels is only two meters and so living in that context in that sort of environment you can’t help but think about the future, the future of our children and the future generations. I’ve always had an interest of preparing for a worst case scenario. What will happen to Tuvaluans if we were forced to relocate, or our islands are lost. And I guess it’s just that interest and that curiosity and the desire to ensure that there is a future for Tuvaluans so this is one of the initiatives that we’re very focused on and pursuing on the international stage,

Q-how much has the Pacific 2050 strategy endorsed by the leaders last year, added to the momentum or the challenges of taking this to the highest global level
A– it’s critical. Obviously, advancing issues on the international stage, its important that we work as a region, as a group. We are much more powerful as a bloc as opposed to just pursuing things on a national or individual level. And so the 2050 strategy is critical because it also reflects this issue of statehood and maritime boundaries. And it’s a really future-looking policy for the region.

Q — What will be top of mind for you when you’re presenting to the global and Pacific audience at this meeting?
A– Well, my focus for the conference this week is really to discuss these issues with the officials here in the Pacific, our membership in the Pacific group. It’s critical that we are on the same page, as I said — we are more influential when we work as a group, and this conference this week is important because these are really the advisors, the officials the backbone of what we do in the Pacific. And so I’ve made it a priority to be here this week, to have this dialogue and discussion with our officials, here in Fiji.

Q- What are the next steps that need to happen beyond this meeting?
A– I think it’s important that we take a proactive approach on this issue. In fact, Tuvalu has been working on this for the past two years. And we’ve done it by way of, in our foreign policy, we are insisting that any country that wants to establish ties with Tuvalu that one of the conditions is that they need to recognize is that Tuvalu statehood is permanent, regardless of the effects of climate change, and also our claims to our maritime zones that those claims are permanent. And so we have about nine countries that have signed up to that and I just encourage the Pacific Island countries to do the same thing because I know it’s very difficult to change some of these international conventions that have been in place for so long. It’s important that we are more proactive and engaging our partners to get that recognition. And by doing that, I think we are in fact contributing to the formation of new customary international law and new international standards. And so that’s really critical. And my hope is that out of this meeting that members will go back, officials will go back and advise the leaders and the ministers on just how critical this issue is for the Pacific.

Q–Coming back to the latest IPCC synthesis report on March 20th– what is your initial reaction to its findings
A —Obviously ,we know that we’re in a climate crisis where we’re living at the forefront of this crisis and so we know just how critical this time is that we’re living in right now. And so I think the report just reaffirms that, and I think it’s a warning shot, again, to the world to get their act together. But it is concerning that the science is just reaffirming, again, our worries and our concerns. I think what we see right now is that even with the commitments and the pledges made by countries is that it’s still not sufficient to, for us to achieve our goal of 1.5 degrees. And so it’s important that countries get together right now and respond to this. The window of opportunity is closing very quickly. And so it’s really important that the Pacific really stands up and continues to advocate this globally.

Q- We’re already seeing the signs of the impact on fish stocks with dying fish found in the streams and the coastal areas. How worried should we be on this being a food security issue while we wait on action and ambition like climate finance, to happen urgently?
A– This climate crisis is going to affect everyone. And people often have this perception that it’s the small vulnerable countries that are going to be affected. But in fact, it’s touching every country, every country in the world. It might take different forms in different places. It might be droughts, cyclones in different parts, sea level rise. I just hope that it’s not too late, when the countries actually realize that this is a crisis that is going to affect the world. And as I said –that advocacy right now is important for us to get the message out and wide.

Q– You’ve taken advocacy to the highest level in terms of your own vision and your visibility. What are you planning for this year in the journey to COP 28?
A—laughs–I haven’t thought of anything yet. But definitely it’s pressure on myself to deliver! It’s very hard to follow that first act (standing in the sea) in COP26, but again, the I mean, the important thing is, is that we’re packaging our message in a way that it appeals to people and to the public, and the message can go out to every part of the world. I always believed that the power is with the people. And if we can raise this awareness with the people, it is the people that can then put pressure on the leaders to really deliver on the climate front.

Q — There’s been quite specific calls from the scientists for action amongst the emitters. The Pacific has been calling for that kind of action and finance and support for many decades now. We are running out of time, we’re going to overshoot 1.5…. What more do the big nations need to hear to bring them to that, action-ambitious, climate justice table?
A—It’s quite unfortunate that countries are not taking responsibility for the climate crisis. And it’s unfortunate that the countries that contribute the least to this problem, are the ones that are facing the full brunt of the climate crisis. But again, we do what we can do, we continue to raise advocacy. But I understand that this is a huge challenge. And states are people– there are people behind nations, and people are driven by self-interest and that is reflected in what they do and decisions that they make. And this is why we’re in the climate crisis in the first place –because there’s countries and leaders that are not able to do the right thing.

Q– When you look back through the history of the Forum leaders, they gave us Law of the Sea — they were a huge force for the Paris Declaration. What strength do you take from that when you look back at the leaders who have taken this cause to the world?
A–Well, I take strength in knowing they did their part. This a journey for all of us – our forefathers laid the foundation for us. And it’s important for leaders of today to do their part. The last thing you want is for the future generation to look back and say that the leaders of this time, failed to stand up and do the right thing. So let’s not break the chain– and continue to do what we have to do to get the world to act

Q– Just finally, what does the Pacific look like in 2050 to you?
Min Kofe –-We’re very hopeful that you know, the world gets its act together and really comes together to address this issue of climate change. But having said that, I think it’s also important for the Pacific to prepare for the worst-case scenario. And the worst-case scenario is that we –some islands — could be gone by 2050. You could have a whole nation relocated to different places across the face of the earth. And I think we have to be very proactive in ensuring that we have the solutions and the frameworks in place to accommodate that scenario. But I’m hopeful — there’s a saying that goes, be hopeful, but you prepare for the worst — and that’s what we’re doing in the Pacific.

This Forum News interview has been edited for brevity and flow.