The owner of the idea of the Climate Loss and Damage Fund speaks to “Al Ain News”
Robert van Lierop explores thorny climate issues and maps out the future
In 1991, during the first climate negotiations for the first international agreement on climate change, a small Pacific island nation called Vanuatu put forward a first-of-its-kind proposal that sparked controversy for decades.
The proposal was made by Vanuatu’s permanent representative to the United Nations at the time, the famous diplomat and lawyer Robert Van Lierop, and it was represented that the major “industrial” countries bear responsibility for the historical emissions that cause climate change, and that they must pay the price for the “losses and damages” expected to be faced by small island states with rising Sea levels, due to global warming, and the invasion of water to their lands.
The idea was rejected as soon as it was proposed, of course, and it faced harsh attack and criticism from the major industrialized countries, but despite this, it did not die in its infancy, but rather remained present in the climate negotiations of developing countries, until it turned in recent years into a major demand related to justice.
After 31 years of struggle, conflict and negotiation, the parties to the final draft of the twenty-seventh edition of the United Nations Conference of the Parties on Climate Change COP27, in Sharm El-Sheikh, announced the establishment of a fund to finance losses and damages caused by climate change.
The career of Robert Van Lierop, American diplomat and civil rights lawyer, and also the first president of the Alliance of Small Island States, was one of battles and triumphs.
From his fight against apartheid as a legal advisor to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), through his fights under the United Nations, against apartheid in South Africa, against colonialism from Western Sahara to New Caledonia, to his recent triumph for climate justice.
Van Lierop says in his first interview with an Arab media outlet that the industrialized countries have become rich at the expense of the poor countries in the world, and they must pay the price for the climate change they caused, and not demand countries like China, India and Brazil to pay with them, because they are the main culprit.
And to the text of the dialogue
I was the founding president of the Alliance of Small Island States.
Tell us a little about your memories of the early days of the UN climate process?
Well, what happened is that I was, at the time, the Permanent Representative of the Republic of Vanuatu to the United Nations and it was our turn to lead the CIS for a month.
When the first meeting on climate change took place in 1991, I automatically became the chair of that group, and led the group’s climate change negotiations for that month.
Climate change was an urgent issue for small island countries, so we met more than once to discuss and agree on our demands, and gradually the matter developed, and we decided to form a new alliance to coordinate and work together, and present our position and demands to the rest of the parties.
This was how we formed the Alliance of Small Island States, and our goal was to make sure that when agreements were drawn up and negotiated, the demands of these countries were not ignored.
At the time, there was no interest in the island states and their demands, whether in the United Nations or other international forums, and they were not in a position to lead any negotiations or work together to explore their common interests in negotiating with developed countries.
Where did the idea of the loss and damage fund come from? How did you relate it to the principle of justice?
The concept of losses and damages came during the first climate negotiations in the early 1990s.
You know I’m a lawyer, and one of the things I believe very strongly is that developed countries must suffer some consequences for the damages they have caused to small island nations.
During our meetings, we always tried to set achievable goals that would change the dynamics of the power relations we were negotiating.
So we sought compensation for the huge sums of money we have incurred due to the damage caused by climate change, which was caused by the mistakes of developed countries.
After several discussions on this matter, we came up with the idea of losses and damages, to calculate what the expected losses would be, and to oblige the major powers to pay for them.
The idea was linked to the principles of justice, as the industrialized countries became rich at the expense of the poor countries in the world.
This is an indisputable matter.
And what is said about them developing themselves and making their own wealth..Ridiculous.
How did the major industrial countries receive the idea at the time?
She certainly didn’t receive it positively, and she didn’t like it at all.
Did you think at the time or suggest a specific mechanism for calculating these losses and damages?
No, just saying that we’ll have to rely on some technical expertise to figure out how to do this mechanism.
The concept was new and different at the time, no one had discussed things like that before.
We knew that the developed countries would resist it as much as they could, because they did not want to shoulder this responsibility.
Has being an American citizen caused you any embarrassment for attacking rich countries and defending the rights of other countries?
I was born in New York, but my father came from Suriname, where he was born when it was a Dutch colony, and my mother is from the US Virgin Islands, a colony that the United States took from Denmark.
I was brought up with my parents talking to me about the sins of colonialism. My interest in the issues of colonial countries that were economically disadvantaged and exploited increased.
So I was very anti-colonial in my youth and I had friends who had the same attitude and we were criticized for that, so criticism was not a new thing for me.
I spent a large part of my legal career working with the African independence movements and against the apartheid regime in South Africa.
It is for this reason that the Government of Vanuatu asked me to represent it at the United Nations later on.
What was your reaction to the COP27 parties’ agreement to establish a Loss and Damage Fund?
I’m so glad it did, this should have happened a long time ago, but better late than never.
Is the idea you put forward the same as the one announced last year, or different?
A little different.
The basic idea was a mechanism to insure the affected countries against expected losses and damages in the future, and not a fund in the sense that the parties negotiated last year.
The idea of insurance was necessary, not only to compensate the smaller developing country, but to ensure that developing and island countries have a voice to be heard.
These countries were completely excluded in any negotiations of this kind, and this mechanism ensures that they have an audible voice whenever compensation issues are raised with major developed countries.
In your opinion, what are the best mechanisms to collect the necessary financing for the Damage Loss Fund and support the affected countries?
As a civil rights lawyer and human rights advocate, I will speak from the perspective of justice and rights.
What I believe is that if someone did something wrong, they should fix it.
Therefore, I believe that developed countries should pay to fix the situation, because they are the ones who made mistakes, and it is not right for others to pay.
price for it.
It is unfair to ask the victims of the mistake to bear all the financial burden, which should fall on the shoulders of the wrongdoer alone, which is the developed countries.
Are you suggesting that payment be linked to current emissions?
No, because this is not enough, there are other things to consider.
There are people who are harmed, health is deteriorated, there is bad nutrition, there are worse products, and all things of this kind must be taken into account, and they must also be included in the calculation.
Do you expect the Fund’s working mechanism to be approved or approved by developed countries specifically this year?
This is a difficult question.
I can’t answer it unless I go to the COP28 climate summit in the UAE.
Then I can reply.
But that cannot be predicted now.
Can this fund be manipulated and its fate similar to the $100 billion pledge?
This is always the problem with developed countries. They make huge promises to get rid of the political pressures they are facing at home, and then make excuses for not being able to deliver.
What is the guarantee to achieve this?
Pressure to improve the formula at the next conference.
We must always make progress.
We must take advanced steps based on what we reached last time.
What is your position on countries such as (China – India – Brazil – Russia) regarding losses and damages?
Should you do something about this box?
Well, these countries are not as guilty as the United States, France, and Britain.
These countries, and even Russia, are still victims of this problem, and the damage that has befallen them is sometimes reflected in some of their own policies.
These countries cannot now provide their people with all the required needs, as they would have done had they not suffered the damage caused by the developed countries, whether in terms of production or in terms of food, or with regard to other basic and necessary needs.
What do you think of the European-American position that China is no longer a developing country and has to pay for its carbon emissions?
Well, to be honest with you, I don’t think developed countries are in a position to make such statements and conditions.
Unless they come to the negotiating table with clean hands, they will not be in a position to criticize China.
There is no dispute that China has its own problems with its current emissions, and there is no doubt that China is not like Vanuatu, a small affected country with no emissions, but it is also not like the United States.
Can fund spending be linked to the decision to phase out fossil fuels?
Yes it can.
There are many good ideas in this regard.
Tell us about one of them?
Fund spending can be linked to issues like food, none more important than that.
Nothing is more important than producing food for people to be able to provide for themselves.
There is no doubt that climate change has greatly affected food production.
Even in developed countries, food production is affected in one way or another, but the biggest impact is undoubtedly on the developing and smaller countries.
This is one of the big issues that must be addressed.
I might have some ideas, but I need to be there with the other delegates in order to try and work with them on a solution to how we go about making this problem go away.
With climate impacts now more evident than ever, what should small island states and developing countries in the Middle East and Africa do in the international climate space?
One of the priorities should be to strengthen the alliances that small island countries forge with developing countries in the Middle East and Africa.
We must strengthen those alliances first before we deal with developed countries.
Which is more difficult for you, your past fight against colonialism or achieving climate justice?
This is a really good question, though difficult.
Each battle had its own difficulties.
But I think the counter-colonial argument was a little easier to convince people, because most people can be convinced of the need to confront one country that colonizes another.
But the issue of climate change is difficult for some people to understand, and every country or society wants to develop and grow.
And sometimes, in order to develop, countries have to do things that are harmful to them in the long run.
Climate change is a long-standing argument that must be put forward for discussion and people should be made aware of it and the dangers posed by it, because it is now unclear in its true magnitude, whereas colonialism was a little easier to inform people about the problem and urge them to take action to get rid of it.
What is your message to the parties at the upcoming COP28 climate conference?
Well, I invite them to cooperate and unite, I encourage unity among developing countries. We will not achieve anything unless there is unity among the developing countries.
And it does not matter if we are talking about China or Vanuatu.
Of course they both have different interests due to the size of each country, but even so, it is essential that these countries come together to try to achieve a common goal of climate justice.
Climate justice means that decisions made on the climate will take into account the legitimate interests and rights of all nations and peoples.