Mon | Dec 11, 2017

Editorial | Commonwealth foreign ministers must revise agenda

Published:Tuesday | September 19, 2017 | 12:09 AM

When Jamaica's Kamina Johnson Smith and her Caribbean counterparts join fellow Commonwealth foreign ministers on the margins of the UN General Assembly this week, we expect that they will propose a radical adjustment to the agenda to accommodate an urgent and existential crisis.

For, by the time they arrive in New York, a number of Caribbean countries, including several members of the Commonwealth, are likely to have been seriously sideswiped, if not taken direct hits, from Hurricane Maria, the latest in a string of Atlantic storms to have slammed the region this year. It is only a fortnight ago that Hurricane Irma caused devastation in the archipelago, before going on to do more damage to mainland USA. In-between, the islands of the Caribbean were spared the worst of two other potentially dangerous storms.

This cavalcade of powerful hurricanes underlines the fact that world is facing an increasing number of extreme weather events, the result of higher global temperatures, caused primarily, the most credible science proves, by greenhouse gas emissions. In other words, it is man-made.

This vindicates the Commonwealth's long-standing attention to the dangers of climate change, a posture that has been reinforced by the current Commonwealth secretary general, Patricia Scotland.

 

Life and death matters

 

As recent events have shown, global warming is a matter of life of death to the Caribbean, and other regions of small island developing states, such as those in the Pacific and low-lying coastal areas. But it is not only the fury of wind that poses the threat; rising sea levels, too, unless contained, threaten to overwhelm these states.

The danger, however, lies not only in these events. Extreme monsoon rains recently caused severe flooding and loss of life in Commonwealth members, Bangladesh and India. In the United States whose president, Donald Trump, rejects the fact that the actions of humans are causing the earth to become hotter and pulled America out of the Paris Climate Accord - rain associated with Hurricane Harvey caused unprecedented flooding in Houston, Texas.

The rich, powerful United States can perhaps easily afford to rehabilitate Houston, as well as deal with the devastation left by Irma on the Florida Keys and elsewhere. France, The Netherlands and Britain will help in the rebuilding of their overseas provinces, regions and territories in the Caribbean.

The prospects, however, are not too bright for independent states like Antigua & Barbuda, Dominica, St Kitts & Nevis and others in the Caribbean, including Jamaica, that are members of the Commonwealth. The Caribbean is the world's most indebted region. Its fragile economies, having barely emerged from the global financial meltdown of a decade ago, are being pushed by climate events to the cusp of another crisis.

 

New context

 

It is in this context we suggest that the Commonwealth foreign ministers place the Caribbean's economic crisis, exacerbated by recent hurricanes, as well as the existential threat posed by climate change, front and centre of their discussions, including mobilising support for the region's recovery. The platform of the UN General Assembly is also not an inappropriate one for Commonwealth members, in a coordinated fashion, to make the case.

Further, this week's meeting should be a precursor to a larger initiative by Commonwealth finance ministers, at their conference in Washington next month to be held in parallel with the annual meeting of the IMF to again bring the plight of the Caribbean to global attention.

It was recognised, at the time of the global meltdown a decade ago, that the region carried an unmanageable debt burden. Implicit promises of assistance were made, but not delivered. The Commonwealth can help to rekindle the argument.