Challenging Injustice, Advancing Human Rights

Rights group looks for ‘radical change’ solutions from island nations at COP23 summit

UUSC praises climate change community for heightening role of indigenous knowledge in global strategies, but says its international actions aren't trickling down to island communities.

UUSC praises climate change community for heightening role of indigenous knowledge in global strategies, but says its international actions aren’t trickling down to island communities

Media contacts:
Jan Dragin, Dragin Communications, 24/7, 011 339 236-0679
Shayna Lewis, UUSC, 617-301-4333


BONN, Germany/CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — Wednesday, November 08, 2017—A Cambridge, Massachusetts-based human rights advocate is praising this year’s international COP23 summit for its focus on Pacific islands’ climate challenges and for its elevating and integrating the contributions of indigenous knowledge into global climate adaptation approaches.

But, says Salote Soqo, environmental justice and climate action leader for the human rights organization Unitarian Universalist Service Committee (UUSC), “We have yet to see the kind of radical change that we expect to see from Fiji’s role as the COP23 president.”

In progress through November 17 in Bonn, Germany, this year’s COP is being presided over by Fiji, one of the small island nations at great risk from rising sea levels and the extreme storms occurring due to climate change.

“The Pacific islands are being discussed in every single workshop and event,” Soqo said, “but we’re still so far away from any real progress. Climate forced displacement is already happening in many of these islands.”

“I can testify from recent visits to these same island communities, as well as indigenous communities like those on the Arctic coast of Alaska, that the actions from the international community are insufficient and are not trickling down to provide appropriate support to the affected communities.

“At the summit’s opening, it was surprising to hear that the COP president did not use his discretion to include two proposed items for the agenda that would focus on accelerating actions on reducing emissions, particularly considering the alarming climate data that we’ve heard. We’re anxious to hear what the COP23 president will come back with on November 11,” Soqo said.

She praised the ways institutions like UNESCO are developing robust means and platforms that integrate and bridge indigenous peoples’ knowledge with scientific knowledge, to help communities facing climate adaptation, loss, and displacement make informed decisions. “I liked the concept of creating platforms to engage indigenous peoples as holders of traditional knowledge,” Soqo said.

“Frontline communities must continue to shape all strategic thinking and actions on how best to respond to climate change,” she said.

UUSC’s Environmental Justice and Climate Action program partners with grassroots organizations in Alaska and the Pacific Islands to advance and protect the rights of marginalized groups who are at risk of forced displacement caused by slow-onset climate impacts.

The organization currently works with 16 Alaska Native Tribes along the Arctic coastline, through a partnership with the Alaska Institute for Justice’s (AIJ) Rights, Resilience, and Community Relocation program. The program aims to enhance the tribes’ abilities to adapt to a radically changing environment and to ensure protection of their human rights if they are required to relocate.

Across a wide reach of Pacific islands, UUSC and partners are working with communities in Kiribati, Papua New Guinea’s Carteret Islands, Palau, and Micronesia, in collaborations ranging from advocacy actions at regional and national levels, to relocating households from lifelong island homes to mainland environments.

During one COP23 event on Tuesday, former President of Kiribati Anote Tong said, “The reality is that our islands will disappear. The question is what are we going to do about it? What is going to become of my grandchildren? This is where we need to focus our attention. Are we happy with leaving things as they are, or are we going to be ambitious about reversing climate change?”

UUSC’s Soqo noted that the role of grassroots groups in these negotiations is crucial. “We’re seeing a lot of grassroots groups from around the world sharing the harrowing experiences that their communities are experiencing. They’re not talking about data or policies, they’re speaking about the gross injustice that they’re experiencing. This is why justice and protecting human rights should be at the center of what these negotiations are all about.”



Unitarian Universalist Service Committee: UUSC is a human rights organization powered by grassroots collaboration, working throughout the United States and more than a dozen other countries worldwide. Since 1940, UUSC has advocated for social, economic, and environmental justice, protected civil liberties, worked toward a world free from oppression, delivered aid with dignity, and advanced the rights of people left behind during conflicts and natural disasters.

Salote Soqo: Before joining UUSC as the Senior Program Leader for Environmental Justice and Climate Action, Salote Soqo worked as a regional program coordinator in water equity and climate justice for The Environmental Justice Coalition for Water (EJCW). She was also the climate and carbon management fellow with EJCW and the Carbon Cycle Institute (CCI). Prior to that, she worked as an environmental consultant in Fiji, where she is originally from. Soqo attained her undergraduate degrees from the Auckland University of Technology in New Zealand, and the University of the South Pacific, in Fiji. She also holds a master’s degree in environmental management from the University of San Francisco.