Pacific Islands Forum defines actions to combat Climate Change and Sea-Level Rise

July 01, 2022 AOSIS Download PDF

Topic: Oceans

Excellencies and colleagues, I’d like to begin by thanking the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat for hosting this very important side-event.

We have talked much this week about the linkages between oceans and other issues, and there is no more important connection than that between oceans and climate change. The rapidly changing climate is having a significant impact on the oceans, which in turn is negatively influencing our climate system. Unless we immediately intervene to stop this downward spiral, our islands will facing increasingly dire threats to our lands, economies, societies and even our sovereignty.

I’d like to talk about two ways that we as AOSIS are attempting to solve this problem, or at least to influence its path. The first is by pushing increased climate action at the UNFCCC, and the second is by influencing the development of international law at the UN and the International Law Commission.

The way to save our islands from the scourges of climate change is by solving the climate crisis. This is complicated political, social, economic and legal problem that must be attacked on all of these fronts. Our experience has been that focusing only on one of these elements will ultimately be fruitless. Developed country politicians will not act if it not in their country’s economic interests. Social movements that are divorced from political power will gain headlines and little else. And courts, both domestic and international, have been reluctant to wade comprehensively into economic and political problems that they think are better handled by economic and political actors.

AOSIS’s engagement over the past 32 years at the UNFCCC has been about attempting to bring these issues together and finding ambitious, durable solutions to this problem. I’d like to highlight three areas:
1. We have been consistently pushing for higher ambition from all states, ourselves included. We know that the current commitments in NDCs are insufficient to keep us on a 1.5 degree pathway and have now secured annual high-level check-ins on our progress towards that goal.
2. We have also pushed very hard on climate finance and increasing access for small islands. We are very willing to do our part in reducing and increasing the resiliency of our islands, but we often do not have sufficient finance or finance in the right ways, to enable us to do that.
3. Finally, we have spearheaded the work on loss & damage, and are continuing to advocate for a financing facility for loss & damage. This will very certainly assist our islands by allowing us to better respond to the loss & damage that has occurred or is occurring. We are already responding with domestic funds, but they are not enough, and it seems perverse that we must spend our limited funds to respond to a problem that other, richer countries have caused.

As hard as we have pushed at the UNFCCC, we also recognize that we are already facing the impacts of climate change, particularly sea-level rise. As island states, sea-level rise has the potential to have profound impacts. I’d like to focus here on the second area of our work—our engagement at UN Headquarters on the work of the International Law Commission’s the Study group on Sea-Level Rise in Relation to International Law.

For small islands, international law is critical for the protection of our rights, in particular in the law of the sea. But as relatively new states, we had limited influence on the development of much of this area of law. Only 13 SIDS were independent when UNCLOS negotiations started in 1972. Over the decade that the agreement was being negotiated, another 18 SIDS became independent.

Nonetheless, the maritime zones allocated to us under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) have become central to our statehood, economies, food security, health and education prospects, and even our unique cultures and livelihoods.
But each of these things is under threat from relentless sea-level rise—a situation not even contemplated when UNCLOS was being negotiated almost 50 years ago.

But thankfully, international law is not static. It can be continually interpreted by states as fundamental situations change. This brings us to the work of the ILC and their two recent reports: the first on sea-level rise and law of the sea, and the second on sea-level rise and statehood and protection of persons.

The first report affirmed what we as small islands had been saying and practicing for a while: our maritime zones, once established, and the rights and entitlements that flow from them are not affected by physical changes to our coastlines resulting from sea-level rise. AOSIS and AOSIS member states have made strong statements in support of this principle at the 6th (Legal) Committee at the General Assembly over the last two years. In addition, both the PIF and AOSIS heads of state and government made declarations to this effect last summer. In these declarations, we have said clearly set out our interpretation of international law as is our right as sovereign states. A number of SIDS have backed this up in practice through national legislation and declarative statements upon the deposit of geographic coordinates of our maritime zones with the SG.

This has had a real effect. Many other states are now adopting the small island interpretation of UNCLOS, including many in Africa, Latin America and a few in Europe. They recognize that the legal stability, security, certainty, and predictability that comes from defined maritime zones is of benefit to all states. We now must continue to take domestic action to solidify our maritime zones, and put pressure on other states to do the same. We are in the driver’s seat here and large states are now recognizing that we must be accommodated.
The news is less great on the second issues paper. A number of AOSIS states had put in submissions on the question of statehood. For many, the continued relevance of the Montevideo Convention of 1933 to define the characteristics of a state that already exists were questioned. Many instead suggested that the continuation of statehood itself was a fundamental premise of the international order. Some even suggested that it is individual states themselves that get to decide when and if their statehood is extinguished.

The second issues paper mentioned these submissions, but continued to advance a relatively traditional view of the characteristics of states. As AOSIS states, we must come to a common understanding on this very important issue and advocate for it.

We will continue as AOSIS to push forward in all of these areas of work. But in order to protect our islands from sea-level rise we cannot do it alone.

Our ask of the international community are threefold:
1. Increase ambition and finance for mitigation and adaptation, and work with us to develop a useful finance facility for loss & damage.
2. Take domestic action to ensure the stability of existing maritime zones and recognise that existing law does not required that these zones change in the future, and
3. Work with us to define statehood for the 21st century in a manner that meets the needs of all states.

I thank you for your time and look forward to working with all of you on these important issues.

Sub Topic: UN Oceans Conference

Forum: GA

Meeting: GA75