SG HENRY PUNA TO THE
2021 PACIFIC UPDATE EVENT, OPENING PANEL: POLITICS AND REGIONALISM
DECLARATION ON PRESERVING MARITIME ZONES IN THE FACE OF CLIMATE CHANGE-RELATED SEA-LEVEL RISE
To the organisers of this important annual event – the Australian National University, the University of the South Pacific, and the Pacific Research Program,
Distinguished fellow panellists and presenters,
Ladies and Gentlemen,
At the outset, I express my sincere gratitude for the opportunity to present to you all today on the Forum Leaders’ 2021 Declaration on Preserving Maritime Zones in the face of Climate Change-related Sea-level rise.
My remarks this morning will cover three key parts. Firstly, our serious concerns over the impacts of climate change-related sea-level rise on maritime entitlements. Secondly, the centrality of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) in providing the legal basis for the Declaration; and finally, a preview of steps toward building international consensus around the key aspects of the Declaration.
THE IMPACTS OF CLIMATE CHANGE-RELATED SEA-LEVEL RISE ON MARITIME ENTITLEMENTS
The ocean and coastal seas have long been integral to the Pacific way of life. The ocean, as a shared resource, continues to be a source of cultural significance and inspiration.1 Equally critical, the ocean remains the exclusive and sole source of life and vitality of the peoples of the Pacific, in their voyages of economic development and nation building.2
As large oceanic States within a Blue Pacific Continent, Pacific countries have a profound connection to and reliance on the ocean, which is at the heart of our geography, cultures and economies. Our past, present and future development are based on rights and entitlements guaranteed under the UNCLOS.
As stewards and custodians of some of the world’s richest biodiversity and marine resources3, we have a duty and responsibility to protect, defend, and maintain the health and resilience of the oceans and its resources.
In the context of sea-level rise and the question of sovereign rights and jurisdictions under the 1982 UNCLOS, the peoples of the Pacific are peculiarly situated, on the basis that the issue raises for the peoples, the very fundamental question of the survival of a people.
The potential loss of territory, jurisdiction and sovereign rights would have far-reaching consequences for the region in terms of effective oceans governance, in particular conservation and management of resources, addressing maritime domain threats, food security, and economic development and nation building aspirations.
Furthermore, with the special and inextricable links with the oceans, the Pacific peoples see the oceans as a connector, rather than a divider, a fact that has over centuries, shaped for us a certain identity, cloaked in a rich and unique set of customs and traditions that has withstood the test of time.
We too, like all Parties to the Convention, desire the opportunity to fully enjoy our maritime entitlements. The meaningful application of the oceans governance initiatives, treaties and agreements, and effective enforcement of national policies and legal frameworks that currently exist to protect national entitlements generated from maritime zones, is likely to be seriously challenged by the impact of sea-level rise on baselines and coastlines. Clearly, the stakes are high.
At their 50th Meeting, which was held in Tuvalu in 2019, Forum Leaders once again “noted with concern the threat posed by sea-level rise to securing the Blue Pacific, and reaffirmed the importance of preserving Members’ existing rights stemming from maritime zones, in the face of sea-level rise”.
Leaders also took a step further with a profound commitment “to a collective effort, including to develop international law, with the aim of ensuring that once a Forum Member’s maritime zones are delineated in accordance with the UNCLOS, the Member’s maritime zones could not be challenged or reduced as a result of sea-level rise and climate change”.
The recent IPCC Working Group I report, Climate Change 2021: the Physical Science Basis, further and alarmingly confirms sea-level rise as a real and pressing issue.
The relationship between climate change-related sea-level rise and maritime zones, including economic and strategic considerations, is therefore of fundamental importance to our Pacific region and to all coastal States. This further reinforces our call to world leaders to urgently commit to decisive climate action that limits global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius.
THE CENTRALITY OF THE 1982 UNCLOS
This now brings me to my second message today, and that is the centrality of the Convention as the legal basis for the Declaration.
On 6 August 2021, Leaders marked the 50th Forum Anniversary with the endorsement of the Declaration on Preserving Maritime Zones in the face of Climate Change-related Sea-level rise.
This is a solution by the Forum that both preserves maritime zones in the face of climate change-related sea-level rise and upholds the integrity of, and our long-standing commitment to, the 1982 UNCLOS as the global legal framework under which all activities and uses of ocean space is governed.
The Declaration is not just another climate change-related declaration. The Declaration is a carefully drafted, targeted instrument that addresses a specific issue: the relationship between climate change-related sea-level rise and maritime zones.
It is a considered, moderate and targeted solution through a good faith interpretation of the Convention. The relationship between climate change-related sea-level rise and maritime zones was not an issue that was fully addressed at UNCLOS III, but which is now of concern to all of us, and in particular small island developing States and low-lying States.
Despite its inadequacies, the UNCLOS may be the only thing that stands between order in the uses of the oceans, and the tragedy of the commons.4 The Forum Leaders’ commitment to upholding the Convention in this context underscores their commitment to the rule of law, and to an established international order in the uses of ocean space.
The oceans, after all, is a shared resource that requires the application of the due regard principle to promote peace and harmony in its uses. That is the essence of the Declaration in this context, in promoting the notion that there shall be no derogation whatsoever in maritime entitlements under the Convention, in the face of climate change-related sea-level rise.5
Importantly, the Declaration is premised on States first establishing their maritime zones in accordance with the Convention and is firmly based and grounded in the primacy of the Convention, which is often referred to as the Constitution of the Oceans. It clarifies our collective understanding on the interpretation of the Convention and represents our formal collective view on how the rules on maritime zones are applied in the situation of climate change-related sea-level rise.
It is our regional position that this view is consistent with and is supported by the Convention and the principles of general international law that underpin the Convention, including those of stability, security, certainty and predictability.
Emerging state practice demonstrates that as States Parties to the UNCLOS, Forum Members have chosen to exercise their rights under the Convention, to delimit boundaries and to delineate their maritime zones with the objective of harnessing to the fullest, the enjoyment of entitlements that are derived from maritime zones established under the Convention.
The conscious decision to do so is not only motivated by the desire toward this end, but equally important, is the recognition of the special and inseparable links with the oceans and the vitality of peoples of the Pacific, in the context of their values, traditional practices, spiritual connections, handed down from past generations, and their very survival.6
Over the course of the last decade, Forum Members as coastal States resolving to protect and preserve sovereignty, sovereign rights and jurisdictions under the Convention, have worked tirelessly to conclude the work on the delineation of maritime zones, and on their maritime boundaries, investing substantive costs and time into this work.
In global terms, our region is perhaps one of the most successful, if not, the most successful. While some boundaries discussions in the region have been difficult for obvious reasons, the region has not witnessed any major boundaries disputes such as seen in other regions of the world.7 To date, out of the 48 shared maritime boundaries, 35 have been completed, and several delineations against the high seas remain to be completed.8
Preserving maritime zones in the manner set out in the Leaders’ 2021 Declaration contributes to a just international response to climate change-related sea-level rise and towards the goal that our legal entitlements as sovereign nations and as States Parties to the Convention are not lost nor challenged due to sea-level rise.
The Declaration’s endorsement on the 50th Anniversary of the Forum demonstrated the important value of the Forum family and signalled deep mutual commitment to safeguard the homes and interests of the Pacific peoples into perpetuity. In addition, there is no doubt that the Declaration will serve an important building block, contributing to the development and implementation of the 2050 Strategy for the Blue Pacific Continent that is currently under development.
CONCLUSIONS – TOWARDS INTERNATIONAL CONSENSUS
In conclusion, the vision and leadership by Forum Leaders with this Declaration paves the way as the region now takes steps toward building international consensus as part of the overarching effort to find a global solution to the issue. As alluded to earlier, it is a clear testament to their desire to adhere to the rule of law, and to participate in bilateral and international transactions under a rules-based, international order, in the uses of the oceans.
The potential loss of entitlements to climate change-related sea-level rise, promoted by the action of others, runs contrary to the intention of the Convention to: ‘pay due regard for the sovereignty of all States; to promote the peaceful uses of the seas and oceans; the equitable and efficient utilization of their resources; the conservation of their living resources; the protection and preservation of the marine environment; and for a just and equitable international economic order which takes into account the special interests and needs of developing countries’9.
The Pacific as a collective has not been reticent, but has been proactive in its efforts to maximize opportunities and to secure into perpetuity, the maritime entitlements in the manner that they deem appropriate under international law.
The 2021 Leaders’ Declaration underpins the region’s practice to date in this regard, serving and driving global transformative governance of the oceans. There is no doubt that the Forum Membership accedes to the principle that a rules-based approach to the governance of ocean space is the more sustainable approach in the long term. After all, the object of international law is to promote global peace and prosperity.10
I thank you.–ENDS
CHECK AGAINST DELIVERY