Speakers Warn of Vanishing Coastlines, Endangered Nations, Forced Migration, Competition over Natural Resources
Speakers warned the international community that tensions are deepening as coastlines vanish, territories are lost, resources become scarce and masses are displaced, as the Security Council held its first ever open debate today on the impact of sea-level rise on international peace and security.
The world will witness “a mass exodus of entire populations on a biblical scale”, Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said as he painted an alarming portrait of the emerging global security crisis that rising sea levels portend. Noting the phenomenon’s impact on lives and livelihoods in regions and ecosystems around the world, from the Caribbean to North Africa to the river basins that lie at the foot of the Himalayas, he said this will lead to ever-fiercer competition for fresh water, land and other resources.
Naming the many world cities that will be affected as the waters rise — from Cairo to New York to Santiago — he called on the Security Council to build the political will required to address the devastating security challenges arising from rising seas. The legal and human rights impact of the phenomenon is broad, he said, underscoring that they require innovative legal and practical solutions. Drawing attention to the solutions proposed by the International Law Commission, he stressed: “People’s human rights do not disappear because their homes do.”
Echoing that, Csaba Kőrösi (Hungary), President of the General Assembly, stressed: “You don’t need me to tell you that the displacement of hundreds of millions of people is a security risk.” The new legal questions provoked by climate change-induced sea-level rises are at the very core of national and State identity. He also pointed to food security issues, noting that much global agriculture is concentrated on coastal plains and low-lying islands. He also recalled Hurricane Sandy in 2012, which forced United Nations Headquarters in New York to close for three days. The Organization faced sharp criticism in the aftermath regarding its lack of preparation, he said, asking those present if the world is prepared.
Also briefing the Council today was Bogdan Aurescu, Co-Chair of the Study Group of the International Law Commission on sea-level rise in relation to international law, and Minister for Foreign Affairs of Romania, who outlined the legal quandaries caused by climate-change-induced sea-level rise. As coasts are pushed landward, affecting baselines and the maritime zones that are measured from the baselines, there will be increased competition over natural resources, forced migration and displacement of populations. Further, it can prompt the loss of State territory, he noted, adding that the submerging of land poses obvious threats for the very existence of States — a novel situation for international law.
He highlighted the International Law Commission’s consideration of the topic “Sea-level rise in relation to international law” as well as collective regional and cross-regional declarations, such as the Pacific Islands Forum’s “Declaration on Preserving Maritime Zones in the Face of Climate Change-Related Sea-Level Rise”. Preserving or “freezing” the baselines and outer limits of maritime zones is crucial to legal stability and security, he said, underlining that this means sea-level rise cannot be invoked for terminating or withdrawing from a treaty which established a maritime boundary. Further, to avoid possible situations of de facto statelessness, he suggested various measures including preserving the fundamental rights and identity of persons compelled to settle on the territory of third States. “Global solidarity is key here,” he said.
Bringing to the debate a small island developing States perspective, Coral Pasisi, Director of Climate Change of the Pacific Community and President of Tofia Niue, stressed that sea-level rise is a direct security threat, as well as a threat multiplier to the Blue Pacific Continent. “A threat to one’s security is best defined by the lens of those being impacted, not those who continue to be most responsible for its cause,” she explained. The Blue Pacific Continent is a quilt of geopolitical interests, forged through the World Wars, patchworked via the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, coloured by globalization and now threatened to be torn by the impacts of sea-level rise and climate change, she said.
Highlighting various multilateral efforts that are already under way and seek to address the relationship between sea-level rise and security, she pointed to the 2018 Boe Declaration on Regional Security, which elevates climate change as the single greatest threat to the security and well-being of the peoples of the Pacific, the 2021 Declaration on Preserving Maritime Zones in the face of Climate Change-related Sea-level rise and last year’s 2050 Strategy for a Blue Pacific Continent, endorsed by Pacific Island Forum leaders. A fit-for-purpose Pacific Regional Security Assessment Guide is in the final process of being developed, she said, also highlighting the forthcoming General Assembly resolution requesting an advisory opinion of the International Court of Justice on the obligations of States in respect of climate change, championed by Vanuatu and supported by all Pacific nations.
Multiple security concerns rose to the surface in the ensuing debate, as more than 70 speakers addressed the Council. While some pointed to possible conflicts caused by a global competition for resources, others raised the question posed by lost territories and unstable coastal borders and warned that the mass displacement of populations will exacerbate tensions. However, many speakers had differing opinions on the precise role the Council should play, with some expressing concern about the “securitization” of the climate change debate.
Albania’s delegate was among those who expressed strong support for making climate change a core Council topic. “Denying it means sleepwalking into a disaster written in front of our eyes in capital letters,” he said, stressing the need to raise awareness about the impact of climate change on security. The Organization as a whole must increase cross-agency cooperation and the sharing of best practices, he said, voicing support for the appointment of a Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Climate Change and Security.
Echoing the call for that appointment, the representative of the Federated States of Micronesia said that such an individual could strengthen the Organization’s ability to understand and respond sensitively to all facets of the challenge posed by climate-change-related sea-level rise — including its implications for statehood and other matters of international law. There is a distressing school of thought in international law that once rising seas inundate the land territory of a State, then that State automatically ceases to exist, he said, urging the Council to reject this position.
Verónica Nataniel Macamo Dlhovo, Minister for Foreign Affairs and Cooperation of Mozambique, pointed out that small island developing States are some of the most peaceful nations in the world, but population displacement and loss of territory will deeply affect their own peace. Most African States have peacefully settled disputed maritime boundary claims but rising sea-levels will unravel maritime boundaries. Also spotlighting concerns relating to statehood, national identity, refugee status, State responsibility, access to resources and maritime jurisdiction, she said the international community must consider how to reaffirm the self-determination principle and the continuation of statehood after loss of territory.
The representative of Palau, speaking for the Pacific Small Island Developing States, invited the Council to visit the Pacific and witness sea-level rise first-hand. Outlining many innovative solutions spearheaded in her region, she highlighted the “migration with dignity” strategy introduced in Kiribati and its purchase of land in Fiji. Tuvalu has launched an initiative to upload a virtual version of their country into the metaverse, she reported, while Vanuatu has requested an International Court of Justice advisory opinion on the obligations of States in respect of climate change. Outlining action the Council could take to address sea-level rise risks, she reiterated her call to secure maritime zones, even in the face of rising sea levels.
The United States will not challenge maritime zones, that country’s representative said, even if they are not subsequently updated to reflect sea-level rise. Noting that this is consistent with the approach taken by the Pacific Islands Forum, she encouraged others to do the same.While cities and nations overtaken by the sea “should be the stuff of apocalypse novels and movies”, in fact, it is a real, global threat, she said, adding that more than 680 million people living in low-lying coastal areas — including fishermen in her home state of Louisiana — will lose their homes, livelihoods and communities.
The representative of Costa Rica, a small coastal country but a large ocean State, called on countries to halve greenhouse gas emissions and meet climate financing commitments. “This is not charity”, but a moral, environmental, and economic imperative, she said, also encouraging a discussion of the international law implications of acts that cause irreparable ecological damage, including a possible definition of ecocide.
In that vein, Ghana’s delegate declared: “Delaying action means being too late to make the needed difference.” He also drew attention to the long-delayed delivery of the $100 billion promised to developing countries in climate financing. States must strengthen existing mechanisms to peacefully resolve conflicts in the era of climate change, he stressed.
Morocco’s delegate, welcoming the work of the International Law Commission on the matter, urged the Council to consider climate change impacts on security before conflicts break out or worsen. By 2050, impacts such as drought or desertification are expected to compel as many as 216 million people to migrate, he pointed out.
For Japan’s delegate, the threat posed by sea-level rise was as critical as that posed by foreign invasion. However, while the Council should get involved when issues arise, that organ alone cannot offer a comprehensive solution, he pointed out, calling for more robust conversation between the Council and other entities, such as the Peacebuilding Commission.
Indonesia’s delegate emphasized that the Council must consolidate its effort to better respond to the security impacts of climate change and not to climate change itself. The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change must remain the leading forum for addressing climate change, he said, adding that all Council measures must be complementary in that regard.
On the other end of the spectrum, Brazil’s representative insisted that it does not fall within the Council’s mandate to discuss climate change. The securitization of this debate may prove itself undesirable and counterproductive. Noting that there is no evidence of climate change directly causing armed conflicts, he emphasized that the Council does not have the tools to fight climate change. Highlighting the importance of the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea and the International Law Commission, he called on all developed countries to fulfil their long-overdue climate finance commitments.
Along similar lines, India’s delegate brought up the history of unkept promises on financial commitments, describing it as ironical that developing countries must bear the burden of industrializing without carbonizing while raising millions out of poverty. Climate change is more about development and less about peace and security, she said, adding that the Council is not the place to address it. There exists little scientific correlation or evidence of the impact of climate change on peace and security, and the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change process is the most equitable architecture to address the issue, she stressed.
The representative of the Russian Federation also said there is no scientific basis to the relationship between climate and security, expressing concern over the counterproductive “securitizing” of climate issues. While acknowledging the social impacts of increasing natural hazards and the economic consequences of sea-level changes, he said development issues, including the environmental dimension, should be considered within relevant fora, such as the General Assembly, Economic and Social Council, high-level political forum on sustainable development and the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.
Also speaking today were the Minister for Foreign and European Affairs and Trade of Malta, State Secretary of the Federal Department of Foreign Affairs of Switzerland, and representatives of the United Arab Emirates, Gabon, France, United Kingdom, China, Ecuador, Singapore, Liechtenstein, Republic of Korea, Jordan, Egypt, Mexico, Philippines, New Zealand, Denmark (also for Sweden, Finland, Iceland and Norway), Viet Nam, Slovenia, Chile, Portugal, Lebanon, Austria, Guyana, Greece, Thailand, Dominican Republic, Botswana, Georgia, Latvia, Canada, Ireland, Kiribati, Samoa (for the Association of Small Island States), Marshall Islands, Kenya, Italy, Tonga (for the Pacific Islands Forum), Papua New Guinea, Antigua and Barbuda (for the Caribbean Community), Tuvalu, Guatemala, Ukraine, Bahrain, Nauru (for the Group of Friends on Climate and Security), Niger, Maldives, Argentina, Netherlands, Bangladesh, Saudi Arabia, Haiti and Sierra Leone.
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