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Security Council: Sea-Level Rise

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, stressed that sea-level rise, which is a direct negative effect of climate change, creates global problems — therefore requiring global solutions.  The issue poses a real risk to over two thirds of Member States.  “The science is clear on this,” he affirmed — as shown by the most recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports regarding the alarming projections of sea-level rise, even if Paris Agreement targets are met.She went on to describe the realities of insecurity already under way in the most vulnerable communities, as affirmed by the Pacific Security Outlook Report 2022-2023, and an ongoing climate security project funded by the United Nations Secretary-General’s Peacebuilding Fund in the Pacific, assessing the security threat of the region’s lowest-lying atoll nations as the front liners to the impacts of sea-level rise and climate change.  The concerns voiced so far, she continued, are food and water security, coastal erosion and land security, and the disproportionate impact on women, girls and children.  A fit-for-purpose Pacific Regional Security Assessment Guide is in the final process of being developed as part of this project and will provide a platform to collaborate on in future.  Also pointing to “unique non-economic impacts” which are “most concerning”, she said small island developing States remain resolute, and are “pushing for greater accountability of our generation to the next whether we sit on a beach or in a glass tower”. He pointed to a large number of statements presented in the General Assembly’s Sixth Committee (Legal), as well as by collective regional and cross-regional declarations, such as the August 2021 “Declaration on Preserving Maritime Zones in the Face of Climate Change-Related Sea-Level Rise” of the 18 Pacific Islands Forum members; and the September 2021 Declaration of the 39 Heads of State and Government of the Alliance of Small Island States.  This possible solution refers to the interpretation of the law of the sea that there is no obligation under this treaty to keep baselines and outer limits of maritime zones under review, nor to update charts or lists of geographical coordinates once deposited with the Secretary-General — and that such maritime zones, and the rights and entitlements that flow from them, shall continue to apply without reduction, notwithstanding any physical changes prompted by sea-level rise.  In other words, “preserving (or fixing, or ‘freezing’) the baselines and outer limits of maritime zones is crucial to legal stability and security,” he said. He went on to outline the elements of a shared response to common perils, including the need for regular Secretary-General reporting of scientific data analysis on risks and impacts of climate change on international peace and security to enable the Council to take a context-based and evidence-based approach to such threats.  He also underscored the need to catalyse greater and higher-quality climate finance for vulnerable countries to address “glaring underinvestment in food and water systems and infrastructure resilience” and called for reforming international financial institutions and multilateral development banks, so they can “run towards instead of away from destabilizing climate threats”.  Early action work by humanitarian actors, which could ensure an inclusive response from the start, is needed, as is addressing the “unprecedented” legal and policy challenges posed by sea-level rise, and ensuring the multilateral system offers adequate solutions.  He commended the continuing work of the International Law Commission to this end, particularly concerning the Law of the Sea Convention, sovereignty and statehood. Note:  A complete summary of today’s Security Council open debate will be made available after its conclusion. Turning to the role of the Council against such threats, she called on the organ to acknowledge and advocate to stop greenhouse-gas emissions, and to support the efforts of regions and countries most at risk to secure their jurisdictional space on the planet and the certainty of their existence as States into the future.  Further, she called on the Council to develop and implement ambitious policy on greening its practices, as well as those of its stakeholders in the field; go to places to where such impacts are occurring to fully appreciate first-hand the situation; and give voice to the most vulnerable — women, girls and children — who are disproportionately impacted. MAJID AL SUWAIDI (United Arab Emirates), Director-General of the twenty-eighth Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, stated that “nowhere is the urgency and complexity of the climate crisis more evident than in our seas and oceans”, as borne out by the testimonies of people living on the front lines of climate change, whose security, livelihoods and identities are already under threat.  Long before the temperature rises by 1.5°C, warming, rising and acidifying waters pose an existential threat, particularly to low-lying countries and coastal communities, with many territories poised to become uninhabitable even before becoming permanently inundated, he said, calling for “unity, solidarity and action” in the face of this crisis.  Recalling that countries are presently offtrack from the Paris Agreement goal of 1.5°C, he emphasized the urgent need for a coordinated response across the multilateral system, and for the current trajectory to be reversed through inclusive, effective and responsive climate action. Further, the international community must address the legal and human rights impact of rising seas and shrinking landmasses, he said, adding that this means not only international refugee law, but also innovative legal and practical solutions to forced human displacement.  “People’s human rights do not disappear because their homes do,” he said, drawing attention to the solutions proposed in 2022 by the International Law Commission, including continuing statehood despite loss of territory, assigning portions of territory to an affected State or even establishing confederations of States.   The Security Council has a critical role to play in building the political will required to address the devastating security challenges arising from rising seas, he underscored. He went on to note that, as much of global agriculture is concentrated on coastal plains and low-lying islands, sea-level rise is also raising questions about humanity’s survival.  In the Nile and Mekong Deltas — some of the richest agricultural regions in the world — 10 to 20 per cent of arable land will sink.  These and other fertile river deltas are vital pieces in the complex puzzle of world nutrition to feed the growing global population, and losing these areas can have knock-on effects around the globe.  He went on to note that climate-induced sea-level rise is also provoking new legal questions that are at the very core of national and State identity, including how sovereignty or United Nations membership will continue if nations sink beneath the sea and who will care for their displaced populations. Science and data offer impartial evidence to direct these decisions, he stated, adding that the Paris Agreement on climate change — and its targets for mitigation, adaptation and finance — offer the primary defence.  For its part, the General Assembly recently heard briefings from eminent scientists on the links between climate, conflict and cooperation, along with urgent calls from world leaders to take a whole-of-Government, whole-of-society approach to these issues.  Noting that the international community has the data and the frameworks, he stressed that what is needed now — as ever — is the political will to act.  Recalling that Hurricane Sandy forced United Nations Headquarters to close for three days in 2012 — and the sharp criticism faced by the Organization in the aftermath over its silence and lack of preparation — he asked those present if the world is prepared.  Imploring the Council to assume its role, he quoted Lao Tzu, who observed that:  “If you do not change direction, you may end up where you are heading”. She noted that 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 and coloured by globalization, adding:  “It is now threatened to be torn by the impacts of sea level rise and climate change.”  Such a threat will only be exacerbated by the uncertainty of jurisdiction, as law remains ambiguous about the impacts of sea-level rise on the basepoints by which Exclusive Economic Zones are measured and fixed.  Against this backdrop, she outlined declarations put forth by Pacific leaders, including, in 2018, the Boe Declaration on Regional Security which elevates climate change as the single, greatest threat to the livelihoods, security and well-being of the peoples of the Pacific, and the 2021 Declaration on Preserving Maritime Zones in the face of Climate Change-related Sea-level rise, which is the region’s “good-faith interpretation” of the Law of the Sea Convention, given that the relationship between climate-change-related sea-level rise and maritime zones was not foreseen or considered by its drafters. Briefings While small island developing States are some of the most peaceful nations in the world, she said, population displacement, loss of territory and possible threats to loss of national identity may deeply affect their own peace.  The possible significant territorial loss resulting from sea-level rise leads to a range of concerns relating to statehood, national identity, refugee status, State responsibility, access to resources and maritime jurisdiction.  Most African States have peacefully settled disputed maritime boundary claims, she said, but rising sea levels are likely to unravel these settled maritime boundaries.  Calling on the international community to develop clear rules to safeguard the stability of these boundaries, she said that incentives are needed to promote active participation of coastal communities in the conservation measures of marine ecosystems.  Further, it is essential to formulate a unanimous solution to displacement and the loss of territory that is to come, she said, adding that the international community must reflect on how to reaffirm the self-determination principle and the continuation of statehood after loss of territory. The negative national and international security implications and consequences linked to sea-level rise include:  affecting the coasts, which are “pushed” landward, and therefore affecting the baselines, and the maritime zones that are measured from the baselines (territorial sea, contiguous zone, exclusive economic zone) — thus threatening the coastal States’ access to the resources.  This loss of resources on which the littoral populations depend for their sustenance is likely to prompt increased competition over natural resources, forced migration and displacement of these populations.  Most importantly, he noted it can prompt the loss of State territory.  Sea-level rise is an existential threat for low-lying coastal States and especially for small island developing countries, which may consider their statehood and sovereignty in danger, as their land surface may be totally covered by the sea or become fully uninhabitable. THOMAS GUERBER, State Secretary of the Federal Department of Foreign Affairs of Switzerland, affirmed that rising seas threaten the infrastructure and even the existence of some island and coastal States, which could find themselves submerged.  In addition, agricultural production, food security, access to water and the habitat are threatened by soil erosion and water salinization.  Some areas are becoming uninhabitable, which could force millions of people to flee within or outside their country — which can lead to tensions over access to basic services.  He noted that the Council must be able to anticipate the impacts of climate change on international peace and security through conflict early warning systems based on sound science, and integrate the findings into its activities, including peacekeeping and special political missions.  Further, addressing sea-level rise means “international law must serve as our compass”, he stated — with the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea or the principle of damage-prevention serving as crucial components.  However, despite the established framework of international law, he affirmed that these climate challenges also pose new and complex questions — for example, regarding statehood, human rights or the protection of people against the specific effects of these threats.  He therefore welcomed the ongoing work of the International Law Commission.  Switzerland has taken on a proactive role in launching the Nansen Initiative with Norway, as well as the Geneva-based “Platform on Disaster Risk Reduction”, to improve the protection of people displaced across borders. As States’ coasts are the first to be affected, he cited two options of action.  First, physically protecting the coast through fortifications and consolidation — but this is highly costly and small island developing States and many low-lying coastal States simply cannot afford such costs.  The international community must find innovative instruments to support such efforts.  Citing his proposal in September 2022 for an International Voluntary Fund, he renewed that proposal today.  The second option is the use of international law, and the International Law Commission included the topic “Sea-level rise in relation to international law” on its agenda.  It is obvious, he noted, that for all States affected by sea-level rise the maritime zones established under the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea are central to their economies, food security and to their livelihoods. Statements CSABA KŐRÖSI (Hungary), President of the General Assembly, stating that “we cannot deny that climate change is the greatest challenge of our generation”, underscored that the issue demands focus and coherence across the United Nations system.  For the General Assembly, this means accelerating action on climate and water.  For the Economic and Social Council, it means addressing social and economic aspects.  And the Security Council has a role to play, too.  Recalling the words of ancient Syrian writer Publilius Syrus — that “anyone can hold the helm when the sea is calm” — he stressed that “our seas are not calm today”.  Rather, they are rising, and at the current rate, sea levels will be 1 to 1.6 metres higher by 2100.  This means that, in less than 80 years, 250 to 400 million people will likely need new homes in new locations.  “You don’t need me to tell you that the displacement of hundreds of millions of people is a security risk,” he observed. Stressing the need to provide developing countries the resources to build resilience against climate disaster, he said this means delivering on the loss and damage fund, making good on the 0 billion climate finance commitment to developing countries, doubling adaptation finance and leveraging massive private financing at a reasonable cost.  Also pointing to the need to address how  environmental disasters like rising sea levels undermine security, he noted that the Peacebuilding Fund is actively supporting grass-roots resilience efforts against the effects of climate change.  It is vital to improve foresight and early warnings to prepare and protect vulnerable communities, he said, highlighting the Organization’s plan to ensure that early warning systems against natural disasters protect every person on Earth within five years. In addition, last year’s 2050 Strategy for a Blue Pacific Continent, endorsed by Pacific Island Forum leaders, reinforced working together as a collective for advancing Pacific regionalism based on the Blue Pacific Narrative — a lens which fully appreciates the threat of climate change to the region’s security, she said.  Further, she looked forward to next month’s expected 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. VERÓNICA NATANIEL MACAMO DLHOVO, Minister for Foreign Affairs and Cooperation of Mozambique, pledging her country’s fullest support, noted that it is a low-lying coastal State that is particularly vulnerable to sea-level rise. Since 2019, Mozambique has been experiencing extreme weather events on a scale never seen before, she reported, adding that, in the last 12 months alone, Mozambique has endured five tropical storms and cyclones.  Cyclone Gombe of 2022 impacted almost one million people, she said, adding that in the City and Province of Maputo, 40,000 people were affected.  “We are talking about people who have lost almost everything they have gathered during their lives,” she said, adding that many cities in her country suffer severe erosion, a challenge shared with other large coastal cities in Africa, from Lagos to Casablanca.  “If no urgent action is taken to protect these cities, they may disappear in the near future,” she cautioned. ANTÓNIO GUTERRES, Secretary-General of the United Nations, stressing that “rising seas are sinking futures”, said that sea-level rise is not only a threat in itself, but also a threat-multiplier.  Rising seas threaten lives, and jeopardize access to water, food and health care, while saltwater intrusion can decimate jobs and entire economies in key industries like agriculture, fisheries and tourism.  Citing the World Meteorological Organization’s (WMO) latest data, he added that global average sea levels have risen faster since 1900 than over any preceding century in the last 3,000 years.  The global ocean has warmed faster over the past century than at any time in the past 11,000 years, he said, adding that, even if global heating is miraculously limited to 1.5°C, there will still be a sizeable sea-level rise.  If temperatures rise by 2°C, that level rise could double, he said, pointing out that, under any scenario, countries like Bangladesh, China, India and the Netherlands are all at risk.   Further, he added, mega-cities on every continent will face serious impacts including Cairo, Lagos, Maputo, Bangkok, Dhaka, Jakarta, Mumbai, Shanghai, Copenhagen, London, Los Angeles, New York, Buenos Aires and Santiago. * The 9259th Meeting was closed. “We know the risks, and we see the uncertainties and instabilities that we are going to face,” he emphasized, adding that “we can’t doubt that these will open the door for conflict and dispute”.  He underscored that, where that door is open, the Council has a responsibility to act.  It is critical to invest in prevention today, rather than address the implications of food scarcity or migration tomorrow.  Stressing that climate analysis should be integrated into planning for conflict prevention and protection efforts, he also pointed out that climate action can be a key tool for peacebuilding. IAN BORG, Minister for Foreign and European Affairs and Trade of Malta and Council President for February, speaking in his national capacity, pointed out that the Council would be better placed to identify, address and drive responses to peace and security if it taps into scientific knowledge and research on the impacts of new and emerging threats such as climate change.  Sea-level rise unleashes both sudden and gradual threats to the existence, identity and security of people and nations since submerged coastlines will threaten critical infrastructure, precipitate resource disputes and further marginalize the most vulnerable.  It has already resulted in the partial or total inundation of coastal areas; led to losses in land, housing and property; and disrupted basic services, he noted, stressing that the dire humanitarian consequences of rising sea levels are no longer a discourse in rhetoric.  Women and girls notably face the brunt of these climate-induced manifestations with devastating impacts on family survival that, in turn, limit the resilience of current and future generations.  Warning that the political and security consequences of sea-level rise may lead to a completely different world if left unaddressed by the Council, he reiterated his country’s commitment to ensure that the most affected are heard.  He also underscored the protection of women environmental defenders as an integral part of the global agenda for peacebuilding and sustaining peace. He further noted that legal stability and security also means that sea-level rise cannot be invoked, in accordance with the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties, as a fundamental change of circumstances for terminating or withdrawing from a treaty which established a maritime boundary — since maritime boundaries enjoy the same regime of stability as any other boundaries.  Calling on the international community to address the increasing humanitarian consequences, he stressed the duty to prevent situations in which vulnerable countries must choose between responding to climate change and their own development.  “Global solidarity is key here,” he said.  To avoid possible situations of “de facto” statelessness, he cited measures including preserving the fundamental rights and the conservation of the identity of persons compelled to settle on the territory of third States as a result of such phenomena; safeguarding the rights of the affected States with respect to their cultural heritage; preserving the right to self-determination of the affected populations; and enabling the granting of financial and technical support to affected States when exercising their right to preserve their own existence. CORAL PASISI, Director of Climate Change of the Pacific Community and President of Tofia Niue, noted that she spoke from a small island developing States lens, “in particular the Pacific islands from whence I was born, have worked and lived my whole life to date, and intend to do so for its remainder”.  Recalling figures that estimate that, by 2050, “within the lifetime of our children and grandchildren”, sea-level rise will have exceeded at least 1 metre for most small island developing States, and that the current 1-in-100-year extreme sea-level event will be experienced every single year, she stated that sea-level rise and climate change impacts present both a direct security threat, as well as a threat multiplier to individuals, communities, provinces, nations and certainly to the region to which she belongs:  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 added. Solutions are needed to protect human rights, with vulnerable groups, such as women, children, the elderly and indigenous populations, likely to suffer the most.  Also, a well-defined territory has long been considered one of the requirements for statehood, and the submerging of land poses obvious threats for the territorial integrity of States, and even for their existence — a novel situation for international law.  Affirming that international law options are not limited to the Commission’s work, he spotlighted the initiative of Vanuatu — supported by a group of States, including Romania — to conduct consultations leading to a request for an advisory opinion of the International Court of Justice on the obligations of States with respect to climate change.LINDA THOMAS-GREENFIELD (United States) said that, while rising seas overtaking homes, offices, cities and nations “should be the stuff of apocalypse novels and movies”, sea-level rise today is a real, global threat.  Noting that Gulf Coast waters are projected to rise by two feet by 2050 in her home state of Louisiana, she said that local fishermen currently report that rising waters have damaged infrastructure and livelihoods and forced some who have lived and worked in the area for generations to move to higher ground.  Against that backdrop, she underscored that sea-level rise is a real, direct result of the climate crisis and a matter of international peace and security.  Therefore, the Council must act, as projections indicate that more than 680 million people living in low-lying coastal areas will lose their homes, livelihoods and communities; billions more will be displaced as climate refugees; and most of the world’s population will experience severe weather due to rising tides.  Further, the Council should be concerned by how sea-level rise will make it harder for peacekeeping missions to fulfil their mandates.  Detailing her country’s response, she said that the United States is working with partners to strengthen early warning systems through contributing more than  million to close the early warning gap, including new resources for small Pacific island States.  She added that the United States will not challenge maritime zones — even if they are not subsequently updated to reflect sea-level rise — consistent with the approach taken by the Pacific Islands Forum, and encouraged others to do the same. Noting that nearly 900 million people — 10 per cent of the world’s population — live in coastal zones at low elevations, he pointed out that, while people in small island developing States in the Western Pacific are facing sea-level rise up to four times the global average, in the Caribbean, rising seas have contributed to the devastation of local livelihoods in tourism and agriculture.  Flooding and coastal erosion in West Africa are damaging infrastructure and communities, undermining farming and often costing lives while in North Africa, saltwater intrusion is contaminating land and freshwater resources, destroying livelihoods, and Antarctica is losing an average of 150 billion tons of ice mass annually.  Himalayan melts have worsened flooding in Pakistan, he said, warning that as these glaciers recede over the coming decades, the rivers will shrink.  Many low-lying communities and entire countries could disappear forever, he said, adding:  “We would witness a mass exodus of entire populations on a biblical scale.”  Noting that this will lead to ever-fiercer competition for freshwater, land and other resources, he said the international community must address the climate crisis which is the root cause of rising seas. The world is hurtling past the 1.5°C warming limit that a liveable future requires, and with present policies, is careening towards 2.8°C — “a death sentence for vulnerable countries”, he said. __________


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