Threats of sea-level rise very real: Tuvalu Foreign Minister

Photo: Pacific Islands Forum

Legal experts from around the region are gathered in Fiji for the regional conference on Statehood, Protection of Persons affected by sea level rise.

The conference was mandated by Forum Leaders recognising the many impacts of climate change and disaster, and their threat to the future of our people, and the statehood of many Pacific nations.

The complex issues of statehood, and persons affected by sea-level rise, should be guided and informed by applicable principles and norms, of international law.

Tuvalu’s Foreign Minister, Simon Kofe in his keynote address in Nadi today, said Climate change and rising sea levels threaten the very existence of our island nations and the safety and wellbeing of our people. 

He said rising global sea levels, resulting from human-induced climate change, present an urgent threat to the territorial sovereignty of low-lying island states throughout the Pacific region.

“The legal implications arising from the inundation of a state’s entire land territory are complex and challenging, and presents fundamental questions about statehood and sovereignty. Most pressing amongst these concerns is whether a state loses its statehood status under international law following territorial inundation, or whether international law recognises statehood as enduring following territorial loss.

“The threats of sea-level rise and the erosion of our statehood are not mere hypotheticals, but very real and present dangers that we must face head-on,” Kofe told delegates at the meeting.

“Our purpose here is not to dwell on the problem. Rather, our aim is to identify and implement effective solutions,” he said. 

“We need to think ahead and prepare for the worst-case scenario to protect our statehood and the citizens of the Blue Pacific Continent. This matter transcends mere legal and political concerns; it is a moral obligation that demands our immediate attention.

“The Pacific Forum has been at the forefront of promoting regionalism and advancing the interests of the Blue Pacific. The tenets of independence,statehood, and self-determination have been central to our mission for over 50 years. But today, we face an unprecedented threat to our very existence”.

Kofe said the conference is a timely opportunity to address the long-term strategic security, economic, and social objectives of the Blue Pacific.

“We must establish a collective understanding of the challenges posed by sea-level rise and prioritise policy and legal options to address them in the short, medium, and long term. We must unpack these issues further and establish a pathway to develop a Forum position on these critical matters”.

Kofe said expected outcomes of this conference will guide the next steps of the work of the FOC Specialist Sub-Committee on Sea-Level Rise in relation to International Law.

“We will make the necessary recommendations to FOC and ultimately to Leaders,” he said.

“Our discourse is not limited to legal instruments and policies, but encompasses the survival of our people and nations. We have the power to make a significant impact by acting urgently and decisively. We must take an active stance, anticipate worst-case scenarios, and protect our Blue Pacific’s future.

“We must remember that the decisions we make today will shape the future of our region for generations to come. Let us be courageous in our choices, bold in our actions, and united in our efforts. We owe it to ourselves and to our children to leave behind a legacy of resilience and hope.

Together, let us commit to working towards a future where our nations are thriving, our people are safe and prosperous, and our Blue Pacific is a beacon of peace and stability in the world,” said Kofe.

Forum Secretary General, Henry Puna said this conference also signals an important juncture in the collective mapping, understanding, and innovative thinking of our Pacific family, in relation to complex legal issues that relate to our Blue Pacific Continent.

“Our task here this week, is to collectively and courageously share our ideas, and skilfully weave a framework, that harnesses both a collective understanding, and innovative solutions, on a way forward for our region. We, on the front line of climate change, will inevitably pave the way on these complex issues.

“In relation to climate change, let me add that we must not lose sight, and we must continue to reinforce our efforts, to keep global emissions below 1.5 degrees in accordance with the Paris Agreement. While we continue to champion a host of initiatives and developments in the Pacific, we must not lose sight of the bigger picture….climate change is an existential threat to our Pacific family…. and ensuring that we keep global temperatures below 1.5 degrees, must always, remain a top priority for us.

“We must be mindful that we are also paving the way on international law, and it is one of my own priorities and that of my team, to create this forum for the brilliant, seasoned and learned Pacific minds like yours, to exchange ideas and be at the forefront of the narrative in this space.

“Ultimately, it is you that will shape the future of your own countries, your future generations, and of our region as a collective,” said SG Puna.

Addressing the conference virtually, Forum Chair and Cook Islands Prime Minister Mark Brown said climate change-related sea-level rise threatens the future of Pacific people and the statehood of many Pacific nations.

“As our shorelines are eaten away by sea-level rise, what will become of our sovereignty, of our lands, our titles, our homes? What will become of our fundamental rights and freedoms guaranteed by our Constitutions and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights? How can we realise our shared Vision when our very status as “states” are being questioned? How can we fulfil our responsibility to our peoples if their homes and livelihoods are taken away from them?

“These questions are difficult but real. They require solutions.

“We are at a new frontier and the world once again looks to us to steer the way despite the problem and injustices being caused by others.

“This is our lived reality. This is our “climate emergency,” said Forum Chair Brown.

PM Brown said delegates at the meeting must be encouraged because today they have at their disposal a very important benchmark, the Pacific-led ground-breaking Declaration on Preserving Maritime Zones in the face of Climate change-related Sea-level rise.

“We must continue to be meticulous, deliberate and patient in order to bring about real progressive development of international law. We must also continue to enhance our active engagement with key bodies such as the International Law Commission and International Law Association.

“With the invaluable guidance you will receive from experts this week, I strongly encourage constructive discussions and debates with a view to agreeing to a strategic direction for legal options and institutional responses to these issues. “Further, we must continue to leverage geopolitical interests and opportunities to advocate for and secure our legal rights and entitlements into perpetuity. Now, more than ever, our identity and advocacy are absolutely vital,” said Forum Chair Brown.