Small island nations seek protection from ocean pollution, climate change

Small island nations that have been disproportionately harmed by the climate crisis will go up against high-emitting nations
Remains of a collapsed seawall in Tuvalu. Photo: iStock
Remains of a collapsed seawall in Tuvalu. Photo: iStock

A landmark climate justice case will start its hearing in the United Nations maritime tribunal in Hamburg, Germany, on September 11, 2023.

During the hearing — regarded as the first climate justice case aimed at saving the ocean — small island nations that have been disproportionately harmed by the climate crisis will go up against high-emitting nations.

Small Island Developing States (SIDS) are a group of low-lying island nations that are home to approximately 65 million people and extremely vulnerable to the impacts of climate change — despite being responsible for less than 1 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions.

A group of nine SIDS countries will urge the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea (ITLOS) to rule on whether greenhouse gas emissions absorbed by the marine environment should be considered pollution. It will also seek the tribunal’s advisory opinion on the obligations countries have to prevent it.

The commission will also seek details on specific obligations of the countries to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) with regard to the protection of the marine environment from pollution, ocean warming, sea level rise and ocean acidification, among others.

However, the Law of the Sea, ratified by 169 parties, mandates that countries take measures to prevent, reduce and control marine pollution.

If the case, brought by the Commission of Small Island States on Climate Change and International Law, is successful — these obligations would include carbon-emission reduction and protection of marine environments.

Some 35 countries and three intergovernmental organisations (African Union, International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources and Pacific Community), in addition to the Commission of Small Islands States on Climate Change and International Law (COSIS), will participate in the hearings scheduled from September 11-25, 2023.

Prime Ministers Kausea Natano of Tuvalu and Gaston Browne of Antigua and Barbuda will give evidence during the hearing.

SIDS, in their appeal for an advisory opinion on December 12, 2022, said the Agreement for the Establishment of the Commission of Small Island States on Climate Change and International Law had emphasised the importance of oceans as sinks and reservoirs of greenhouse gases.

“As sea level rises, our population will be displaced from their homes; however, a climate refugee is not covered under the categories of the Refugee Convention,” Tuvalu’s Prime Minister Kausea Natano said in his statement to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in November 2022.

Tuvalu, Antigua and Barbuda have established COSIS to seek advisory opinions from the International Tribunal for the law of the sea, particularly on their endeavours to clarify states’ international legal obligations to combat climate change effects, Natano added. Antigua and Barbuda and Tuvalu are the co-chairs of the COSIS.

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