United Nations Security Council Ministerial High level Open Debate
Threats to International Peace and Security:
Sea-Level Rise – Implications for International Peace and Security
Brief by Coral Pasisi, Acting Director of Climate Change of the Pacific Community (SPC), and President of Tofia Niue
Honourable Ministers, Excellencies, distinguish delegates and briefers, it is a privilege to present to you at this very important debate on Sea-Level Rise and the implications for International Peace and Security. Let me also thank the government of Malta for inviting me to brief you again from a CSO perspective. My experience is heavily informed from a SIDS 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.
The projections and basis for concern
Already, the basis for our clean water, food and air – the most basic of human securities – is degraded so much so that the fictional movies during our youth, about the ocean submerging all land and global wars over clean water and basic resources, are frightfully starting to become a reality.
Sea level rise and climate change, present both a direct security threat, as well as a threat multiplier to individuals, communities, provinces, nations and certainly to our region as a whole - the Blue Pacific Continent. Regardless of whether this is acknowledged by any international body or individual state, it does not change that fact. 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.
The point at which the threat of sea level rise and climate change becomes so severe that it is deemed a peace and security threat, is only a matter of time and scale. For many SIDS this reality is already upon our shores and for some it has already washed them away.
How serious is the threat of sea-level rise and climate change to the statehood and security of SIDS?
The certainty of jurisdiction is what enables law and order and supports the upholding of peace and security. It is well understood how much conflict can arise because of the ambiguity of which islands belong to which nations and the boundaries that define this in the sea.
The Blue Pacific Continent is well known as a quilt of geopolitical interests, forged through the World Wars, patch worked via the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), and coloured by globalisation. It is now threatened to be torn by the impacts of sea level rise and climate change. This 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 EEZ’s are measured and fixed. And the continued flouting of responsibility and impunity in failing to act to stop climate change, despite clear evidence of the existential threat it poses to many states, communities and individuals human rights the world over.
This is a security issue of paramount importance to the Pacific Region and its nations, and is why Pacific Leaders developed the following critical Declarations:
- 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.
- The 2021, Declaration on Preserving Maritime Zones in the face of Climate Change-related Sea-level rise, and the efforts of individual nations to reinforce this in sovereign law and policy. This Declaration is our region’s good faith interpretation of UNCLOS, noting that the relationship between climate change-related sea-level rise and maritime zones was not foreseen or considered by the drafters of UNCLOS. It is critically important that the international community, UN system and UN Members support this Declaration and the individual island nations efforts to secure their statehood.
- Late last year, the 2050 Strategy for a Blue Pacific Continent was endorsed by Pacific Island Forum Leaders. This strategy reinforces commitment and working together as a collective for advancing Pacific regionalism based on the Blue Pacific Narrative – a lens which fully envelopes the threat of climate change to our security as a region, nations, communities and individuals.
- And next month hopefully, and as champion by the people and government Government of Vanuatu, and supported by all Pacific nations, thousands of individuals and a growing number of countries in the UN - the UNGA Resolution requesting an advisory opinion of the International Court of Justice on the obligations of States in respect of climate change. As the UN Secretary General noted last month, “this is an opportunity for the ICJ to examine the conduct that has led the world to the brink of collapse and threatens the very existence of countries, peoples and cultures, as well as the human rights of individuals around the world”. It is a critical piece of work to uphold our responsibility of doing our best to ensure intergenerational equity.
Realities of insecurity already happening in the most vulnerable countries and communities
Long before land goes under water, it will become so degraded that it cannot support human life and the complex and critical ecosystems it once did. This is already manifesting across SIDS and coastal states. Coral reefs are bleaching causing irreparable damage and affecting the vital food sources, livelihoods and cultural fabric of coastal communities and countries. Seawater is seeping into delicate ground water systems and threatens salination of drinking water and arable lands. The traditional knowledge and practice of indigenous people, which constitute the vast majority of Pacific Island populations, is being lost as the natural resources upon which they are tied, are being eroded by sea-level rise and climate impacts.
Early findings of the Pacific Security Outlook Report 2022-2023 reaffirm the complexity of these security implications for our region. And many of these are now exacerbated substantially as a result of access to and price of global goods and services brought about by the COVID pandemic and the continuing war in the Ukraine.
A recent project funded by the UNSG’s Peace Building Fund in the Pacific is seeking to assess and to give voice to some of the most vulnerable communities in our low-lying Atoll nations, articulating the security threat they are experiencing as the front liners to the impacts of sea level rise and climate change. At the top of those concerns voiced so far are food and water security, coastal erosion, and the disproportionate impact on women, girls and children. Given the uniqueness of our context, a fit for purpose Pacific Regional Security Assessment Framework is in the final process of being developed as part of this project and will provide a platform to collaborate on in future.
There are also unique non-economic impacts and in many ways these are the most concerning. A nation can be at war and its people still have hope and determination to survive. The war against climate change is quite different – the opponent much larger, amorphous and the ability to stop it is outside of your direct control. And whilst you can do your best to adapt with the limited resources you have, you continue to suffer loss and damage and fear for the future of your children.
Despite this, SIDS remain resolute and amongst the most ambitious to lead by example and their youth are defiant against being written off as the orphans of climate change. They are pushing for greater accountability of our generation to the next whether we sit on a beach or in a glass tower. Intergenerational equity is a responsibility we must all carry and one at the heart of the UN Security Council’s mandate.
The role of UNSC to to help address climate change and avoid the fallout
So what then is the role the UN Security Council in acting to address the threat of sea level rise and climate change to the security and peace of the world? My opinion on this matter has not changed since the last time I had the privilege of addressing you in a similar open debate in June 2020. I am of course, always hopeful that some of yours have changed.
In many ways you have the greatest mandate and reason to address this issue because the fall out of failing to do so, will fall directly into your remit of response. In our region, the increasing demand for concurrent law and order and defence responses is already straining preparedness and response. This is not just in developing countries either, New Zealand has just declared a National State of Emergency because of the impact of extreme weather events hitting their country consecutively in a very short span of time. This is becoming an all too common occurrence across the world, and especially devasting to those least able to cope and respond.
So what are the solutions
We don’t have enough time to do justice to this debate, but a great start would be to acknowledge and advocate to stop GHG emissions, targeting the root cause of this multiplicity of complex security threats. In addition:
- 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.
- Develop and implement ambitious policy on greening the practices of your own institution and its key bodies of practice and stakeholders in the field. Wars are costly not just to people and nations but also to the stability of the global environment.
- Keep regularly appraised of the manifestations of sea level rise and climate change, by combining your efforts with other institutions undertaking site specific risk assessments and developing appropriate responses.
- Institutionalise regular appraisals from people on the ground who are knowledgeable about the lived experiences, and who often don’t have a fancy qualification. Or go and meet in these places to fully appreciate firsthand the situation. Give voice to the most vulnerable, including women, girls and children.
- This will inform your pre-emptive and proactive ability to cauterise as much of the potential insecurity and unrest before it becomes so great an issue that none of us can effectively respond.