Talking points for the official opening of the 2023 regional conference on Preserving Statehood and Protecting Persons: Legal Options and Institutional Responses to the Impacts of Sea-Level Rise
Warm Pacific greetings to you all from Noumea, New Caledonia. I am honoured to join my esteemed colleagues from across the region for this first regional conference on Preserving Statehood and Protecting the rights of Pacific people in the face of sea-level rise. I wish I could join you all in person today, but likewise, I am grateful that advances in technology make it possible for me to contribute to this urgent and timely dialogue.
The Pacific Community or SPC is pleased to support this important event, bringing together experts and stakeholders from across the Pacific, and worldwide, to discuss the complex legal and institutional challenges presented by the impacts of sea-level rise on the region's statehood, the well-being and livelihoods of its people, and the protection of their human rights.
The existential threat of climate change is one that touches all aspects of our work across sectors, countries, and across agencies in the Blue Pacific. In that respect, I am gratified to see the strong commitment and collaborative spirit displayed by all those present here today as we work towards finding innovative and effective solutions to these pressing issues, there are two key points I hope you will keep in mind throughout your discussions.
First, in the context of discussions on statehood and what this may look like in the future—please also consider the urgent actions necessary to secure your statehood TODAY. Namely, the establishment of your maritime zones with the United Nations.
Maritime zones define our national jurisdictions and establish sovereign rights to resources. They underpin the governance, peace and security, marine conservation, and natural resource management of Pacific Island states. Since 2001, SPC has provided technical assistance to countries in surveying, mapping, negotiating, and declaring their maritime zones in accordance with the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, including supporting the signing of 20 shared maritime boundary treaties.
Significant progress has been made, but much work remains to be done. Many in this room contributed to the drafting of the 2021 Pacific Forum Leaders’ landmark declaration on Preserving Maritime Zones in the face of climate change-related sea-level rise. This declaration makes clear the Pacific’s collective intention to maintain maritime zones, once established and notified to the UN, without reduction. Therefore, I urge you to review the status of your national maritime zone limits and, to the extent you are able, to advocate for the urgent conclusion of this work at the national level.
The second key point is that science alone will only take us so far—a people-centred approach is critical to tackling the climate crisis. SPC may be the region’s principal scientific agency, but we recognise that for science and development advice to be effective, it must be rooted in legal and political contexts, and a deep understanding of Pacific peoples, cultures, behaviours, and ways of knowing.
As a CROP Agency, SPC actively advocates for an international human rights and people-centred approach to finding solutions to these urgent issues. This includes recognizing and respecting the right to a healthy environment, and the right to information and participation, bolstered by the principles of non-discrimination and sustainable development. We must recognize that individuals have the right to access information and participate in the decision-making processes that affect them.
The principle of non-discrimination ensures that the most vulnerable communities can have equal access to protection and assistance from sea-level rise and climate change impacts. This is particularly important for women considering they represent the majority of the world’s poor and are proportionally more dependent on threatened natural resources and lands.
In the face of the loss of statehood, traditional knowledge accumulated over more than 40,000 years of uninterrupted human habitation, and significant linguistic and cultural diversity are all at risk. Like the once-in-a-century epidemic that is thankfully behind us, the significant issues before us highlight and expose the region’s extreme environmental, economic, and structural vulnerabilities.
On that note, our region is not only on the frontline of climate change impacts but is already leading several front-line efforts to protect the most vulnerable from the impacts of climate change. We welcome the UN General Assembly resolution, put forward by Vanuatu and championed by the young leaders of our region, which goes before the UNGA today and is co-sponsored by at least 119 countries, requesting an advisory opinion from the International Court of Justice on the obligations of States regarding climate change.
We are proud to be a part of this Regional Conference as it underscores the importance of finding solutions to secure the fundamental securities and rights of Pacific people, and all people, to a safe and sustainable future. The need has never been more urgent for a coordinated and global response to climate change and sea-level rise supported by robust international law—including human rights law—and institutions to address this global challenge.
I have no doubt that our collective efforts will contribute to the global effort to address the devastating impacts of climate change on our planet and our people. I wish you all fruitful and engaging discussions and look forward to the conference outcomes.
- Honourable Mark Brown, Prime Minister of the Cook Islands and Chair of the Pacific Islands Forum
- Honourable Simon Kofe, Minister of Foreign Affairs, Tuvalu
- Henry Puna, Secretary General, Pacific Islands Forum
- Members of the Diplomatic Corps
- Senior Officials, Fellow CROP colleagues, ladies, and gentlemen.