A big news for small island nations

A big news for small island nations

Last week, it was a big news for small island nations. They hailed it as a “groundbreaking victory for ocean and climate protection.”

Last week, it was a big news for small island nations. They hailed it as a “groundbreaking victory for ocean and climate protection.”

A key ruling was delivered by the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea (ITLOS), which cheered green groups and leaders of small island nations. The Tribunal is an independent judicial body to adjudicate disputes arising out of the interpretation and application of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. It is mandated to safeguard marine resources and protect different species. It also deals with territorial occupancies of seas, continental shelf, exclusive economic zones (EEZs).

The ITLOS stated in an advisory opinion that greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions are marine pollution under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and the 168 parties to the treaty “have the specific obligation to adopt laws and regulations to prevent, reduce, and control” them.

The Hamburg (Germany)-based Tribunal stressed that in order to protect and preserve the marine environment, all members shall strive to meet the obligation of keeping temperature rise to no more than 1.5°C. This requires the implementation of all necessary measures to mitigate climate change, the regulation of business activities and the restoration and strengthening of the adaptive capacity of ecosystems.

The ‘historic’ advisory came following the December 2022 plea by the Commission of Small Island States on Climate Change and International Law (COSIS), which includes Antigua and Barbuda, the Bahamas, Niue, Palau, St. Kitts and Nevis, St. Lucia, St. Vincent and Grenadines, Tuvalu, and Vanuatu. The Tribunal recognised what the COSIS members have been fighting for at CoP meetings. The Tribunal spelt out the legally binding obligations of all states to protect the marine environment; to protect against the existential threats posed by climate change.

Why are the small island nations making a big deal out of the advisory?

The issue at stake is one of existential threat to them - and later to the future of the humanity itself. Immediately after the ITLOS decision, Gaston Browne, the Prime Minister of Antigua and Barbuda, a coral island nation in the eastern Caribbean Sea on the boundary with the Atlantic Ocean, welcomed it and stressed that “small island states are fighting for their survival” and “some will become inhabitable soon because of the failure to mitigate greenhouse emissions.”

To achieve the goal requires all member-countries to rapidly phase out all fossil fuels. Protecting oceans and atmosphere has become a matter of life and death for entire marine ecosystems, the lifeline of the coastal and island communities. The ecosystem and, thereby, the people in these small nations are at greatest risk from climate change. A very critical import of ITLOS decision is that the countries that fail to meet those obligations could be held liable. China, the world’s biggest carbon polluter, opposed the advisory opinion of the Tribunal. And the United States is not a party to the UNCLOS at all. Apart from ITLOS, two other international tribunals have been asked to clarify whether the members have legal obligations to combat climate change. Thus, a concerted global action to save the oceans and the climate is going to prove tough to arrive at. Accepting the obligation will be the first crucial step against climate change. Sooner the better.

Anyway, in the words of Greenpeace, The ITLOS advisory opinion marks a significant step forward in international environmental law and the protection of our oceans. It sets a clear legal precedent for addressing climate change through existing international frameworks and reinforces States’ responsibilities to act on climate change. It stresses the imperative that richer and high-polluting states must take responsibility for their historical and ongoing contribution to climate change.

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