Pacific forum leaders set permanent maritime borders, as rising seas shrink islands

Pacific island leaders have agreed that their maritime borders should be permanent, even if their countries shrink due to a future rise in sea levels caused by climate change.

In a declaration released by Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) leaders, 18 member countries and territories affirmed that once Pacific islands have established and notified maritime zones to the secretary-general of the United Nations, they will be fixed irrespective of changes to the shape and size of islands.

“We intend to maintain these zones without reduction, notwithstanding climate change-related sea level rise. [We] further declare that we do not intend to review and update the baselines and outer limits of our maritime zones as a consequence of climate change-related sea level rise,” the declaration said.

Maritime zones are currently drawn using “baselines” under the United Nations Law of the Sea Convention (UNCLOS) and begin at the low-water line along a nation’s coast. However, climate related sea level rise has shifted the size and shape of some islands.

Climate policy expert Dr Wesley Morgan, a research fellow at the Pacific Hub, Griffith Asia Institute, said that the Pacific had been proactive in maintaining maritime boundaries for some time.

“Pacific countries have led the global conversation on this for some time now. They have been defining their maritime boundary demarcations using global positioning system (GPS) coordinates, rather than the distance from coastal features, because they know those coastal features will erode due to the climate crisis,” Morgan said.

Henry Puna, PIF secretary general, said forum leaders had “upped the ante” with the declaration, which he called a “strong and decisive step in efforts to secure our Blue Pacific home now and into perpetuity”.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) sixth assessment report reaffirmed this week that rising sea levels will cause shorelines to retreat along sandy coasts of most small islands, a real threat to the existence of some low lying atoll nations.

“Some think of Pacific islands as small, but Pacific states have sovereign rights across a large swathe of the Earth’s surface. This declaration helps to protect Pacific sovereignty and their rightful ocean domain,” said Morgan.

“Pacific island countries have led global diplomacy on oceans for decades. So this declaration continues to lead, and shape, the global discussion. It is an important diplomatic signal from all of the member states of the Pacific Islands Forum. They are telling the rest of the world, that they will not let their maritime sovereign rights be eroded by climate change”.

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