What's In Blue

Open Debate on Sea-Level Rise and its Implications for International Peace and Security

Tomorrow (14 February), the Security Council will convene for a ministerial-level open debate on sea-level rise and its implications for international peace and security, one of the signature events of the Maltese Council presidency. Malta’s Minister for Foreign and European Affairs and Trade Ian Borg is expected to chair the meeting. Secretary-General António Guterres, President of the UN General Assembly Csaba Körösi, and a civil society representative will brief. Romanian Foreign Minister Bogdan Aurescu will also brief in his capacity as co-chair of the International Law Commission Study Group on Sea-level Rise. Nauru, which co-chairs the Group of Friends on Climate and Security together with Germany, may deliver a statement on behalf of the group. Some regional and sub-regional organisations may participate as well.

Malta has circulated a concept note to help guide the discussion at tomorrow’s meeting. It says that the aim of the open debate is to highlight “the risks to international peace and security posed by sea-level rise” and explore how the Security Council can “address these risks in the global security architecture and invest in preventive mechanisms”. The concept note emphasises the risks posed to low-lying coastal communities and island states, noting that continued and accelerating sea-level rise can subject them to submergence and territorial loss. It adds that sea-level rise can exacerbate instability by increasing tensions over resources such as food and water, among other things.

Concerns about sea-level rise have been reflected in the Security Council’s work over the years. On 20 July 2011, the Council adopted its only formal outcome on climate change, peace and security, a presidential statement drafted by Germany. It said that the negative effects of climate change could in the long run exacerbate some existing threats to international peace and security. Among its other elements, the presidential statement expressed concern that “possible security implications of loss of territory of some States caused by sea-level-rise may arise, in particular in small low-lying island States”.

In July 2015, the Security Council held an open debate on “Peace and Security Challenges Facing Small Island Developing States”, convened by New Zealand. The threat of rising sea levels to the development and existence of small island developing states (SIDS)—as well as the potential that rising seas could lead to displacement and tensions over dwindling land and freshwater resources—were among the themes discussed at the meeting. Then-UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who briefed the Council, asserted that “rising sea levels, dying coral reefs and the increasing frequency and severity of natural disasters exacerbate the conditions leading to community displacement and migration. They threaten to increase tensions over resources and affect domestic and regional stability”.

Council members have also held two Arria-formula meetings on the security implications of sea-level rise, on 10 April 2017 and 18 October 2021. The first was organised by then-Council member Ukraine in cooperation with non-Council member Germany. The second was convened by Viet Nam, Ireland, Niger, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, and Tunisia—all serving on the Council at the time—and was co-sponsored by several non-Council members, including the Dominican Republic, Mauritius, the Netherlands, Saint Lucia, and Tuvalu.

The concept note prepared by Malta ahead of tomorrow’s meeting poses several questions to help guide the discussion:

At tomorrow’s open debate, several briefers and member states may underscore the threat that rising sea levels pose to the survival of SIDS. They may highlight that sea-level rise threatens infrastructure, food production, and freshwater supplies in small island states and in coastal areas of other countries, while causing displacement and potentially leading to disputes over dwindling resources. There is likely to be concern expressed about the adverse effects of sea-level rise on the livelihoods and human security of populations in low-lying areas.

Some may also discuss the legal issues arising from sea-level rise, including its potential effects on the maritime jurisdiction of states, the welfare of displaced persons, and the sovereignty of states. Such issues are discussed by the UN International Law Commission, which has included “Sea-level rise in relation to international law” on its work programme since 2019. The briefers and member states may also discuss the importance of promoting climate adaptation and resilience through peacebuilding and climate financing—a prevalent theme in Council discussions in 2022.

While all Security Council members emphasise the need for global action to address sea-level rise (and the climate crisis, more broadly), they are likely to express contrasting views on whether the Council is the appropriate forum for such a discussion. Most Council members support Council engagement on climate-related matters. They argue that climate change is a risk multiplier that can exacerbate insecurity and that should be addressed as part of the Council’s efforts to prevent conflict, sustain peace, and build resilience in conflict-affected or otherwise fragile states.

Others, such as Brazil, China, and Russia, have traditionally had concerns about Council engagement on climate-related issues, especially at the thematic level. These members view climate change as primarily a sustainable development issue that can be more appropriately addressed in other forums, most notably the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). In this regard, during tomorrow’s meeting, they are likely to argue that the Council has neither the mandate nor the expertise to consider this issue.

Malta noted during its campaign for the Security Council that it wanted to draw attention to the climate vulnerability of SIDS and the need to strengthen their resilience. The open debate also builds on the legacy of Malta’s engagement on maritime issues; its UN ambassador in the late 1960s, Arvid Pardo, played an important role in the conception of what ultimately became the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

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