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Joint Nordic Statement on Sea-Level Rise in Relation to International Law

Statement delivered by H.E. Vibeke Pasternak Jørgensen, Ambassador and Under-Secretary for Legal Affairs of the Danish Ministry of Foreign Affairs

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Mr. Chair,

I will now turn to the topic of “Sea-level rise in international law”.

The Nordics continue to support the work of the Commission on this highly relevant topic. We thank the Co-chairs, all five of them, as well as all members of the Study Group for their continued work. We especially thank Mr. Bogdan Aurescu and Ms. Nilufer Oral for their additional work this year, on aspects concerning the law of the sea.

Mr. Chair,

The season during June to August 2023 was the hottest on record. Glaciers in the Arctic and elsewhere are melting. There is no denying the scientific fact that sea level rise is taking place and it will change the world as we know it. Humanity has to mitigate and adapt to this new reality, and that includes finding appropriate solutions in the realm of international law. Finding workable solutions is the joint responsibility of all states, and certainly not only the responsibility of those that will be hardest hit. It is well known that among those facing the most serious consequences of sea-level rise are those who call Small Island Developing States, low-lying atolls and coastal zones their home. Responses such as the Rising Nations Initiative and the Coalition on Addressing Sea-level Rise & Existential Threats speak to the seriousness of an actual existential threat faced by the people and States in question.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change tells us that sea levels are sure to keep rising well beyond the year 2100. The magnitude and rate of sea-level rise will, however, depend on how fast emissions will be reduced. This is why the world needs ambitious climate action, to keep global heating below 1.5ºC degrees. The Nordics are committed to climate action. Simultaneously we are ready to engage in structured discussions on the legal challenges connected to sea-level rise, and how to meet them. The work of the Commission, set to conclude in 2025, is of value in this endeavour.

Turning now to specific aspects of this topic in the ILC report, the Nordics agree that sea-level rise is of direct relevance to the question of peace and security. Furthermore, although new realities can call for updated terminology and emergence of new concepts, caution should be practiced when using concepts still undefined in international law, such as “specially affected State”.

Mr. Chair,

The issue of “legal stability” in relation to sea-level rise, with a focus on baselines and maritime zones - as covered by both the report and the additional issues paper - stands out as a significant subtopic in the work of the Commission. As referred to by the Co-Chair in the paper, the Nordics have already stressed the importance of predictability and stability in a Sixth Committee statement in 2021. This, however, as documented by the Co-Chair, was conveyed in a more general context focusing on the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.

To provide further clarity, the Nordics agree that the fixing of baselines or outer limits can indeed provide legal stability, especially for states affected by sea-level rise. This concept, however, needs to be approached with caution, with full respect for the Convention and considering all possible implications, including for existing rights and obligations under international law.

As far as the option of fixed baselines or outer limits of maritime zones is concerned - and as has been highlighted by the Pacific Island Forum and the Alliance of Small Island States – there is no explicit provision in the Convention requiring State parties to update their baselines and outer limits. It is, however, also worth noting the view mentioned in the report of this year, that there is an important difference between legally freezing baselines and not updating them.

The report offers interesting discussion on the point of view that the Commission should not seek to select between permanent and ambulatory approaches as the only legal option with regard to baselines, since the application of either approach may be in conformity with the Convention, and one does not necessarily exclude the other. The Nordics are looking forward to further discussion on this and other aspects regarding baselines and outer limits in the Study Group’s final report in 2025.

In a wider context, it is also worth noting where the Convention does offer clear signals on permanence and stability of title and rights. A prominent example is Article 76 (9) of the Convention which sets out that coastal states shall deposit with the Secretary General of the United Nations, charts and other relevant information “permanently describing the outer limits of its continental shelf”. The Nordic countries believe that all coastal states with a continental shelf are well advised to act on this and deposit such charts and information, if not yet done.

In its work, the Commission should be mindful of legal implications of potential changes to the natural environment, other than those caused by sea-level rise. The formation of new islands due to underwater volcanic eruptions, for example, can also change baselines and the outer limits of maritime zones. To be crystal clear, examples like this one could, of course, not apply to human-made changes to the natural environment, as that would be inconsistent with the Convention.

In terms of practical solutions, the Nordics strongly agree that amending the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, is, to cite the report, “difficult”. Indeed, it would not be advisable to engage in such a process which in any case would not be helpful in terms of resolving the challenges at hand and in time. Keeping in mind the internal balance, as well as the universal and unified character of the Convention, which sets out the legal framework within which all activities in the oceans and seas must be carried out, this option should not be the focus of further work of the Commission. That said, while it is too early to take an affirmative position, the Nordics do not exclude that joint interpretive declarations or other common international legal instruments could be a way of addressing the issue of sea-level rise.

Mr. Chair,

The Co-Chairs have emphasized the importance of further exploring the issue of submerged territories, which is related to both the law of the sea and to statehood. The Nordics support further exploration of this issue, as well as of the principle of self-determination in the context of sea-level rise, to be addressed by the Study Group in 2024.

Lastly and importantly, regarding future work of the Study Group, prioritization of issues for the Commission to address in its final report two years from now, would be recommendable. We are looking forward to further engaging with the members of the ILC and other colleagues over the next two years.


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