On August 6, 2021, the Pacific Islands Forum declared that its 18 member countries will notify their maritime zones to the secretary-general of the United Nations, which will then be permanent in accordance with the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), irrespective of changes to the size and shape of the islands in the future due to climate change.
The forum’s Declaration on Preserving Maritime Zones in the Face of Climate Change-Related Sea-Level Rise acknowledges that while the relationship between climate-change-related sea-level rise and maritime zones was not contemplated by the drafters of UNCLOS, legal stability, security, certainty, and predictability underpin UNCLOS and its interpretation and application. Therefore, the forum’s declaration affirms that UNCLOS “imposes no affirmative obligation to keep baselines and outer limits of maritime zones under review nor to update charts or lists of geographical coordinates once deposited with the Secretary-General of the United Nations.” Several provisions of UNCLOS (article 16, paragraph 2; article 47, paragraph 9; article 75, paragraph 2; article 76, paragraph 9; and article 84, paragraph 2) require coastal states to deposit charts or lists of geographical coordinates to the secretary-general.
About the Pacific Islands Forum
The forum, previously called the South Pacific Bureau for Economic Cooperation, was founded in 1971 as the Pacific region’s political and economic policy organization to promote cooperation between governments and international agencies. In accordance with its 2014 Framework for Pacific Regionalism, the forum’s 18 members hold annual meetings, and decisions are made by consensus of the Forum Leaders. Regional policies and initiatives are coordinated by the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat, which was established as an international organization by treaty in 2000 and of which all forum members are parties. Decisions are then implemented through the Council of Regional Organisations of the Pacific (CROP), established as a regional coordination mechanism of intergovernmental organizations in the Pacific by charter in 1988.
With regard to the forum’s declaration, the secretary-general of the forum, Henry Puna, remarked, “[s]ome people 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 [Pacific states’] rightful ocean domain.”
UNCLOS has 168 parties, and academics and practitioners debate whether its provisions reflect customary international law. Article 57 of UNCLOS grants states an exclusive economic zone of 200 nautical miles from the coast “for the purpose of exploring and exploiting, conserving and managing the natural resources … [in] the zone.” Article 77 of UNCLOS grants coastal states exclusive sovereign rights over the continental shelf, meaning that a coastal state retains its sovereign rights even if it does not explore the continental shelf or exploit its natural resources.
Fixed Maritime Zones: A Potential Solution to Climate Change and Sea- Level Rise?
Depositing permanent maritime zones with the UN secretary-general may be a solution for some island states to protect their sovereignty and rightful ocean domain — if they retain the status of an “island.” A problem with trying to fix maritime zones still remains, however, because article 121, paragraph 3 of UNCLOS provides that “rocks which cannot sustain human habitation or economic life of their own shall have no exclusive economic zone (EEZ) or continental shelf.” Thus, while islands like Kiribati, the Maldives, the Marshall Islands, and Tuvalu, which have some of the largest EEZs in the world, have declared their intention to lock down their maritime zones by depositing with UNCLOS, if they become “rocks” due to climate change, they will no longer have any EZZ or continental shelf at all.