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Law of the sea tribunal’s judgment on marine environment and climate change underscores obligations, say UN experts

23 May 2024

GENEVA (23 May 2024) - The International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea’s first climate-related judgment provides timely guidance on States’ obligations on climate change and an explicit reference to human rights issues, UN experts said today. Following the International Day for Biological Diversity, the experts released this statement after the Hamburg-seated Tribunal handed down an Advisory Opinion:

“In our written comments presented to the Tribunal, we analysed how international human rights obligations are applicable to the protection of the marine environment from climate change, including preventing disproportionate impacts on those in vulnerable situations, particularly in Small Island Developing States.

The Tribunal on 21 May made the unprecedented recognition that greenhouse gas emissions are a form of marine pollution. The Tribunal also underscored that States have obligations under the law of the sea, which are additional to those contained in the 2015 Paris Agreement climate.

The Tribunal further clarified that States have obligations to protect the marine environment from climate change impacts and ocean acidification. They include designing mitigation measures to minimise, to the fullest extent possible, the release of toxic substances into the marine environment and exercising strict due diligence to ensure that non-State actors comply with mitigation measures.

In terms of international cooperation, the Tribunal underscored States’ obligations to prevent climate change-related pollution affecting other States and the environment beyond national jurisdiction. States’ obligations further include to join in global efforts to address climate change and assist developing States, in particular vulnerable developing States.

The Tribunal’s Opinion is particularly relevant for the implementation of the human right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment. Notably, the Tribunal emphasises the precautionary and ecosystem approaches in the context of States’ obligations to conduct environmental and socio-economic assessments of any activity that may cause climate change-related marine pollution.

We welcome the Opinion’s guidance on the protection of marine biodiversity. For example, the Tribunal clarifies States’ obligations regarding: adaptation and ecosystem restoration; protection of rare or fragile ecosystems from ocean warming, sea level rise and ocean acidification; and the creation of marine protected areas. These obligations are essential for climate change mitigation and adaptation, as well as for healthy ecosystems, to effectively and equitably tackle the triple planetary crisis that undermines the effective enjoyment of human rights.”

The experts: Elisa Morgera, Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights in the context of climate change; Astrid Puentes, Special Rapporteur on the human right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment; Marcos A. Orellana, Special Rapporteur on the implications for human rights of the environmentally sound management and disposal of hazardous substances and wastes;

The experts are part of what is known as the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council. Special Procedures, the largest body of independent experts in the UN Human Rights system, is the general name of the Council’s independent fact-finding and monitoring mechanisms that address either specific country situations or thematic issues in all parts of the world. Special Procedures experts work on a voluntary basis; they are not UN staff and do not receive a salary for their work. They are independent from any government or organization and serve in their individual capacity.

For additional information and media requests please contact Frederique Bourque ([email protected]).

For media enquiries regarding other UN independent experts, please contact Dharisha Indraguptha ([email protected]) or John Newland ([email protected])

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