Antigua and Barbuda’s Prime Minister, Gaston Browne, has made a passionate plea for climate justice on behalf of vulnerable small states, including his own.
On Monday, the Prime Minister opened oral arguments before the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea (ITLOS) in Hamburg, Germany.
He spoke as co-chair of the Commission of Small States on Climate Change and International Law (COSIS) and stressed that this was only the first step in the quest to hold the world’s major polluters accountable.
COSIS is seeking an advisory opinion from ITLOS on whether carbon dioxide emissions pollute the oceans and if states are responsible for limiting them.
Prime Minister Browne and his Tuvaluan counterpart established COSIS in 2021 to use international law to hold the biggest polluting states accountable for climate-altering pollution.
Climate change disproportionately affects small island nations, putting some at risk of submerging if action is not taken to address the issue.
“Mr. President, COSIS is an unprecedented inter-governmental organization. Its purpose is to harness the potential of international law to protect the most climate-vulnerable States against existential threats. It is no exaggeration to speak of existential threats when some of these nations may vanish in the foreseeable future because of rising sea levels”, he said
Browne said the scientific evidence leaves no doubt that this situation has arisen because of the failure of significant polluters to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions effectively.
“This inaction, this failure of political will, has brought humankind to a difficult juncture with catastrophic consequences. It is because of this reality that COSIS has brought this vital matter before you,” he added
In light of this reality, Browne argued that it is difficult to imagine a more compelling reason to establish an intergovernmental organization.
“As the preamble to the Agreement states, COSIS members are alarmed by the catastrophic effects of climate change which threaten the survival of Small Island States, and in some cases, their very existence.”
“It is for this purpose that the Commission’s mandate is “to promote and contribute to the definition, implementation, and progressive development of rules and principles of international law concerning climate change,” he added
He said these advisory proceedings before your Tribunal are the first, but not the last, initiative of COSIS.
“The Commission has also been authorized to submit a written statement for the ICJ advisory opinion on climate change requested by the UN General Assembly on 29 March 2023; a historic resolution adopted by consensus, under the leadership of the Republic of Vanuatu, with the active support of numerous small island States, including Antigua and Barbuda,” PM Browne said
COSIS will also submit a written statement for the advisory opinion proceedings before the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, requested by Chile and Colombia on 9 January 2023.
He said there will be more initiatives as small island States join forces to protect their rights and very existence by building a rule-oriented international order in which the significant polluters are held accountable for the harm they have caused and continue to cause.
“It cannot be expected that our peoples will remain silent as their homes are irretrievably destroyed. Despite these multiple initiatives, though, this initial request before ITLOS is particularly significant,” he added.
Browne said this marks the beginning of a fight to alter the global community’s behavior by defining nations’ responsibility to safeguard the marine ecosystem.
“We are all inhabitants of the ocean, be it in the Caribbean, the Pacific, the Atlantic, or Indian Oceans, encompassed by the immense stretches of water that have nourished us since ancient times,” he said
“In this regard, the COSIS Agreement explicitly acknowledges the fundamental importance of oceans as sinks and reservoirs of greenhouse gases, and the direct relevance of the marine environment to the adverse effects of climate change on the Small Island States”.
He said Antigua and Barbuda is one of those communities, and the twin-island nation stands in solidarity with all small island and coastal States facing the devastating consequences of climate change.
“Despite our negligible emission of greenhouse gases, COSIS’s members have suffered and continue to suffer the overwhelming burden of climate change’s adverse impacts. Indeed, the catastrophic effects of climate change threaten the survival, and in some cases, the very existence of COSIS Member States,” he added
He said without rapid and ambitious remedial action, climate change may prevent children from living on the island of their ancestors.
“We cannot remain silent in the face of such injustice. We cannot abandon our people to such a cruel fate. We have come before this Tribunal in the belief that international law must play a central role in addressing the catastrophe unfolding before our eyes,” he added.
Browne told those gathered at the forum that Small Island States have been stating these truths in international gatherings concerning climate change, including at successive Conferences of the Parties to the UNFCCC for decades.
“We have talked ourselves hoarse since the 1990s, pointing to the difficult circumstances into which our people and countries are plunged. Year after year, we listened as promises to mitigate climate change were made, and year after year, we watched as those promises went unfulfilled,” he added.