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Hearing before the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea in Hamburg

Photo: Gregor Fischer / AFP

Island states such as the Bahamas, Tuvalu and Vanuatu in the South Pacific are particularly affected by the consequences of climate change. Although these countries themselves contribute relatively little to global warming, their territory is threatened – for example, by rising sea levels, but also by stronger hurricanes and the destruction of marine ecosystems.

For this reason, a community of states has asked the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea in Hamburg for an expert opinion. The lawyers led by Judge Albert Hoffmann are to comment on the climate protection obligations arising from the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea for its signatory states.

For example, there is the question of whether greenhouse gas emissions absorbed by oceans are considered pollution. After all, oceans are among the largest carbon sinks on Earth, as they absorb significant amounts of climate-damaging carbon dioxide.

Since the World Climate Conference in Glasgow in 2021, the international community has been organized in the Commission of Small Island States on Climate Change and International Law (Cosis), which includes a total of nine nations. On Monday and Tuesday, the Prime Minister of Antigua and Barbuda, Gaston Browne, and the Prime Minister of Tuvalo, Kausea Natano, will be heard in Hamburg. In the meantime, many countries support the Cosis initiative, which is why there will be further hearings until 25 September, including by German representatives. The report is expected a few months later.

The UN Convention on the Law of the Sea also regulates issues relating to the protection and conservation of the marine environment or marine research. In the event of disputes, the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea has jurisdiction. As an employee of the press office said, expert opinions are not legally binding. However, the recommendations could have a major impact.

In the fight against the climate crisis, Vanuatu, which has recently been hit by hurricanes, had already appealed to the International Court of Justice in The Hague for an opinion. The UN General Assembly unanimously passed a resolution to this effect in March. But even the expert opinion from The Hague would have no binding legal significance and could not legally bind states with large emission volumes. But as an important document, it could have an impact on future negotiations on climate.