Case Study: 2020 Regional Conference on Securing the Limits of the Blue Pacific

The Regional Conference on Securing the Limits of the Blue Pacific was a testament to the fact that virtual diplomacy can work and deliver great results for Aotearoa New Zealand and the region. It brought Pacific officials together with experts from around the world to explore legal options to protect maritime zones from sea-level rise.

It is no secret that rising sea levels are a threat to coastal communities around the world, with Pacific Island countries particularly vulnerable. Loss of land is one obvious impact of sea-level rise, especially for low-lying islands. But just as concerning is the risk that Pacific countries could lose rights in and access to the maritime zones they currently enjoy.

UNCLOS provides the international legal framework governing maritime zones, including the territorial sea, and the exclusive economic zone. Coastal states enjoy certain rights in each zone, including to fisheries and mineral resources.

An image taken of a screen which shows participants of a virtual meeting, discussing how to protect maritime zones in the face of sea-level rise..
Virtual diplomacy in action: officials and experts discuss how to protect maritime zones in the face of sea-level rise. Credit: PIF.

As maritime zones are measured from a baseline, which is generally the low water line along the coast, some commentators suggested that baselines will move with rising sea-levels. If accurate and maritime zones diminish due to sea-level rise, there would be deeply inequitable outcomes for the Pacific from the potential loss of sovereign rights in vast areas of the Pacific Ocean.

In 2019, PIF Leaders committed to collective efforts to ensure that once a PIF Member’s maritime zone is delineated in accordance with UNCLOS, those maritime zones could not be challenged or reduced as a result of sea-level rise.

To take this forward, the region met in September 2020 for the Regional Conference on Securing the Limits of the Blue Pacific, held virtually over four days.

The Ministry’s work ensured Aotearoa New Zealand contributed significantly to the conference. This included the decision to develop a regional normative declaration, putting on record the region’s view on how UNCLOS’ rules on maritime zones apply to climate change-related sea-level rise.

Following the conference, PIF Members worked together to develop the Declaration on Preserving Maritime Zones in the Face of Climate Change- Related Sea-Level Rise, endorsed by PIF Leaders on 6 August 2021.


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