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Inside the System, Outside the Box: Palau’s Pursuit of Climate Justice and Security at the United Nations

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  21 February 2014

Stuart Beck
Permanent Representative of Palau to the United Nations, 2003–13; Ambassador of Palau to the Oceans and Seas, 2013–present.
Elizabeth Burleson
Burleson Institute, Cos Cob, CT (US). Email:


This commentary, which presents an expanded version of the keynote address at the 2012 Conference on ‘Global Climate Change Without the United States’, outlines Palau’s role in attempting to motivate international action on climate change. It explains two initiatives: the passage of a United Nations (UN) General Assembly resolution highlighting the security implications of climate change, and the attempt to obtain an advisory opinion from the International Court of Justice on the responsibility of states for climate change. The two avenues are located ‘inside the system’ in that they target well-established organs of the UN system. However, they are ‘outside the box’ because they seek to bypass and ultimately jump-start the international negotiation process that has unfolded under the auspices of the UNFCCC.

Symposium: Global Climate Governance Without The Us
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2014 

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This contribution is part of a collection of articles from the conference ‘Global Climate Change Without the United States: Thinking the Unthinkable’, held at Yale University Law School, New Haven, CT (United States), 9–10 Nov. 2012.


1 Need to Know on PBS, ‘Paradise Lost in Palau?’, PBS Network, air date 10 Aug. 2012, available at:

2 Press Release, State of New Jersey: Governor C. Christie, ‘Christie Administration Releases Total Hurricane Sandy Damage Assessment of $36.9 Billion’, 28 Nov. 2012, available at:; Press Release, State of New York: Governor Andrew Cuomo, ‘Governor Cuomo Holds Meeting with New York’s Congressional Delegation, Mayor Bloomberg and Regional County Executives to Review Damage Assessments for State in the Wake of Hurricane Sandy’, 26 Nov 2012, available at

3 P.M. Barrett, ‘It’s Global Warming, Stupid’, Bloomberg Businessweek, 1 Nov. 2012, available at:

4 IPCC, ‘Fifth Assessment Report (AR5)’, available at:

5 See, e.g., Press Statement, ‘Pacific Islands Forum Leaders Endorse the Niue Declaration on Climate Change’, 26 Aug. 2008, available at:; Alliance of Small Island States Leaders’ Declaration, 27 Sept. 2012, available at:

6 UN Secretary-General, ‘Address to the General Assembly’, 25 Sept. 2012, available at:

7 UNEP, Bridging the Emissions Gap: A UNEP Synthesis Report (UNEP, 2011), p. 9, available at:

8 IPCC, Managing the Risks of Extreme Events and Disasters to Advance Climate Change Adaptation: Special Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (Cambridge University Press, 2012), at p. 18.

9 New York, NY (US), 9 May 1992, in force 21 Mar. 1994, available at:

10 UNGA Resolution A/RES/63/281 on Climate Change and its Possible Security Implications, 3 June 2009, available at:

11 See Honorable Johnson Toribiong, President of the Republic of Palau, ‘Statement to the 66th Regular Session of the United Nations General Assembly’, 22 Sept. 2011, available at:

12 Korman, A. & Barcia, G., ‘Rethinking Climate Change: Towards an International Court of Justice Advisory Opinion’ (2012) 37 The Yale Journal of International Law Online, pp. 3542Google Scholar, at 35, available at:

13 Montego Bay (Jamaica), 10 Dec. 1982, in force 16 Nov. 1994, 1833 UNTS 3, available at: See UN GAOR, 22nd Session, First Committee, 1515th Meeting, UN Doc. A/C.1/PV.1515, and 1516th Meeting, UN Doc A/C.1/PV.1516, 1 Nov. 1967, Address of Mr Pardo (Malta), available at:; T.T.B. Koh, ‘A Constitution for the Oceans’, remarks by Tommy T.B. Koh, of Singapore, President of the Third United Nations Conference on the Law of the Sea, adapted from statements by the President on 6 and 11 Dec at the final session of the Conference at Montego Bay, available at:

14 See UNGA, Provisional Verbatim Record, 43rd Session, 35th Meeting. UN Doc A/43/PV.35, 24 Oct. 1988, Address of Mr Tabone (Malta), at pp. 6–20, available at:; UNGA Resolution A/RES/43/53 on Protection of Global Climate for Present and Future Generations of Mankind, 6 Dec. 1988, available at:

15 UNGA Resolutions 61/105 and 66/68 protect vulnerable deep-sea marine ecosystems from bottom trawling and protect biodiversity on a global scale as a result of Palau’s efforts: UNGA Resolution 61/105 on Sustainable Fisheries, including through the 1995 Agreement for the Implementation of the Provisions of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea of 10 December 1982 relating to the Conservation and Management of Straddling Fish Stocks and Highly Migratory Fish Stocks, and Related Instruments, 8 Dec. 2006, available at:; UNGA Resolution 66/68 on Sustainable Fisheries, including through the 1995 Agreement for the Implementation of the Provisions of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea of 10 December 1982 relating to the Conservation and Management of Straddling Fish Stocks and Highly Migratory Fish Stocks, and Related Instruments, 6 Dec. 2011, available at: See also Prows, P., ‘A Mouse Can Roar: Small Island States, the United Nations and the End of Free-For-All Fishing on the High Seas’ (2007) 19 Colorado Journal of International Environmental Law and Policy, pp. 148.Google Scholar

16 Palau was the first country to declare a shark sanctuary, and it did so at the UNGA in 2009: see UN GAOR, 64th Session, 7th Meeting, UN Doc A/64/PV.7, 25 Sept. 2009, Address of Mr Johnson Toribiong, at p. 8, available at:

17 Press Release, World Future Council, ‘FPA 2012 Goes to Palau’, 26 Sept. 2012, available at:; see also ‘Cook Islands’ Shark Sanctuary Creates World’s Largest’, BBC News, 13 Dec. 2012, available at:

18 UNFCCC, n. 9 above, Art. 2

19 Kyoto (Japan), 11 Dec. 1997, in force 16 Feb. 2005, available at:

20 See closing Press Briefing, UNFCCC: C. Figueres, 8 Dec. 2012, available at:

21 See, e.g., ‘Durban Climate Deal: The Verdict’, The Guardian, 12 Dec. 2011, available at:

22 M. Thatcher, 1981 Sir Robert Menzies Lecture, Monash University, Melbourne (Australia), 6 Oct. 1981, available at:

23 Despite discussion to expand the permanent membership, the current five permanent members of the UNSC remain: China, France, Russia, the UK, and the US.

24 See Malone, L.A., ‘Green Helmets: A Conceptual Framework for Security Council Authority in Environmental Disaster’ (1996) 17 Michigan Journal of International Law, pp. 515–36.Google Scholar

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26 Burleson, E., ‘A Climate of Extremes: Transboundary Conflict Resolution’ (2008) 32 Vermont Law Review, pp. 477523Google Scholar; Burleson, E., ‘Multilateral Climate Change Mitigation’ (2007) 41 University of San Francisco Law Review, pp. 373407.Google Scholar

27 See, e.g., US Department of Defense, ‘Quadrennial Defense Review Report’, Feb. 2010, at pp. 84–6, available at: See also US Office of the Director of National Intelligence, ‘Global Water Security: Intelligence Community Assessment’, 2 Feb. 2012, available at:

28 UNGA Resolution A/RES/63/281 on Climate Change and its Possible Security Implications, 3 June 2009, available at: See also UNGA, GA 10830, Department of Public Information, ‘General Assembly, Expressing Deep Concern, Invites Major United Nations Organs to Intensify Efforts in Addressing Security Implications of Climate Change’, 63rd General Assembly Plenary 85th Meeting, 3 June 2009, available at: Support for compensation for environmental damage is arguably provided by another UNSC resolution – specifically Resolution 687 – which, in 1991, affirmed that Iraq was ‘liable under international law for any direct loss, damage, including environmental damage and the depletion’ in its war against Kuwait. According to Christina Voigt, resolutions such as these support the general acceptance of the principle of ecological damage in international law: see Voigt, C., ‘Security in a “Warming World”: Competences of the UN Security Council for Preventing Dangerous Climate Change’, in Bailliet, C.M. (ed), Security: A Multidisciplinary Normative Approach (Brill Academic Publishers, 2009), pp. 291312.Google Scholar

29 UNSC, Statement by the President, UN Doc S/PRST/2011/15, 20 July 2011, available at:

30 UNSC, 66th Session, 6587th Meeting, UN Doc S/PV.6587, 20 July 2011, at p. 7, available at:

31 White House Office of the Press Secretary, ‘Remarks by the US President on Climate Change’, 25 June 2013, available at:

32 Art. 65(1) of the ICJ Statute states that ‘the Court may give an advisory opinion on any legal question at the request of whichever body may be authorized by or in accordance with the Charter of the United Nations to make such a request’: Statute of the International Court of Justice, New York, NY (US), 26 June 1945, in force 24 Oct. 1945, available at:

33 Art. 96(1) of the UN Charter states: ‘The General Assembly or the Security Council may request the International Court of Justice to give an advisory opinion on any legal question’: Charter of the United Nations, 26 June 1945, in force 24 Oct. 1945, 1 UNTS XVI. These provisions establish the prima facie competence of the UNGA to request an advisory opinion. Scope for questioning this competence is limited: expert commentary suggests that the breadth of UNGA competence provided for in the Charter makes it difficult to conceive of a legal question that would fall outside it. See also Oellers-Frahm, K., ‘Article 96’, in Simma, B., Khan, D.E., Nolte, G. & Paulus, A. (eds), The Charter of the United Nations: A Commentary (3rd edn, Oxford University Press, 2012).Google Scholar

34 UNGA OR, 66th Session, 16th Plenary Meeting, UN Doc A/66/PV.16, 22 Sept. 2011, Address of Mr Toribiong, at pp. 27–8, available at:

35 For a thorough overview of the ICJ climate change initiative, including a review of existing international and transnational legal norms and cases supporting the notion that nations do not have an unfettered right to contribute to the causation of climate-induced transboundary harms, see D.A. Kysar et al, ‘Climate Change and the International Court of Justice’, Yale Center for Environmental Law & Policy Report, 14 Aug. 2013, available at:

36 For an assessment of a hypothetical contentious case involving climate change, see Jacobs, R.E., ‘Treading Deep Waters: Substantive Law Issues in Tuvalu’s Threat to Sue the United States in the International Court of Justice’ (2005) 14(1) Pacific Rim Law & Policy Journal, pp. 103–28, at 114.Google Scholar

37 See Korman, A. & Barcia, G., ‘Rethinking Climate Change: Towards an International Court of Justice Advisory Opinion’ (2012) 37 The Yale Journal of International Law Online, pp. 3542, at 40–2.Google Scholar

39 See IPCC, ‘Fourth Assessment Report: Climate Change 2007’, available at:; UNGA, ‘Climate Change and its Possible Security Implications: Report of the Secretary-General’, UN Doc A/64/350, 11 Sept. 2009, available at:; UNDP, ‘Mapping Climate Change: Vulnerability and Impact Scenarios’, Nov. 2010, available at:; UNDP Environment & Energy Group, ‘Climate Change at UNDP: Scaling Up to Meet the Challenge’, Sept. 2008, available at:; UNEP, ‘GEO5 – Global Environmental Outlook: Environment for the Future We Want’, 2012, available at:

40 For latest information see IPCC, ‘Fifth Assessment Report (AR5)’, n. 4 above.

41 Press Release, Permanent Mission of the Republic of Palau to the United Nations, ‘United Nations Ambassadors Align for Responsibility on Climate Change’, 12 Dec. 2011.

42 L. Friedman, ‘Island States Mull Risks and Benefits of Suing Big Emitters’, EE News, 16 Nov. 2012, at p. 1, available at: (‘Tiny islands are getting some big-league help in their quest to haul major emitters into international court over global warming. But they’re fearful the United States and China might punish them by cutting off foreign aid. Germany, Ireland and Switzerland have vowed support for the Republic of Palau, which is leading a coalition of vulnerable nations in a landmark campaign to make climate change a matter of international law. The backing of wealthy European nations brings support for a resolution before the [UNGA] to 33 countries and is considered a major boost to the case’).

43 See, e.g., short-term climate forced reduction cooperation, n. 39 above; Burleson, E. & Burleson, W., ‘Innovation Cooperation: Energy Biosciences and Law’ (2011) 2 University of Illinois Law Review, pp. 651–94Google Scholar; Burleson, E., ‘Making Sand Castles as the Tide Comes In: Legal Aspects of Climate Justice’ (2011) 2 George Washington Journal of Energy and Environmental Law, pp. 4250Google Scholar; Burleson, E., ‘Climate Change Consensus: Emerging International Law’ (2010) 34(2) William and Mary Environmental Law and Policy Review, pp. 543–88Google Scholar; Peel, J., Godden, L. & Keenan, R., ‘Climate Change Law in an Era of Multi-Level Governance’ (2012) 1(2) Transnational Environmental Law, pp. 245–80.Google Scholar

44 E.g. Fisheries Case (United Kingdom v. Norway), Judgment 18 Dec. 1951, General List No. 5 (1949–51); Fisheries Jurisdiction Case (Federal Republic of Germany v. Iceland), Jurisdiction of the Court, Judgment, General List No. 56 (2 Feb. 1973); Fisheries Jurisdiction Case (United Kingdom v. Iceland), Merits, Judgment, General List No. 56 (25 July 1974); Fisheries Jurisdiction (Spain v. Canada), Judgment 4 Dec. 1988, General List No. 96 (1995–98); North Sea Continental Shelf (Federal Republic of Germany v. Denmark; Federal Republic of Germany v. The Netherlands) (1967–69) (20 Feb. 1969); Gabcíkovo-Nagymaros Project (Hungary v. Slovakia), Judgment of 25 Sept. 1997, General List No. 92 (1993–97); Pulp Mills on the River Uruguay (Argentina v. Uruguay), Judgment 20 Apr. 2010.

45 E.g., Conditions of Admission of a State to Membership in the United Nations (Article 4 of the Charter), Advisory Opinion of 28 May 1948, General List No. 3 (1947–48).

46 E.g., Legality of Use of Force (Yugoslavia v. United States of America), Request for the Indication of Provisional Measures, Order, General List No. 114 (2 June 1999).

47 E.g., International Status of South West Africa, Advisory Opinion of 11 July 1950, General List No. 10 (1949–50); Delimitation of the Maritime Boundary in the Gulf of Maine Area (Canada v. United States of America), Judgment, General List No. 67 (12 Oct. 1984).

48 UNFCCC COP Decision 1/CP.17 on Establishment of an Ad Hoc Working Group on the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action, UN Doc. FCCC/CP/2011/L.10, 10 Dec. 2011, at p. 2, available at:

49 See generally the ICJ case law, available at:

50 Nuclear Tests Case (Australia v. France), Judgment, General List No. 58 (20 Dec. 1974); Nuclear Tests Case (New Zealand v. France), Judgment, General List No. 59 (20 Dec. 1974); Legality of the Threat or Use of Nuclear Weapons, Advisory Opinion, General List No. 95 (8 July 1996); Legality of the Use by a State of Nuclear Weapons in Armed Conflict, Advisory Opinion, General List No. 93 (8 July 1996).

51 Trail Smelter Arbitration (United States v. Canada), Decision 16 Apr. 1938 and 11 Mar. 1941, available at:

52 See J.M. Broder, ‘Both Romney and Obama Avoid Talk of Climate Change’, The New York Times, 25 Oct. 2012, available at: