Vance Center and Milbank Represent UN Special Rapporteurs in Amicus Brief on Oceans and Climate Change

June 2023

Together with partner firm Milbank LLP, the Vance Center this month represented three United Nations Special Rapporteurs in an amicus brief submission to the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea (ITLOS) addressing States’ responsibilities to protect oceans from the effects of climate change.

The brief, filed by the Vance Center and Milbank, discusses the climate change-related obligations of States under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). UNCLOS is a comprehensive legal framework that regulates all ocean space, uses and resources. The treaty has been ratified by more than 160 countries worldwide. 

The amicus brief was submitted in Case No. 31, in which the Commission of Small Island States on Climate Change and International Law requested ITLOS to clarify the specific responsibilities of UNCLOS States parties to prevent, reduce and control pollution of the world’s oceans from climate change impacts, including ocean warming, sea level rise and ocean acidification. The Tribunal is considering a request for an advisory opinion on States’ obligations concerning climate change. In considering the request, the Tribunal has received submissions from more than 30 States, as well as several intergovernmental organizations and other entities. The Tribunal will draw on these submissions as it addresses the request. 

In the brief, the three Special Rapporteurs – SR on Human Rights and the Environment David Boyd, SR on Toxics and Human Rights Marcos Orellana, and SR on Human Rights and Climate Change Ian Fry – argue that greenhouse gas emissions pollute the marine environment, leading to violations of protected human rights.  

The submission outlines how UNCLOS should be interpreted and applied alongside international human rights law and international environmental law; how climate-change related pollution of the marine environment threatens human rights; and how States parties to UNCLOS must be held accountable for their obligations under the convention, including reducing greenhouse gas emissions and providing remedies for the violation of the human rights of individuals and communities affected by damage to oceans from climate change. 

Vance Center Environment Program staff Susan Kath and Sam Bookman were co-counsel for the amicus brief, working with a Milbank pro bono team led by Vance Center Committee member and partner Viren Mascarenhas and partner Chris Taufatofua.  

The full amicus brief is available here.