Hawaiʻi Bahá’í Speaks to International Sea Tribunal

Ms. Naima Te Maile Fifita of Honolulu addressed the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea (ITLOS) in Hamburg, Germany in September. Fifita spoke as a member of the delegation of Coalition for Small Island States on Climate Change and International Law (COSIS) which had submitted a request for an advisory opinion on climate change and international law to the Tribunal.

Fifita, who is originally from Tuvalu, was preceded at the podium by the Co-Chairs of COSIS, Mr. Gaston Browne, Prime Minister of Antigua and Barbuda, and Mr. Kausea Natano, Prime Minister of Tuvalu, and other members of the COSIS delegation. The hearings ran from Sept 11-25.

ITLOS is an independent judicial body established by the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. It has jurisdiction over any dispute relating to the Convention concerning protection and preservation of the marine environment. COSIS is asking the tribunal for clarity on the obligations of the signatories of the Convention regarding climate change, with special regard to sea level rise, which is having a devastating impact on small island states such as Tuvalu.  

Fifita gave compelling live testimony, speaking “as an indigenous Tuvaluan, as a youth, and as a mother to a daughter of the Pacific who opened her eyes to this world just a year ago.” “As I address this distinguished Tribunal at this historic proceeding,” she said, “my fears are for the kind of world she will inherit when the land of her ancestors is taken by the rising sea.” 

“This proceeding is for small island peoples,” Fifita continued, “especially their youth, who have made an insignificant contribution to greenhouse gas emissions, but who must now, in the prime of their lives, suffer the worst of its impact…it is their lives and their future that are at stake. They look to international courts and tribunals, and to this Tribunal in particular, which will be the first to render an advisory opinion. They look to you for hope and justice, in the belief that the international legal order has a vital role to play in ensuring the survival of the most disadvantaged and vulnerable.” 

“By delivering a robust advisory opinion,” said Fajita at the conclusion of her presentation, “this Tribunal will not only make a historic contribution to the protection and preservation of the marine environment, but also to the continuity of entire civilizations and ancestral connections. This matter is truly a question of life and death. Therefore, I respectfully urge you, Mr. President, to consider the profound and timely impact this advisory opinion would have on those vulnerable communities who are deserving of clarity and justice.”

Fifita was introduced by noted Canadian human rights lawyer Payam Akhavan, a member of the Permanent Court of Arbitration and of the COSIS delegation, and a fellow Bahá’í.

Fifita was recently selected as the 2023 Sue Taei Ocean Fellow. The Sue Taei Ocean Fellowship provides opportunities for Pasifika women to pursue education, professional training, or launch a social enterprise to drive enduring change in the Pacific.  Naima is a recent graduate of the William S. Richardson School of Law at the University of Hawaiʻi (Mānoa), where she studied environmental law with a focus on Pacific climate displacement and served as President of the Pacific Islander Legal Association. She also received certificates in Environmental Law and Native Hawaiian Rights. 

With familial roots in Tuvalu and family residing across the South Pacific, Naima is committed to collaborating with communities in the region to combat the effects of climate change with resilience and culturally appropriate restorative justice approaches. Her Pacific Islander and multicultural upbringing and world-embracing views as a Bahá’í have charged her engagement in numerous environmental spaces and discourses, particularly environmental justice non-profit work, legal research, education, and policy transformation. 

The Fellowship supports Fifita  in documenting the experiences and perspectives of her Tuvaluan and Pacific community on climate change and statelessness. It aims to preserve their traditional ecological wisdom in the face of climate displacement.  Naima plans to pursue a master’s degree in international environmental law, focusing on climate migration and ocean diplomacy. Additionally, she hopes to create a program for collective capacity-building across Pacific communities, empowering them in environmental issues through resilience, advocacy, stewardship, and cultural connection.

The issue presented to the tribunal is highly relevant to the Hawaiian Islands. Long-term observational data from local tide gauge stations here show that sea level is rising around Hawai’i. Models indicate that Hawaiʻi and other tropical Pacific sites will experience sea level rise that is 16% to 20% higher than the global average.  

The State of Hawaii Climate Change website reports that chronic flooding resulting from climate change will lead to an additional 25,800 acres of land becoming unusable, while 6,500 structures are projected to be at risk.  About 550 cultural sites, 38 miles of major roads, and at least $19 billion in assets will be vulnerable to chronic flooding. Such widespread flooding could change the character of the islands by affecting cultural heritage, tourism, agriculture, and ecosystems. 

The full transcript of the proceedings, including Fifita’s remarks, is available at at: https://www.itlos.org/fileadmin/itlos/documents/cases/31/Oral_proceedings/ITLOS_PV23_C31_1_E.pdf

Picture of Ms. Naima Te Maile Fifita with a flower lei around her head

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