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Malta Wants to Focus on Rising Sea Levels, but Russia’s War Will Dominate the Month

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Vanessa Frazier, Permanent Representative of Malta to the UN,
Vanessa Frazier, the permanent representative of Malta to the UN, outside the Security Council, Jan. 25, 2023. The country is rotating president of the Council in February, and its signature open debate will be about the threats of rising sea levels and gaps in international law recognizing loss of territory from global warming. Yet the one-year anniversary marking Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine will surely shadow the Council’s work this month. JOHN PENNEY/PASSBLUE

Malta is in charge of the Security Council this month, the first time in 39 years that the tiny Mediterranean nation is back in the chamber as an elected member. As an island, it’s appropriate that Malta is scheduling a signature debate on the danger of rising sea levels, but another topic is likely to dominate this month: commemorating the one-year Russian assault on Ukraine. Details are still being worked out which countries beyond the Council’s 15 members will speak at the meeting, on Feb. 24, marking the illegal invasion. The subject of the relentless humanitarian catastrophe in Ukraine will be discussed on Feb. 6 as well. (Russia is leading a countermeeting, on Feb. 8, on Western weapon flows to Ukraine.)

Vanessa Frazier, Malta’s permanent representative to the United Nations and the country’s first woman in that spot, spoke with PassBlue on Jan. 31. She elaborated on her country’s focus in February as rotating Council president. One issue that could surface on the topic of sea-level rise that directly affects Malta, a European Union member located near the north coast of Africa, is migration.

On that matter, Frazier said that maritime law did not cover the rescuing of migrants, for whom other steps must be taken. “When we look at international maritime law, it is not for mass migration,” Frazier said, noting that it applies more typically to a yacht or cruise ship in distress. She said it would be a mistake to interpret international law as an aid to migrants, and thus Malta “strongly feels solidarity is what is necessary” — regarding international law, what is required of Malta and what must be done to help migrants.

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Felicity Attard, a lecturer at the University of Malta who specializes in the law of the sea, does not believe new laws or agreements are needed. Citing Article 98 of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (Unclos), she told the university’s Think Magazine that international maritime law imposes a responsibility on the flag state (the country whose flag flies on a sea vessel) and nearby coastal states to provide assistance and rescue to anyone in need, migrants included. The shipmaster is obliged to intercede “in so far as he can do so without serious danger to the ship, the crew or the passengers,” Attard argued.

Coastal states like Malta, which is also situated 50 miles from Sicily, Italy, are expected by law to “promote the establishment, operation and maintenance of an adequate and effective search-and-rescue service regarding safety on and over the sea,” Attard, a maritime lawyer said, adding that these responsibilities are spelled out in international maritime treaties and in Malta’s Merchant Shipping Act.

As a vestige of its British colonial ties, Malta controls a large part of the search-and-rescue zone in the Mediterranean Sea, but it is difficult to ascertain the exact square miles. This responsibility does not mean that Malta, an archipelago, must usher migrants onto Maltese soil but must help coordinate the rescue of stranded vessels.

Nongovernmental organizations that conduct search-and-rescue operations at sea have accused Malta of intentionally shirking this duty and forcing migrants to land in Libya, where they will likely be tortured in detention camps and extorted by criminal gangs.

OLAF, the European Union’s anti-fraud office, undertook a classified internal audit of Frontex, the EU’s border guard agency, and confirmed allegations of “irregularities” and cover-ups of Maltese authorities pushing back migrants from its search-and-rescue zone.

“There are some vessels which are specifically going out into the Mediterranean looking for migrant vessels, and they are doing it very close to the Libyan shores,” Frazier said. In that case, “it is not the responsibility of Malta, unfortunately.”

According to numerous reports, the EU has reduced the number of search-and-rescue missions in the Mediterranean as part of its policy to stanch the flow of migrants into Europe.

The migration crisis aside, Malta is aiming to update another aspect of the international law of the sea. On Feb. 14, it will hold its high-level open debate on sea-level rise. The signature event will be chaired by Ian Borg, Malta’s foreign minister. Unclos, which Malta helped to formulate and bring into adoption in 1982, does not envisage what happens when a country is swamped by rising seas.

“At the moment, international law does not recognize and does not provide for loss of territory due to climate issues,” Frazier said. Several inhabited islands in the Pacific Ocean are beginning to vanish, and some scientists say that Kiribati, which comprises 32 atolls, could be the first country to be fully absorbed by the sea.

“What happens to a country if it loses all its territory and its landmass is under water?” Frazier asked. “Does it lose its maritime zone? Does it lose its fishing rights? Does it lose its flight information region? What happens to the displaced population?”

On the day before, Feb. 13, Malta will chair an open debate on children and armed conflict, a theme that regularly appears on the Council’s schedule and whose monitoring is coordinated with the UN’s office on the topic. Unicef said in 2021 that governments and nonstate actors in West and Central Africa recruited the highest number of child soldiers –more than 21,000 — globally. A December 2022 report published by War Child International, a nonprofit group, and researched by Save the Children and the Peace Research Institute, said 230 million children are within 30 miles of a conflict. Most of them are in the Mideast, although once again, the Council will not be taking up Iran’s violent crackdown on young women’s-rights activists and other youth protests.

In addition to the signature events and what the ambassador said will be a packed 28 days — already in full swing — the Council will hold a procedural meeting Feb. 23, on cooperation within the EU and the UN, with Josep Borrell, the EU foreign affairs minister, speaking. That is followed the next day by a debate to commemorate the one year of President Vladimir Putin’s war on his neighbor. On the  same day, two of the Council’s permanent members, Russia and China, are expected to hold naval drills off the coast of South Africa.

The provisional program of work for the Security Council in February. It is likely that the open debate on Feb. 24, marking Russia’s one-year invasion of Ukraine, will overshadow most of the Council’s meetings during the month.

Each month, PassBlue profiles UN diplomats as their countries assume the Council presidency. To hear more details about the goals of Malta in February, listen to PassBlue’s podcast, UN-Scripted, produced by Damilola Banjo and Kelechukwu Ogu, on SoundCloud and Patreon.

Here is an excerpt, edited and condensed, from the interview with Frazier on Jan. 31.

PassBlue: What are your signature events for February, and what informed the thematic focus? We start off on the 13th with a briefing on children and armed conflict. This is a priority for Malta as it has been a priority in our national foreign policy. Then, on the 14th, we have our signature event on sea-level rise — this links our traditions in the United Nations: oceans and climate. Malta, as one of the founding fathers of the [UN Convention on the] Law of the Sea, was the country that placed climate on the agenda of the General Assembly. Everything we do today on climate change was ideated by Malta placing it as a new agenda item before the Assembly. At the moment, international law does not recognize and does not provide for loss of territory due to climate issues. International law defines statehood based on four principles. So what happens to a country if it loses territory, it is inundated and its landmass is underwater, is that it loses maritime zones. The following week in the Council is also important, as there is the commemoration of the first anniversary of the war on Ukraine. There will be many events and discussions in various parts of the UN, not least of which will be the Security Council.

PassBlue: On your climate signature event, as an island country in the upper-economic stratum, do you feel Malta is deserving of “loss and damage” compensation that won approval at the UN climate change conference in Egypt last fall? We don’t have any intention to request compensation for any losses. We are a developed island. We’re also now a member of the European Union. So we have access to many different funds and opportunities. [But] we feel that it is important, and we support small countries in their quest to gain support from other countries. We feel that countries that do not have resources readily available to them should be assisted by others.

PassBlue: Let’s talk about women, peace and security. The UN and the Security Council have gone over and above to try to restore women’s rights in Afghanistan but has remained silent on Iran’s brutal crackdown on women’s rights protesters and other actions. Even when the United States and Albania wanted to discuss Iran’s detention and murder of demonstrators, it had to use an informal session of the Council. Will Malta try to force anything? Iran is not in our presidency program. However, we have a standard position, which is that if a meeting is requested by a member of the Council, it will be scheduled. This could be around or North Korea or others. As you know, we have an agenda of mandated items. Unfortunately, there are mixed voices on many issues when it comes to the Council. But we have condemned and participated in condemning what’s going on in Iran.

PassBlue: The global agreement to levy a 15-percent income tax on companies earning above €750 million (approximately $809 million) comes into force this year. Will implementing the new regime reduce multinationals’ investment in Malta? Malta has agreed to the principle of the 15-percent global minimum tax rates as part of the second pillar of the OECD [Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development] inclusive framework reform on international taxation. So as an EU member state, we shall implement this 15 percent minimum in accordance with the EU directive. But whether it will decrease investment in Malta is something we will have to see. The reason people do business in Malta is more than taxation. It is the skills of the laborers which are available, the cost of the laborers, the fact that we are also English-speaking is a huge reason why many countries invest in Malta.

PassBlue: Your 40 years of practicing and competing in judo contests and diplomatic prowess have taken you across the world. But our audience would like to know if there’s a distinguishing factor about the crowded, multicultural city of New York City. Judo is something which really defines me. It’s not just the martial arts, there is a philosophy of life which is attached to judo. I use the principals of judo very much in my private and professional life. I continue to do so, even though it is very difficult and was very difficult during Covid.

Malta’s ambassador to the UN: Vanessa Frazier, 53
Ambassador to the UN since: 2020
Languages: French, Arabic, Maltese, English, Italian
Education: B.A. in business management and French from Luther College, Decorah, Iowa; and a master’s in diplomatic studies, specializing in international law, University of Malta

Her story, briefly: Frazier was appointed Malta’s permanent representative to the UN in January 2020 as well as to the International Seabed Authority. Two months after her new posting, New York City became a ghost town, having been declared the epicenter of the coronavirus. “I have lots of fantastic memories from Covid, because of the bond that was created with some of the permanent representatives,” Frazier said. “I was in the PR running club [permanent representatives] [and] that group was very important to me during Covid. We would run alone but together, sharing our experiences with each other.” Looking back, she added, “it was very surreal to run down Fifth Avenue with no cars.” Frazier has been a judo professional for 40 years, 10 years longer than her diplomatic career. Several judo principles govern her life but one that comes to her often, she said, is that “the color of the belt does not matter, it is only there to keep your judo uniform in place. And you can learn from anyone irrespective of their rank.” Before coming to the UN in 2020, Frazier represented her country in its embassies in Washington, Rome, Brussels and London. In Brussels, she was ambassador to Belgium, Luxembourg and NATO. In London, she headed the political unit in the Malta High Commission. In Rome, she was Malta’s emissary to Italy and San Marino. She has also served as Malta’s ambassador on migration. Before working in Italy in 2013, Frazier was in charge of the Defense Matters Directorate in the Maltese prime minister’s office for six years. She has two children.

Country Profile

Prime Minister: Robert Abela
Minister for Foreign and European Affairs and Trade: Ian Borg
Type of Government: Unitary multiparty republic
Year Malta Joined the UN: 1964
Terms in the Security Council: 2023-24 and 1983-84
Population: 518,536 (2021)
Per capita CO2 emission figures (in tons): 5.18 (2016); by comparison, US: 13.68 (2020)


We welcome your comments on this article.  What are your thoughts on Malta's focus in February?

Damilola Banjo

Damilola Banjo is a reporter for PassBlue. She has a master’s of science degree from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and a B.A. in communications and language arts from the University of Ibadan, Nigeria. She has worked as a producer for NPR’s WAFE station in Charlotte, N.C.; for the BBC as an investigative journalist; and as a staff investigative reporter for Sahara Reporters Media.

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Malta Wants to Focus on Rising Sea Levels, but Russia’s War Will Dominate the Month
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