Amid rising seas, island nations seek legal protections

APIA, Samoa – When and if an island nation is completely submerged due to rising seas, what happens to the nationalities of its citizens?

This and other related issues are being considered by island nations advocating for changes in international law as climate change threatens their existence.

“Climate change-induced sea level rise is a defining issue for many Pacific Island States and, like most climate change issues, Pacific Island States have been at the forefront. of challenging international law to develop fairly and justly,” said Fleur Ramsay. , Litigation Manager and Climate Manager of the Pasifika Program at the Australian Bureau of Environmental Defenders.

In a recent interview with The Associated Press, Ramsay noted gaps in the development of international law. For example, under international law there is talk of nomadic tribes claiming lands they have historically traversed. However, rights to historic ocean passages have yet to be explored for citizens of island nations.

“If you ask our people to leave, there’s no way we’re leaving voluntarily,” said Eseta Vusamu, who currently works in Samoa but from a village on Ovalau Island, Fiji. “There are graves there, these are our ancestral lands.”

The village of Vusamu, Tokou, along with many coastal communities in Fiji, was badly affected by Cyclone Winston in 2016, which displaced more than 3,000 villagers from coastal areas.

There is already evidence of loss of islands. Between 1947 and 2014, six small islands in the Pacific Solomon Islands archipelago completely disappeared, according to a paper published in Environment Research Letters in 2016. The study identified the complete loss of reef islands and other islands that once knew severe coastal recession, displacing some communities. And in its report released earlier this year, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the world’s largest body of climate scientists, noted the risks to coastal areas and ecosystems from submersion and flooding from sea ​​level rise and increased wave height.

The issue of protecting sovereignty is a constant topic of discussion for many Pacific Island leaders. The maritime and resource rights that islands stand to lose in the face of land loss were part of the discussions at meetings of Pacific Small Island Developing States this week in Apia, Samoa. The meetings followed last week’s United Nations General Assembly meetings, in which Pacific island leaders pushed for changes that would protect island nations as they lost territory to the pandemic. erosion and sea level rise.

The leaders of Tuvalu, the Marshall Islands and Kiribati called on the international community to help island nations in several ways: preserving the sovereignty of Pacific island countries in the face of an existential threat from rising seas, funding programs for adaptation and support an initiative, the Rising Nations Heritage Project, to be the repository of the cultural heritage of the island nations.

Tuvalu’s Prime Minister Kausea Natano said Pacific island nations had done very little to contribute to global warming – he said less than 0.03% of total global emissions – but could still be destroyed by the consequences of the global warming and rising seas.

“During this century, several Pacific island nations will lose considerable territory to rising seal levels, with some becoming completely uninhabitable,” Natano said.

“We need a global settlement that guarantees nation states such as Tuvalu a permanent existence beyond the habitable life of our atoll homes,” he said.

During his address last week, the President of Vanuatu, Nikenike Vurobaravu, called on the International Court of Justice to start thinking about climate change.

Vanuatu has been pushing for a non-binding advisory opinion from the Netherlands-based tribunal to clarify how existing international laws can be applied to strengthen action on climate change and protect people and the environment. The advisory opinion, if successful, would address states’ obligations under international law to protect the rights of present and future generations from the adverse effects of climate change.

Earlier this year, the Pacific Islands Forum, the regional body of 18 Pacific island member countries and territories, took the matter into their own hands, declaring that their maritime boundaries, which are determined by the size of their land masses in under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, will be set regardless of changes in the size or shape of the islands in the future. This approach is controversial under international law due to competing interests between nations on the high seas.

In a report by a study group in August 2022, established by the International Law Commission to address sea level rise in international law, alternatives were offered to protect statehood. nations that could lose their territories. The proposals included the assumption of a presumption of continuity of statehood and the maintenance of some form of international legal personality without territory, similar to the Holy See and the Sovereign Order of Malta.

“We are all very aware that our very existence depends on our courage, our tenacity, our resilience and that it is only through true partnership” that results can be achieved, said Sefanaia Nawadra, Director General of the Pacific Regional Environment Program Secretariat, at meetings this week in Samoa.

Associated Press reporter Pia Sarkar in New York contributed to this report.

The Associated Press’s climate and environmental coverage receives support from several private foundations. Learn more about AP’s climate initiative here. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

About Thomas Brown

Check Also

Exit polls: What voters think as America heads to the polls

CNN — Read below for an analysis of CNN’s 2022 preliminary national exit polls. According …