Manage episode 342739409 series 3382676
Climate Change and the Law of the Sea
Sea level rise due to climate change will directly impact at least 70 countries, many of them small, low-lying island nations. Though their contribution to climate change is very little, they face some of its worst consequences. This is not a new issue, and tension has been building since the late 1980s. In 1989, the Maldives, an island nation in the Indian Ocean, issued an international declaration, the first of its kind, calling attention to sea level rise due to climate change, and how it impacts its land. Island states often have small land area, but, under international law, have jurisdiction over a larger area of their surrounding seas for economic purposes. What if an island loses territory due to sea level rise? If so, it could lose its economic zone. This is also a national security question; could another nation then legally take over this economic zone? Currently, the international law framework, called the Law of the Sea, does not answer these questions even though the livelihoods of millions are at issue. A 2021 declaration by Pacific Island nations calls for maritime boundaries to stay where they are now regardless of sea level rise. However, this requires the endorsement of other nations. The United Nations, up until now, has paid comparatively little attention to this issue, but, through its study group on sea-level rise, the UN is aiming to engage non-low-lying island nations, and attempt to resolve these and other questions.
Climate Refugees Need Protected Status Under the Law
By 2050, there could be 1.2 billion climate refugees, according to the international think tank International Environmental Partnership. But these refugees often do not fit the legal definition of “refugee”, including individuals displaced in the United States. Becoming a “refugee” under the law confers special status; it protects from deportation, for example. In 2013, a man from Kiribati, a country undergoing severe sea level rise, applied for refugee status as a “climate refugee” in New Zealand. His application was denied, and he was repatriated to Kiribati. The man subsequently filed a complaint with the UN Convent of Civil Liberties, claiming his right to life had been violated. The man lost his case, because his life was not found to be under immediate danger. However, the wording of the UN’s ruling in the case asserts that those fleeing a climate crisis cannot be sent home, thereby creating a non-binding international construct. This case illustrates some of the complexities raised by climate refugees and how they are currently viewed in many of the world’s legal systems. Sea level rise is not only an issue of the future but already an issue of the present.
Who is Dr. Nilufer Oral?
Dr. Nilufer Oral is director at the Center for International Law at the National University of Singapore. She is also a member of the International Law Commission at the United Nations and co-chair of the study group at the UN on sea level rise in relation to international law.