PURSUING PROTECTIONS. In this February 24, 2016 file photo, a man
walks along a street where power poles are knocked over in Rakiraki,
Fiji, after cyclone Winston ripped through the island nation. The
cyclone ripped apart thousands of homes, severely hurt the island’s
tourism industry, and wiped out a significant chunk of sugar crops. When
and if an island nation fully submerges due to climate change, what
happens to the nationalities of its citizens? This and other related
questions are being considered by island nations advocating for changes
to international law as climate change threatens their existence. (Brett
Phibbs/New Zealand Herald via AP, File)
Sanjogeeta Kiran, right, with her sister Sulva Kiran, second left,
and her children Shivendera, left, and Raajeen, sit amid the debris of
their home in RakiRaki, Fiji, after cyclone Winston destroyed it, in
this February 24, 2016 file photo. (Brett Phibbs/New Zealand Herald
via AP, File)
From The Asian Reporter, V32, #10 (October 3, 2022), page 20.
Amid rising seas, island nations push for legal
By Lagipoiva Cherelle Jackson
The Associated Press
APIA, Samoa — When and if an island nation fully submerges due to
rising seas, what happens to the nationalities of its citizens?
This and other related questions are being considered by island
nations advocating for changes to 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 in a way which is equitable and just," said Fleur Ramsay,
head of litigation and climate lead of the Pasifika Program at the
Australia-based Environmental Defenders Office.
During a recent interview with The Associated Press, Ramsay noted the
shortcomings in the development of international law. For example, under
international law, there are discussions of nomadic tribes making claims
over lands they have historically passed over. However, rights over
historical ocean passages have not yet been explored for citizens of
"If you ask our people to move, there is no way we would voluntarily
leave," said Eseta Vusamu, who is currently working in Samoa but from a
village on the island of Ovalau, Fiji. "There are graves there, these
are our ancestral lands."
Vusamu’s village, Tokou, along with many coastal communities in Fiji,
were hard hit during Cyclone Winston in 2016, which led to the
relocation of more than 3,000 villagers from the coastal areas.
There is already evidence of loss of islands. Between 1947 and 2014,
six smaller islands in the Pacific archipelago of the Solomon Islands
completely vanished, according to a paper published in 2016 in
Environment Research Letters. The study identified the complete loss
of reef islands and other islands that were experiencing severe
shoreline recession, leading to the relocation of some communities. And
in its report earlier this year, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate
Change, the world’s top body of climate scientists, noted risks to
coastal areas and ecosystems due to submergence and flooding through sea
level rise and increased height of waves.
The issue of protecting sovereignty is a constant topic of discussion
for many Pacific Islands leaders. The maritime and resource entitlements
that islands stand to lose in the face of land loss were part of talks
during the Pacific Small Island Developing States meetings held in Apia,
Samoa. The meetings came on the heels of last month’s U.N. General
Assembly meetings, in which Pacific Island leaders pushed for changes
that would protect island nations as they lose territory to erosion and
rising sea levels.
Leaders of Tuvalu, the Marshall Islands, and Kiribati called on the
international community to help island nations in several ways: preserve
the sovereignty of Pacific island countries facing an existential threat
of sea rise, finance adaptation programs, and support an initiative, the
Rising Nations Heritage Project, to be a repository for the cultural
heritage of island nations.
Tuvalu Prime Minister Kausea Natano said that Pacific Island nations
had done very little to contribute to global warming — he said less than
0.03% of the world’s total emissions — but yet could be destroyed by the
consequences of a warming planet and rising seas.
"In this century, several Pacific Island nations will lose
considerable territory to rising sea level with some becoming completely
uninhabitable," said Natano.
"We need a global settlement that guarantees nation states such as
Tuvalu a permanent existence beyond the inhabitable lifetime of our
atoll homes," he said.
During his address, Vanuatu President Nikenike Vurobaravu called on
the International Court of Justice to begin considering climate change.
Vanuatu has been pushing for a non-binding advisory opinion from the
Netherlands-based court 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
obligations of states under international law to protect the rights of
present and future generations against the adverse effects of climate
Earlier this year, the Pacific Islands Forum, the regional body of 18
Pacific island member countries and territories, took matters into their
own hands, declaring that their maritime boundaries, which are
determined by the size of their land masses under the U.N. Convention on
Law of the Sea, will be fixed irrespective of changes to the size or
shape of the islands in the future. This approach is contentious under
international law due to competing interests between nations over the
In a report by a study group in August 2022, established under the
International Law Commission to address sea-level rise in international
law, alternatives were proposed to protect the statehood of nations that
may lose their territories. Proposals included assuming a presumption of
continuity of statehood and maintaining some form of international legal
personality without a territory, similar to the Holy See and the
Sovereign Order of Malta.
"We all are very much aware that our very existence is dependent on
our fortitude, our tenacity, our resilience and only through genuine
partnership" can results be achieved, said Sefanaia Nawadra, director
general of the Secretariat of the Pacific Regional Environment Program,
during the meetings in Samoa.
Associated Press reporter Pia Sarkar in New York contributed to this
report. Associated Press climate and environmental coverage receives
support from several private foundations. The AP is solely responsible
for all content.
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