The Significance of Sea-level Rise for the Continuation of States and the Identity of their People

Keywords: Pacific islands, climate change, sea-level rise, atolls, identity, refugees, plural legal systems, nationhood

Abstract

This article considers the legal institutions which give people identity and may anchor them to particular places. But what happens to that identity when "place" no longer exists? The focus of this article is the question of the legal status of those whose homelands disappear under the waves. Unlike persons displaced by war or political upheaval, as experienced after the Second World War, such persons do not fall within the usual understanding of the term "refugee". The erosion of the foundations of their identity has, in some cases, been gradual and incremental, but without territory can we talk of the sovereignty of states or the citizenship of individuals? Is the latter "place bound" or does citizenship mean more than just affiliation or "rootedness" to a particular place? Does nationality depend on a nation and if so, what is it that makes a nation? These questions are pertinent to all those whose homelands may disappear as a result of natural disasters or rising sea levels. They are particularly, but not only, relevant to people in the Pacific living on low-lying atolls such as in Tuvalu, Kiribati and parts of the Solomon Islands. In the Pacific, exchanges among strangers start with the question "Where are you from?" Can a person be a Pacific islander if he or she has no island? This article considers how that will be answered by those who are from lands under the seas, and what changes may have to be made to the international legal frameworks that determine identity in these circumstances.

 

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Published
2021-04-29
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