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International: International Law Commission Adopts ‘Sea-Level Rise in Relation to International Law’ as Topic for Long-Term Work Program

(Oct. 2, 2019) In the summer of 2019, the United Nations International Law Commission (ILC) adopted the topic of “Sea-Level Rise in Relation to International Law” for its program of work.

The ILC noted that the real and potential legal implications of sea-level rise are numerous: What happens to existing low-lying coastal areas and islands that disappear or become salinated and thus uninhabitable? Would the impact of such events necessarily touch upon maritime rights? What would happen if the territory or population of a state disappeared? The ILC’s approach to the topic will be based on three papers related to (a) the law of the sea, (b) statehood, and (c) protection of persons affected by sea-level rise.

The ILC also recognized in its adoption of the topic that more than 70 states are or are likely to be directly affected by sea-level rise—and a large number of states are likely to be indirectly affected, either by displacement of peoples or a lack of resources. The International Law Association (ILA) has also recently expressed its concerns about the impacts of sea-level rise and the human rights implications. The ILA thus recently developed the Sydney Declaration of Principles on the Protection of Persons Displaced in the Context of Sea Level Rise (Sydney Declaration), which is designed to “provide guidance to States in averting, mitigating, and addressing displacement of persons occurring in the context of sea level rise, based on and derived from relevant legal provisions, principles, and frameworks.”

Background on Rising Sea Levels

The United States National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) reported in 2018 that “[s]ea level has been rising over the past century, and the rate has increased in recent decades. In 2017, global mean sea level was 3 inches (77 millimeters) above the 1993 average—the highest annual average in the satellite record (1993–present).”

Island nations like Kiribati, Fiji, and the Solomon Islands are especially endangered by rising sea levels, sometimes necessitating their residents to relocate to higher ground. When such relocations occur, the resulting problems inevitably require solutions to help and protect people and resolve conflicts through action under numerous areas of international law, such as those concerned with state sovereignty, migration, cultural survival, refugees, human rights, and even statehood.

Background on Selection of New Topics at ILC

The ILC is the United Nations body mandated to “initiate studies and make recommendations for the purpose of … encouraging the progressive development of international law and its codification.” The ILC selects a new topic for its program of work on the basis of criteria developed in 1998:

[T]he topic should reflect the needs of the States in respect of the progressive development and codification of international law; the topic should be sufficiently advanced in stage in terms of State practice to permit progressive development and codification; that the topic is concrete and feasible for progressive development and codification. The Commission further agreed that it should not restrict itself to traditional topics, but could also consider those that reflect new developments in international law and pressing concerns of the international community as a whole.