Professor James Lee asked an interesting question earlier this year: will islands that cease to exist due to rising sea levels still have sovereignty based on their former existence?
Some remote islands — particularly such Pacific islands as Tuvalu, Kiribati, Tonga, the Maldives and many others — may be partially or entirely submerged beneath rising ocean waters. Do they lose their sovereignty if their territory disappears? After all, governments in exile have maintained sovereign rights in the past over land they didn’t control (think of France and Poland in World War II). Nor are these new questions far away in the future. The first democratically elected president of the Maldives, Mohamed Nasheed, is already planning to use tourism revenue to buy land abroad — perhaps in India, Sri Lanka or Australia — to house his citizens.
Absolute sovereignty, territorial waters, and marine exclusive economic zones are all ultimately based on land in current international law. Will a strip of the northern Indian Ocean remain Maldivian even if the islands begin to vanish? Will the Maldivians and others fund their displaced lives with the mineral rights to the waters that swallow their homes?
(Note that Tonga is not in danger of fully disappearing, as it has several substantial, raised islands. Here are a few more islands that might be.)
The resources in play are expanding: as The Economist wrote about in May, the maritime claims are being extended to continental shelf beyond 200 nautical miles from land. Huge areas of ocean are being claimed, with rights to oil, metal, and seabed methane hydrates, often based on the locations of islands. While some issues are being worked out amicably, the move could intensify various island disputes, such as those around the multiple claims to the South China Sea.
(Image courtesy Rappensuncle — Creative Commons use via Flickr)