Rising Sea-Levels and International Law: Asia and Beyond

Photo by Saad Chaudhry

On the 26th May 2021, Dr Meagan Wong, Lecturer in Law at the University of Essex, appeared in a panel of the 8th Biennial Conference of the Asian Society of International Law titled ‘Rising Sea-Levels and International Law: Asia and beyond’. The panel was also joined by Professor Patrícia Galvão Teles and Mr Alessandro Rollo, and was chaired by Dr Nilüfer Oral.

The panel was proposed and co-submitted by the four members of the event in response to an open call by the Asian Society of International Law. Dr Nilüfer Oral and Professor Patrícia Galvão Teles are both members of the UN International Law Commission and Co-Chairs of the study group on ‘Sea-level rise in relation to international law’; and Alessandro Rollo is an Associate at Omnia Strategy who specialises in public international law and international dispute settlement.

The panel drew attention to the fact that sea-levels are rising at an accelerating rate. Indeed, Asia-Pacific is home to island States, to whom sea-level rise is an immediate and pressing concern, archipelagic States which are potentially vulnerable, and major cities including Tokyo, Jakarta, Ho Chi Minh City and Shanghai that are considered most at risk from sea-level rise.

That said, the panel also acknowledged that sea-level rise is very much a global concern which merits attention from the international community as a whole and emphasised the work of the International Law Commission, which in 2019 decided to include the topic ‘Sea-level rise in relation to international law’ into the agenda, which broadly examines three themes: i) issues related to the law of the sea; ii) issues related to statehood; iii) issues related to the protection of persons affected by sea-level rise.

UN Secretary-General António Guterres has said ‘climate change offers an opportunity for multilateralism to prove its value‘ and sea-level rise is just one of the unfortunate impacts of climate change. In light of the call for multilateralism, Dr Meagan Wong’s presentation in the panel focused on ‘Sea-level rise and multilateralism.’ Her talk was structured in two main parts: first, cooperation between States; and secondly, non-compliance of States of their international obligations within existing frameworks that address climate change.

In relation to cooperation between States, Dr Wong first looked at multilateralism and the international legal order in the United Nations, highlighting the work of the UN International Law Commission. This was further elaborated upon by Professor Galvão Teles. Next, Dr Wong considered climate change and the oceans, drawing upon the legal frameworks of the UN Law of the Sea Convention 1982, the UN Framework for Climate Change 1992 and the Paris Agreement 2015.

Dr Wong then considered the obligation on States to settle their international disputes by peaceful means and the various peaceful means of choice in the event of non-compliance of States with their respective obligations. The cooperation between States in various multilateral settings and the peaceful settlement of disputes in the event of non-compliance in relation to climate change obligations reflect two important themes of multilateralism.

This was followed by a discussion by Mr Alessandro Rollo on the impact of sea-level rise on international human rights law. Mr Rollo addressed how sea-level rise jeopardises the human rights of individuals living in affected States in Asia and beyond, and the duty of affected States to protect the human rights of individuals under their jurisdiction in relation to the impact of rising sea levels. Professor Patrícia Galvão Teles expanded further upon the themes discussed by the earlier two panelists with particular reference to the work of the UN International Law Commission Study Group on sea-level rise in relation to international law.

Further information about the work of the UN International Law Commission on Sea-Level Rise can be seen here.

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