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19 November 2010

Threatened Island Nations: Legal Implications of Rising Seas and a Changing Climate

The Permanent Mission of the Republic of the Marshall Islands (RMI) to the UN and the Center for Climate Change Law of Columbia University will jointly convene a conference entitled Threatened Island Nations: Legal Implications of Rising Seas and Changing Climate from 23-25 May 2011 in New York.

Earlier this year, the RMI government began collaborating with Michael Gerrard, Director of Columbia University’s Center for Climate Change Law, "to explore creative approaches to the legal issues facing low-lying island nations as climate change causes sea levels to rise." In July, the Center put out a call for papers that will feed into the May conference. Seventy-seven international proposals have been submitted and are currently being evaluated.

On 13 November the RMI Permanent Mission to the UN organized a briefing on “Potential legal issues for small island nations arising from climate impacts” at UN Headquarters in New York. John Silk, Foreign Minister of the RMI, opened the briefing by raising the question “Do people belong to the land or the land to the people?”, underlying the manifold of unresolved legal issues small island States might be facing as the gradual rise in sea level threatens the habitability of their land. Mr. Silk emphasized the need for urgent actions and stressed his government’s readiness to assume political leadership and cut its own emissions by 40% by the next decade — one of the most ambitious targets in the world.

Mr. Gerrard, keynote speaker, emphasized the crucial role of civil society and non-governmental organizations in the conference as well as in the preparatory process. He invited all interested groups and stakeholders to share their experience, knowledge and expertise in any of the seven sets of questions that the conference will tackle:

1. Statehood and statelessness: Can a State maintain its legal personality despite its lack of physical territory or the inhabitability of its territory (e.g. entitlement to a seat in the United Nations, institute proceedings before the International Court of Justice, right to self-determination, status of the population)?

2. Maritime governance: What is the legal basis for interpreting submitted baselines, both under various national laws and international law? What happens to maritime zones, the law of sea, treaties and conventions in the case of “deterritorialized” States?

3. Re-settlement rights: Where can climate-displaced people find refuge, what is their legal status? What citizenship and voting rights do they have or will they acquire? Does the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees provide an adequate legal framework for consideration of these issues?

4. Legal rights and remedies: What relief and remedy can climate-displaced people seek? What actions can/should be taken in the courts of the island states? In the courts of major emitting countries or existing international tribunals?

5. Existing institutions and international law: To what extent can/should existing international conventions/bodies, such as the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) play a role in developing a response to the problems faced by low-lying island States? What other international legal mechanisms or bodies can/should play a role?

6. New convention/international body: Is there a need for a new “Convention on climate-displaced people” or a new international body dealing with the above mentioned sets of questions?

7. Preservation of cultural identity: Includes a manifold of practical questions.

A compendium of the actions, deliberations and outcomes of the conference will be published in 2011 and a website specifically dedicated to the legal issues arising from climate change for small island states will be set up shortly.

For further information on the subject and to stay updated on the conference agenda, visit the website of the Center for Climate Change Law.

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