Legal protection for climate-affected states

How the legal identity and autonomy of nations can be protected when rising sea levels inevitably force their populations to move is being investigated by Alberto Costi, an associate professor at Victoria’s School of Law.

Alberto Costi from the School of Law.

Alberto says it’s a matter of when, not if, climate change forces the displacement of citizens in low-lying atoll nations in the Pacific.

“I want to look at possible solutions for states that face losing part or all of their territory—can they retain some kind of ‘international legal personality’ in the event of the translocation of their people? The answer to this question potentially has a massive impact on the rights of those citizens—if these states disappear then they don’t have any political voice, and their nationals may only be protected as a ‘minority’ if living elsewhere.”

Alberto says while the idea of a state-within-a-state might be ideal for those displaced people, it’s highly unlikely to find support among host countries.

“For a small nation such as Tokelau, for example, it might seem an obvious solution to bring them all to New Zealand, where a large number of Tokelauan people already live. But this would be short-sighted—we don’t want culture and language, often connected with their ancestral land, to disappear, so assimilation should not be the end result.

“When these people need to move, countries such as New Zealand and Australia have to be politically and legally ready to welcome them. It raises questions about what the obligations are on neighbouring states, which face an influx of migrants from the Pacific. So decisions need to be made now to establish some principles not just to protect the sovereignty of the climate-affected states, but also to prepare those states that may have a duty to assist them.”

Alberto is hopeful his analysis will provide a legal framework that will contribute to political negotiations in international and regional fora around large-scale translocations in the future.