Excerpts from the Report of the United Nations Secretary General
United Nations Document A/64/350
Threat of loss of territory and statelessness
71. In the case of some small island developing States, sea-level rise presents perhaps the ultimate security threat, jeopardizing the very existence of small low-lying countries such as the Maldives, where 80 per cent of land is less than one metre above sea level and could therefore disappear over the next 30 years. In 2005, Papua New Guinea’s Carteret Islands reportedly became the first low-lying islands to evacuate their population because of climate change, resettling 2,600 islanders to the larger Bougainville Island. The Carterets are among the hardest hit islands in the Pacific and may be completely submerged by as early as 2015.
Given the particular vulnerability of Pacific small island developing States, a single extreme weather event can suddenly exceed a nation’s capacity to respond, rendering whole islands, particularly low-lying atolls, uninhabitable. Many island States face the prospect of loss of significant amounts of territory to sea-level rise and inundation, and some face the prospect of complete submersion, with the resultant threat of statelessness of their populations.
72. In view of the fact that statelessness has not yet arisen, however, the international law principle of prevention of statelessness would be applicable and the threats implied by mass statelessness for the concerned populations could be minimized. Multilateral comprehensive agreements would be the ideal preventive mechanism, providing where, and on what legal basis, affected populations would be permitted to move elsewhere, as well as their status.
73. Climate change poses a fundamental threat to cultural survival for those societies whose territories and ways of life are threatened by sea-level rise and inundation, as noted by small island developing States. Some Member States have noted that other cultures, for example, those of indigenous peoples, may be at risk from destruction or radical alteration of ecosystems and habitat by climate change. Such peoples may also face challenges in using migration as a coping strategy as a result of discrimination in receiving locations. Thus the impacts of climate change on vulnerable societies will need to be addressed not only as an issue of sovereignty and statelessness but also as a threat to cultural identity.
Small island developing States and international legal issues regarding statelessness
Islands becoming uninhabitable or disappearing as a result of sea level rise raise the issue of the legal status of the citizens and legal rights of these States, including over fisheries.
With the disappearance of territory, one of the key constituting elements of statehood, it is not clear that these States would continue to exist as such. The same would apply if the territory would be uninhabitable to such an extent that the entire population and the Government would be forced to relocate to other States. In the event that statehood is deemed to have ceased in such a scenario, the populations concerned would be left stateless unless they acquired other nationalities. Even where the States continued to exist in legal terms and their Governments attempted to function from the territory of other States, it is unclear that they would be able to ensure the rights which flow from citizenship.
Legal and political arrangements may be necessary for the protection of affected populations. One option is the acquisition of land within another State, by purchase or a treaty of cession.
There is precedence for such an option: in the late nineteenth century, many Icelanders left Iceland for environmental and social reasons. They entered into an agreement with the Canadian Government and were given land in which they could form a provisional Government, and were given both Canadian and Icelandic citizenship. Eventually, the settlement was fully integrated into Canada. This example shows that there are international mechanisms by which stateless migrants can be protected and accommodated.
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