How is statehood defined under international law? Can a state maintain its legal personality despite its lack of physical territory or the uninhabitability of its territory?
How might respective national Constitutional legal interpretations of statehood interact with international law in this regard? How do legal rights to self-determination and territorial integrity play a role in determining statehood? Would a state that no longer has any land still be entitled to a seat in the United Nations, and be able to invoke the legal rights of states, such as instituting proceedings before the International Court of Justice?
Such questions posed by the Center for Climate Change Law (CCCL) at Columbia Law School might sound a bit academic but for the government of the of the Republic of the Marshall Islands they are real enough. The Marshall Islanders saw that in its 2007 Assessment Report, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change noted that sea level is projected to rise at an average rate of about 5 mm/yr over the 21st century, with the maximum rate of rise in the central and eastern Pacific Ocean.
Given that the land masses of many low-lying island states exist at or just a few meters above sea level, rising sea levels raise prospects of land loss, vital infrastructure loss, and population relocation, not to mention the effects on water supply, marine resources, and agriculture that may be wrought by changes in rainfall patterns and extreme weather events.