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Climate Change and Sea-Level Rise

Is the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea up to the Task?

In: International Community Law Review
Authors:
Vladyslav Lanovoy Associate Legal Officer, International Court of Justice

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Sally O’Donnell Associate Protection Officer, Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees

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Abstract

This article examines the challenges that climate change and sea-level rise pose to certain key aspects of the law of the sea. Sea-level rise is likely to impact maritime baselines, the qualification of maritime features and the entitlements they generate, and ultimately the stability of maritime boundaries, which are critical for the peaceful co-existence of sovereign States. This article examines whether some of the relevant provisions of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea can accommodate a liberal interpretation so as to provide some, even if incomplete, answers to the challenges posed by sea-level rise to the law of the sea regime. It is argued that the legal fiction of permanency that underpins key elements of this legal regime, and thus ignores future physical changes to coastlines, is the most appropriate temporary solution, unless and until new rules are agreed by States to deal comprehensively with sea-level rise.

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