Sydney Opera House

The Sydney ILA Conference, which gathered some 650 participants from many countries world-round, was a key milestone for the Committee on International Law and Sea Level Rise. Established in November 2012, the Committee was tasked with a two-part mandate: to ‘study the possible impacts of sea-level rise and the implications under international law of the partial and complete inundation of state territory, or depopulation thereof, in particular of small island and low-lying states’; and ‘to develop proposals for the progressive development of international law in relation to the possible loss of all or of parts of state territory and maritime zones due to sea level rise, including the impacts on statehood, nationality, and human rights’. Upon meeting for the first time in 2014 at the 76th ILA Conference in Washington DC, the Committee presented its Interim Report at the 77th ILA Conference in Johannesburg, South Africa, in August 2016. The final report which the Committee presented at the recent ILA Conference in Sydney was accompanied by proposals for two ILA resolutions on international law and sea-level rise, including also a Sydney Declaration of Principles, adopted at the conference by acclamation as resolutions no 5/2018 and 6/2018

FNI Research Professor Davor Vidas, who has chaired the Committee since it was established in 2012, says that:

Three main issue-areas to be dealt with by the Committee were defined at our first meeting in Washington DC in 2014: the law of the sea; forced migration and human rights; and issues of statehood and international security. The Committee agreed to divide its work thematically into two main stages and to first focus on priority areas in a relatively shorter-term perspective, which involved two streams of study: one on the law of the sea issues, and the other on the migration and human rights issues – and the results of these are contained in the Sydney report and the two resolutions, one of which relates to maritime limits and boundaries while the other is on displacement of persons in the context of sea-level rise and includes the Sydney Declaration of Principles relating to this issue area.’

Moreover, as Vidas explains:

‘regarding the third study area comprised by the mandate of the Committee, concerning the questions of statehood and other issues of international law and international security prompted by the predictions of partial and complete inundation of State territory, or depopulation, the Committee was aware of the mid- and longer-term perspective involved and considered that it would be useful to continue its work beyond the present term in 2018, by extending its mandate to enable a closer focus on these fundamental issues, including especially transitional aspects and how to deal with diminishing statehood as a process’.

Davor Vidas‘These and related issues still largely remain terra incognita of international law and might require us to think of various new forms of international legal personality, which in turn may deserve a very careful study to be undertaken by the Committee’, says Vidas.

International law issues related to predictions of sea-level rise have in recent years attracted an increasing interest by many States, prompting the UN International Law Commission at its 70th session, which was also concluded in August, to recommend the inclusion of the topic of ‘Sea-level rise in relation to international law’ in the long-term programme of work of the Commission, with supporting reference to the findings and reports of the ILA Committee on International Law and Sea Level Rise.


About ILA: The International Law Association, today with headquarters in London, was founded in Brussels in 1873. ILA is a major scholarly association of international lawyers: its membership, at present about 4500, is spread among over 60 national ILA branches throughout the world. ILA’s objectives are ‘the study, clarification and development of international law’. There are currently 23 ILA international committees and 10 study groups, focusing on various aspects of private and public international law. ILA has consultative status with a number of UN specialised agencies.

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