This article has been authored by Nikita Bhardwaj, a final year student at VIPS, Guru Gobind Singh Indraprastha University.


Over the years, rise in the sea levels has intruded upon the safety and security of 70 states globally. Since the advent of the industrial age, unfortunate climatic changes (global warming, rise in sea-level, drop of glaciers, burning of fossil fuels, and shrinking of ice-sheets in Greenland and Antarctica) have impacted the lives of people, especially those residing in coastal regions. The humanitarian concerns attached to sea-level rise are seemingly ignored by the international community despite the growing fear of mass migration and effective legal action being taken against the greenhouse polluters .

Ramifications of Climate Change

Of those impacted, impairment has been severely experienced by residents of coastal regions, low lying states, small islands, especially states like the Maldives, Thailand, Philippines, Indonesia and Vietnam,to name a few. There is a perpetuating fear of depopulation, losing the state boundaries or forceful migration as a consequence of upsurge in sea-level. Repercussions of sea-level rise are evident in the Arctic Ocean, where the melting of the ice caps has left the previously inaccessible coast lines exposed and has also opened a previously shielded region to trade, exploitation and extreme power conflict. Displacement, loss of habitation, unrequited expansion of seas, deviation in maritime borders, and an increase in refugees are some of the ramifications that, unfortunately, are exponentially on the rise. Therefore, the rise in sea-level is a universal phenomenon plaguing the international community.

Establishment of International Agreements

Global warming being a continuous cause for sea-level rise led to a plethora of international agreements being signed and ratified by states, with some of the most popular ones being the Declaration of the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment, 1972, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, 1992 (UNFCCC), the Kyoto Protocol, 1997, and the Paris Agreement under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, 2015. The chief objective of these agreements was to diminish the worst emissions (greenhouse gas emissions, burning of fossils, and so on) and mitigate global temperature rise. The Paris Agreement, 2015 is one such landmark environmental agreement introduced to tackle climatic changes and their impact on the international community. The agreement focuses on issues relating to migration, future goals for global temperature, voluntary co-operation, adaptation towards climatic changes, assisting developing nations, and straight-forward reporting by nations. As a side-note, India, China, and the United States contributed heavily to the sustainable increase in greenhouse emissions caused due to flourishing energy utilization putting the universal climate at risk. The state members of the UN were not efficient in implementing their commitment due to the independent economic interest of the nations which made it arduous to reduce the usage of fossil fuels and chemical emissions.

International Research Committees and Conferences to Combat Sea-Level Rise

Accordingly, numerous scientific studies have been conducted to identify the primary reason for the rise. Despite the widespread contention among scientists, it was discovered that the burning of fossil fuels (coal, crude oil, natural gas, and petroleum) by humans is chiefly responsible for accelerating the amount of greenhouse gases in the environment that led to rise in sea level. Presently, the UN-supported scientific commission, ‘Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’ (IPCC), inspects and evaluates the climatic changes. An observation was drawn by the Commission that by the year 2100, average sea-level could rise by a meter or 39 inches. Approximately, 70% of earth’s coastlines would experience sea-level change within 20% of Global Mean Sea Level (GMSL) as per AR5 Synthesis Report: Climate Change 2014. The next assessment report is in cycle and is expected to be released in 2022. Alternatively, gigantic coastlines are experiencing Relative Sea Level Rise (RSLR) due to post Ice Age land rise. This disparity might create policy gaps at the international level among nations, given that they are likely to face distinct implications arising from the sea-level rise.

Over the years, various international conferences/committees have been formed to work in solidarity to tackle the danger of sea-level rise. The Baseline Committee, set up in 2008, was the first international committee formed by the International Law Association to examine the hypothesis behind sea-level rise. The institutionalization of the committee served to achieve the following:

To identify the current law on the normal baseline and,

To evaluate the need for further clarification, extension or revamping the aforementioned law

Apprehension around the adverse implications (in coastal regions, small islands) resulting from the continuous variation in climatic conditions, provided the impetus for introspection of the existing laws. The Sofia Conference in 2012 identified that “substantial territorial loss resulting from sea-level rise is an issue that extends beyond baselines and the law of the sea and encompasses consideration at a junction of several parts of international law.”

As an aftereffect, in November 2012, the International Law Association (ILA) Executive Council established the ILA Committee on ‘International Law and Sea Level Rise’. The essence of the committee was classified into two segments:

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’

The 78th Conference of the International Law Association (ILA), which took place in Sydney in 2018, recognized the urgency to respond to the danger posed by the rise in sea level. It accepted that rise in sea level would jeopardize the livable region for decades to come. Further, it adopts 12 Principles on the ‘Protection of persons displaced in the context of Sea level rise’ and advises the executive council to enhance the mandate of the committee to continue its work effectively. As a side-note, in 2015 the UN General Assembly accepted the 2030 Agenda for sustainable development and stated “Climate change is one of the greatest challenges of our time and its adverse impacts undermine the ability of all countries to achieve sustainable development. Increases in global temperature, sea-level rise, ocean acidification, and other climate change impacts are seriously affecting coastal areas and low-lying coastal countries, including many least developed countries, and small island developing States. The survival of many societies, and the biological support systems of the planet, is at risk.” The sustainable development goals are a way forward to combat poverty, discrimination, lack of educational facilities, and so on. The United Nations came up with seventeen SDGs to resolve these issues at a global level. The organization has even created a survey to enhance the reach of this initiative on its 75th anniversary this year. Presently, India is extensively working for the UN75 initiative in collaboration with the Confederation of Young Leaders.

International Laws Impacted by Sea-Level Rise

As mentioned, inundation is caused due to an upsurge in sea-level especially in low lying areas, coastal regions, and islands. This has a direct impact on three vital areas:

The legal effect of sea-level rise on ‘Law of the Seas’ applies on the baseline and outer limits of maritime spaces, maritime delimitations, the lawful status of islands, artificial islands, to name a few

The primary legal issues concerning ‘Statehood’ is the international legal personality of states/ islands fully covered by the seawater and their conversion into an uninhabitable region

It is pivotal to understand the responsibility of the state for the protection of human rights of people under their jurisdiction to deal with issues as to ‘Protection of persons affected by sea-level rise’. The legal issues here are regarding evacuation, reallocation of citizens to different nations, to name a few

These three legal issues are the constituent elements of the state/government and are complexly intertwined, thus necessitating an all-encompassing introspection. Management of the aftermaths of sea-level rise and resolution to the above issues require international synergies (trade harmony and cross-border dispute settlement) among nations, as a prerequisite.


The increase in the number of natural disasters and other risks originating as a consequence of the climatic changes have been critically highlighted in some of the UN reports as a ‘strong wakeup call’ to the world. Action taken by the UN has served as a benchmark on the international best practices for containing the deleterious effects of sea-level rise, but legal reforms for the same are exceptionally slow to come about. Lack of commitment, international legal principles, pollution restriction, predictability, and harmonization among states accounts for a large portion of setback.

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