Climate, State, and Sovereignty: Self-Determination and Sea Level Rise

Christina Hioureas
Alejandra Torres Camprubí
Publication type
Occasional Paper

Climate change and sea-level rise are existential threats to low-lying island States, which face the looming submergence of their territory and the correlative depopulation and severe restrictions on their governmental capacity, at a national and international levels. Four States are particularly endangered because they are exclusively (or almost exclusively) composed of coral islands and atolls below 10 or even five meters of altitude. They are Tuvalu, Kiribati, the Marshall Islands in the Pacific Ocean, and the Maldives in the Indian Ocean. In its Fifth Assessment Report, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change foresaw an average rise of sea level of 98 cm by 2100. This prospect, often regarded as conservative, in fact represents a possible death sentence for these States. As a result, low-lying island States are considering and deploying legal and physical strategies to protect their continuity as States, sparking new debates on the potential evolution of the law on Statehood and the international law of the sea.

About the Authors

Christina Hioureas is a Partner in International Litigation & Arbitration at Foley Hoag LLP and is Chair of the firm’s United Nations Practice Group, a group which she co-founded. Hioureas acts as counsel and arbitrator in international commercial arbitration (ICC, ICDR/AAA, Swiss Rules, LCIA, UNCITRAL), investment arbitration (UNCITRAL, ICSID), and mediated disputes (ICC Dispute Resolution Board). She also represents States in public international law disputes and advises States on matters before the United Nations and its bodies. Hioureas is an elected Term Member to the Council on Foreign Relations and on the Executive Council of the American Society of International Law. She serves as a delegate to the International Law Association Committee on International Law and Sea Level Rise. Hioureas has received recognition in publications including Chambers Global – Public International Law (2020-21), Chambers USA – Arbitrators (2020-21), Chambers USA – Arbitration Counsel (2021), Legal 500 (2014-15; 2021), and Who’s Who International Arbitration (2018-2021).

Alejandra Torres Camprubí, Ph.D., is an international dispute resolution attorney in Foley Hoag’s International Litigation and Arbitration Department. She has particular experience representing sovereign States and State-owned entities in arbitration proceedings administered by the International Center for the Settlement of Investment Disputes and the Permanent Court of Arbitration (in matters relating to the energy and aeronautical industries), as well as in inter-State cases before the International Court of Justice and the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea (in border disputes and cases involving violations of international humanitarian law and human rights law). She acted as legal counsel in the United Nations climate change negotiations and has recently been a postdoctoral research fellow at the Fridtjof Nansen Institute in Oslo, as part of an international and interdisciplinary project on the legal consequences of the Anthropocene for International Law. She has published Statehood under Water: Challenges of Sea-Level Rise to the Continuity of Pacific Island States (Brill/Nijhoff, 2016) and is an active member of the ILA Committee on International Law and Sea-Level Rise.

Climate Change,