Publication Details

Kaye, S. (2017). The Law of the Sea Convention and Sea Level Rise in the light of the South China Sea Arbitration. International Law Studies, 93 423-445.


Sea level rise from anthropogenic climate change is an increasing concern for the international community and especially for coastal States. The prospect of whole islands disappearing under rising waters raises serious questions as to the impact upon maritime jurisdiction and the ability of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea to deal with the inundation of large areas of territory. The South China Sea Arbitration Tribunal recently considered these questions. Here, the Tribunal relied on a high standard for what constituted human habitability under Article 121 of the Law of the Sea Convention, which likely will have broad implications for small island States in the future. This paper will consider whether the Law of the Sea Convention can cope with sea level rise, and the likely effects of the restrictive definition adopted by the South China Sea Arbitration Tribunal. It also considers direct and indirect impacts of sea level rise for the application of the Law of the Sea Convention, focusing especially on implications for existing maritime boundaries and potential international litigation arising out of the consequences of anthropogenic climate change and sea level rise.