Climate Change as a Threat to Human Rights in the Maldives

By Courtney McCausland

Climate change presents many novel challenges to humanity, giving rise to conflicts that have, as yet, never been addressed under the law. One such area of concern is the loss of coastal land due to rising sea levels.[1] Unlike historical examples of territory loss through annexation into another country (such as the annexation of Hawaii into the United States in 1898) or through secession under a treaty agreement (such as the secession of South Sudan from Sudan in 2011), a number of island countries today face the effective loss of their entire nation’s territory.[2]

[A]toll nations are among the lowest-lying in the world, and should their archipelagos not completely submerge, it's likely that rising sea levels and extreme saltwater flooding will permanently damage freshwater supplies and destroy agriculture, making them uninhabitable.[3]

One country where these changes are playing out with very tangible consequences is the Maldives.

The Maldives is a small nation, comprised of a network of islands to the south of the Indian subcontinent.[4] As a tropical island nation, whose main source of revenue is its tourism industry,[5] the economy and the people of the Maldives are intimately connected to the environment.[6] Indeed, the United States has acknowledged that in the international sphere, “Maldivian officials have played a prominent role in international climate change discussions (due to the islands’ vulnerability to rising sea-level) on the UN Human Rights Council and in other international forums.”[7]

The complete loss of inhabitable territory could lead to a situation of de facto statelessness for Maldivian citizens.[8] In anticipation of such an outcome, the government of the Maldives has even begun to purchase territory from other nations as a possible migration destination.[9] A lack of status by means of statelessness has profound human rights implications. According to the Institute on Statelessness and Inclusion:

Human rights relate to statelessness in two fundamental ways. Firstly, all people have the right to a nationality. Statelessness is the worst possible result of the denial of this right. Secondly, having been denied the right to a nationality, stateless persons find themselves more vulnerable to other human rights abuses. Statelessness should not be a disadvantage in accessing other rights.[10]

The right to a nationality is articulated in a number of international instruments, but “the lack of legal status of stateless persons is [sometimes] seen as a legitimate basis on which to deny them a variety of human rights.”[11]

Bearing these high-stake human consequences in mind, it is fair that we may ask what obligations nations, such as the United States and China (the two largest contributors to Greenhouse Gas emissions[12]), have with regard to nations suffering the immediate brunt of climate change? What, if any, remedies are available given the scale of potential human rights violations? Perhaps the Maldives could seek an injunction on environmentally damaging acts from the International Court of Justice against the major national contributors to climate change.[13] Perhaps the violating nations could invest in oceanic infrastructure that would help protect the islands.[14]  Perhaps the Maldives could negotiate a special migration status for its citizens with other countries.

Whatever the solution, it seems clear that climate change is likely to create a new body of threats to human rights. The remedies pursued by the nations feeling its first impact, such as rising sea levels, will set the precedent for remedies sought in the future.


[1] Jane McAdam, ‘Disappearing States,’ Statelessness and the Boundaries of International Law, UNSW Law Research Paper No. 2010-2 (Jan. 21, 2010),

[2] See id.; Nathanial Gronewold, Island Nations May Keep Some Sovereignty if Rising Seas Make them Uninhabitable, N.Y. Times (May 25, 2011),

[3] Gronewold, supra note 2.

[4] Central Intelligence Agency, Maldives, The World Factbook, (last accessed April 6, 2017).

[5] Id.

[6] Lillian Yamamoto & Miguel Esteban, Atoll Islands and Climate Change: Disappearing States?, United Nations University (March 1, 2012),

[7] Central Intelligence Agency, supra note 4.

[8] See Abhimanyu G. Jain, The 21st Century Atlantis: The International Law of Statehood and Climate Change-Induced Loss of Territory, 50 Stan. J. Int’l L. 1 (2014).

[9] Abhishek Dwivedi, Maldives: Forget Politics, Think of Survival, Swarajya (April 18, 2015 10:58PM),; James Burgess, Maldives Buying Land in Australia as Preparation for Mass Migration, (Jan. 10, 2012 4:43PM),; Randeep Ramesh, Paradise Almost Lost: Maldives Seek to Buy a New Homeland, The Guardian (Nov. 9, 2008 7:01PM),

[10] Human Rights and Statelessness, Institute on Statelessness and Inclusion, (last accessed April 6, 2017).

[11] Id.

[12] Greenhouse Gas Emissions, United States Environmental Protection Agency, (last accessed April 6, 2017).

[13] See Trail Smelter Case (U.S., Can.), Award, 3 U.N. Rep. Int’l Arb. Awards 1905 (1941).

[14] Such as sea dykes. Yamamoto & Esteban, supra note 6.