Future of island states: Expert emphasises rule of law at sea

10 March 2020

By Christine Rovoi, RNZ Pacific Journalist

This article first appeared on the Radio New Zealand website

Solidarity among Pacific nations is key to protecting their maritime, fisheries, and mineral resources in exclusive economic zones (EEZs), says a researcher.

The small islands and islets of Tuvalu have been categorised as some of the most vulnerable to climate change. Photo: RNZ / Jamie Tahana

Makoto Seta is Associate Professor at Yokohama City University and teaches international law of the sea.

He was in New Zealand recently and shared his research findings - on the rule of law at sea and the future of island states - with students and staff at Auckland University.

Dr Seta said island countries were facing both survival challenges and increased opportunities.

"With the advancement of technology, for example, island states could gain increasing benefits from fisheries and mineral resources in their EEZs," he said.

"At the same time, however, they face serious challenges due to changes in the marine environment, particularly in the form of homeland loss due to the rising sea-level."

Dr Makoto Seta. Photo: RNZ Pacific/Christine Rovoi

Dr Seta said in order to minimise the impact of sea level rise and other challenges facing the Pacific, international co-operation was also essential.

"The EU (European Union) assisted in the new legislation of Pacific island states for the development of marine mineral resources," he said.

"Based on this legal framework, Tonga, Tuvalu, Kiribati and the Federated States of Micronesia are establishing a restoration for deep-sea mining."

Director of the Japan Studies Centre at the University of Auckland, Mark Mullins, said Dr Seta had identified some serious issues.

"It's a topic that's of serious interest to all of us living in New Zealand or in Asia Pacific," he said.

"The possible impact of climate change and conflict over various actors in relation to possible mineral mining around these island states in the region."

Prof Mullins welcomed the establishment of a legal framework to help Pacific states find a way to maintain and protect their interests.

He said Dr Seta identified a lot of similarities between New Zealand and Japan.

"[New Zealand and Japan] share some common issues - having a lot of islands to manage but also potential competition over resources surrounding their areas."

Law of the sea

Grace Learmonth is a Masters student in Politics and International Relations at Auckland University, who is writing a dissertation on sea disputes and whether claims are validated under the International Law of the Sea.

"I attended this lecture to get more knowledge and learning about UNCLOS (United Nations Convention for the Law of the Sea) and how that applies to - besides Japan - also neighbouring countries just like New Zealand.

"New Zealand is surrounded by a lot of islands states and I think New Zealand can follow the Japanese model."

Grace Learmonth. Photo: RNZ Pacific/Christine Rovoi

UNCLOS, also called the Law of the Sea Convention or the Law of the Sea treaty, is the international agreement that resulted from the UN conferences between 1973 and 1982.

The convention defines the rights and responsibilities of nations with respect to their use of the world's oceans, establishing guidelines for the environment protection and the management of marine natural resources.

'Sea-level crisis'

With the advancement of technology, Dr Seta said island states had benefited from fisheries and mineral resources in their EEZs.

But they also faced serious challenges due to changes in the marine environment, particularly in the form of homeland loss due to rising seas, he said.

"Almost all island states are facing the sea-level crisis," he said.

"If the sea levels rise, the island states will be covered by the ocean so they would lose their place to live, to inhabit.

"So, if we strictly apply the current rules of international law of the sea, some states lose their maritime area and even lose their land."