Tuvalu, an archipelago threatened by rising waters, creates its digital double

On the occasion of COP27, Simon Kofe, Tuvalu’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, announced the creation of a digital copy of his country, thus giving him the prospect of virtual continuity in the event of submergence. Uploading this Polynesian archipelago to the metaverse will be done in stages. First, a 3D rendering of the country. Then water around them. And finally elements of cultural life in Tuvalu. For now, the website hosting the project offers a representation of Teafualiku, its smallest island.

The Pacific countries are on the front lines of the effects of climate change. And this, while they contribute insignificantly (less than 0.03% of greenhouse gas emissions) and their financial resources to deal with it are limited. They have been warning for years about the threat that the phenomenon poses to their survival.

The creation of a virtual duplicate of the monarchy in the Pacific pursues two goals. The first is to make the world aware of the vital danger Tuvalu is incurring due to climate change; the other is to provide support for cultural affiliation and legal survival should the worst happen. This last dimension raises many questions.

Alarm about the effects of climate change

In Oceania, the many consequences of climate change are already very real and documented. They illustrate how the climate crisis is first and foremost a human rights crisis. A crisis that hinders the enjoyment of cultural rights and also threatens the right to food, education, health, protection of the family and even to life.

These upheavals have already led to several internal displacements. This is the case in Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, Fiji and Vanuatu.

They also make it necessary to anticipate international population movements, especially for the atoll states, such as Tuvalu, but also Kiribati, the Marshall Islands or Tokelau (New Zealand’s special territory. These territories, consisting entirely of low-lying coral formations, are likely to disappear under water within few decades.

An unprecedented legal scenario

But if states have already ceased to exist because of military and political circumstances, they have never ceased to exist because their territory had disappeared. This scenario raises unprecedented legal questions. In reality, since the rise of water is a progressive phenomenon, a territory becomes uninhabitable before it is engulfed by the sea. In the case of the atoll states, all the inhabitants could be required to move. A perspective all the less imaginative as these population groups are reduced in number (Tuvalu has around 12,000 inhabitants).

Various uncertainties arise from this projection. First, there is the question of the survival of the state itself. According to international law, a state unit is composed of three elements: a territory, a population and a government. The displacement of the entire population of a state therefore causes the first deficiency of this triptych, the disappearance of the territory another. In such a case, the government would be at least forced into exile. So what would happen to these government entities? Could they continue to exist legally and still be represented on the international stage? For example, could they retain their status as a member of the UN?

And for humans? An equally complex situation

People’s situation is no clearer. Would the nationals of the state whose territory had become uninhabitable or disappeared continue to have the same nationality? How could they assert their rights?

Finally, it would also be necessary to answer the important question of whether the recognition of sovereign powers over maritime areas could remain. Indeed, the law of the sea as codified and developed in the Montego Bay Convention allows for the exercise of powers in connection with the exploration and exploitation of resources in the exclusive economic zone, up to 200 nautical miles from the baselines as well as on the continental shelf.

At COP 26, Tuvalu’s foreign minister spoke to world leaders in knee-deep water. World Meteorological Organization/Flickr

And why not move a country?

In Oceania, the geographical configuration makes the land/sea ratio of island states unique in the world. And that these land confetti are actually huge maritime nations. Tuvalu’s EEZ is a textbook case of more than 756,000 km2 for 30 km2 land. That’s 27,000 times the state’s land area! To what extent could one reverse the legal postulate, according to which the country dominates the sea, and consider that profit could still be derived from the maritime spaces surrounding the former terrestrial territory?

Numerous hypotheses about “territorialized” or “ex-situ” states have already fueled the research of internationalists. Kiribati’s purchase of land in Fiji, for example, illustrated the possibility of external population displacement (this land would have finally been converted to agricultural exploitation with the support of China).

These projections, whose concrete obstacles are still hard to ignore, mobilize the imagination of lawyers. The creation of a digital double of the states constitutes another new clue.

Virtual support for state continuity

Should we then consider the dual role of the state in the metaverse as a new support for its existence? Could territoriality and sovereignty also be virtual?

The metaverse, a somewhat vague concept promoted by Internet giants, has the distinction of offering a virtual world. Within it, three-dimensional avatars have their own existence. Some institutions have already given in to it, like the city of Seoul or Barbados. They have announced that they will recreate part of their administrative services there for the first and diplomatic services for the second. The Tuvalu project is innovative in that it proposes to download the entire state, both in its spatial and cultural dimensions.

This digital projection would not create rights – except possibly in the metaverse itself. Nevertheless, in the real world it could support the survival of a deterritorialized state, giving it a certain materiality. However, the conditions for this legal continuity remain to be specified. They are the subject of numerous considerations, especially in the UN’s International Law Commission.

For Tuvalu, survival requires a virtual state

The virtual state was also presented by Minister Kofe as a way for Tuvaluans and their descendants to one day immerse themselves in the aesthetic, biological and cultural richness of their country by wearing 3D glasses. Building a virtual world can seem scary in itself, it becomes tragic when it comes to uploading a world on the verge of disappearing forever from physical reality. Recent developments, such as support for Vanuatu’s campaign to obtain an opinion from the International Court of Justice on climate change and human rights, are signs of growing recognition of the plight of small islanders in the face of climate change.

The creation at COP 27 of a fund for loss and damage – certainly existing but not yet allocated and for which the list of recipient countries has not been determined – can also be underlined. Nevertheless, the fate of nations like Tuvalu’s depends on much more concrete and immediate action, so urgent is the need to save them.

About the author: Géraldine Giraudeau. Professor of Public Law, Paris-Saclay (UVSQ), University of Versailles Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines (UVSQ) – Paris-Saclay University.
This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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