Cascading Consequences of Sinking States

56 Pages Posted: 10 Jan 2023 Last revised: 6 Nov 2023

See all articles by Melissa Stewart

Melissa Stewart

University of Hawai'i at Manoa William S. Richardson School of Law

Date Written: August 1, 2023


Sea-level rise due to climate change and the impacts on small island states is one of the most pressing emerging issues in international law. This article examines the phenomenon of sinking states – or low-lying island states that are at risk of the submergence of the entirety of their territory due to sea level rise. The existence of sinking states raises complex and profound questions related to statehood, nationality, and human rights, to which international law currently provides no answer.

This article addresses the cascading consequences of sinking states. It evaluates proposals for addressing the phenomenon and analyzes the future implications of these potential solutions. The cascading consequences of sinking states include undermining of the principles of the sovereign equality of states and the right to self-determination, redefining statehood in a manner that may unjustly exclude other similarly situated nations and peoples, an exacerbation of humanitarian crises related to climate change, and the undermining of the international legal order.

This article is the first to examine what sinking states and the cascading consequences of their existence reveal about cracks in the foundation of international law. They reveal weaknesses in the state-centric model of international law and the peril of the retrenchment from the progressive development of a more just legal framework.

Sinking states serve as a metaphor for international law and the whole of humanity. If we fail to meet the urgency of the moment with a radical new vision for our collective security, we risk our own potential demise.

Keywords: climate change, international law, human rights, sea-level rise, statelessness, statehood

Suggested Citation

Stewart, Melissa, Cascading Consequences of Sinking States (August 1, 2023). 59 Stanford Journal of International Law 131, Available at SSRN: or

Melissa Stewart (Contact Author)

University of Hawai'i at Manoa William S. Richardson School of Law ( email )

Honolulu, HI
United States

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