International Law Relating to Islands

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Islands are often situated amidst popular lanes for transit for merchant and military vessels, which means that they can be an important focus of national and economic security. Islands can be very close to rich areas for fishing or for extraction of oil and gas resources from the continental shelf, which means that they can be an important focus for economic development. Islands are often surrounded by extraordinary biodiversity, including coral reef ecosystems, which help sustain and nurture marine life. Islands can play a role in the historical narrative of a State, evoking passionate views about the need to maintain or re-claim sovereignty over an island. Given the value of islands, States jealously guard and make claims to sovereignty over them, which sometimes cause inter-State frictions, even leading to injury and death.

International law in many respects applies equally to islands as it does to continental landmasses; indeed, there is some risk when addressing such a topic of portraying it as a unique field of international law, rather than simply one subject matter to which various rules of international law apply. Yet the application of general rules to islands can have unique features, and some special rules of international law addressing islands have been developed as well. Consequently, international scholars at times have devoted themselves to explaining the legal regime of islands, with classic studies completed in the period surrounding the adoption and entry into force of the LOS Convention. Yet in recent years there have been important developments, especially in the context of cases before international courts and tribunals, which have added considerably to our understanding of the international law relating to islands. The International Court of Justice has been very active in addressing issues relating to islands, both in the context of both sovereignty and maritime boundary delimitation, as may be seen in its 2012 judgment in Territorial and Maritime Dispute (Nicaragua v. Colombia). Important arbitral decisions have also been rendered recently, principally under Annex VII of the LOS Convention, such as the 2015 award in Chagos Marine Protected Area Arbitration (Mauritius v. United Kingdom) and the 2015 and 2016 awards in South China Sea Arbitration (Philippines v. China).

Considering these developments, now is a propitious time for revisiting the range of issues that arise in this area. Consequently, the author delivered a series of lectures on “International Law Relating to Islands” in July 2016 at The Hague Academy of International Law, which will be published in Volume 386 of the Recueil des cours de l'Académie de Droit International de la Haye / Collected courses of The Hague Academy of International Law, and as a paperback book with Brill Nijhoff/Hague Academy. This paper sets forth the table of contents and introductory chapter of the lectures.

GW Paper Series

GWU Law School Public Law Research Paper No. 2017-36; GWU Legal Studies Research Paper No. 2017-36

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