Professor Donald Rothwell FAAL has published a ground-breaking new book that explores one of the more contentious issues in public international law: islands and their status under international law.
Islands and International Law (Bloomsbury, 2022) is the first book-length study on how public international law operates in relation to islands.
The book explores key issues such as artificial islands, sovereignty, archipelagos, maritime entitlements, territorial rights, and governance.
In this Q&A, Professor Rothwell explains his motivations for writing his book and outlines some of the current issues impacting the status of islands under international law.
What were your goals in writing this book?
To seek to provide a comprehensive overview of the distinctive international law issues regarding islands from both an historical and contemporary perspective. It addresses basic issues such as what is an island, islands and territoriality, islands and statehood, all the way through to the distinctive human rights of island peoples.
This is the first book-length study into islands and their status in international law. What were some of the challenges in taking on this project, especially as a solo author?
There is a considerable breadth of issues with respect to islands and international law extending from core issues of international law such as statehood and territoriality, and more specialist areas such as law of the sea and human rights. So writing this book requires expertise both as a generalist in international law and also a specialist in certain topics
This year marks the 40th anniversary of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). What have been some of the significant developments to the status of islands over this time?
The UNCLOS contains a dedicated provision with respect to islands – article 121. But it has only been recently that courts and tribunals have given real attention to the meaning of article 121. As a result there have been some significant developments in the law of the sea and general international law with respect to islands in the last decade, especially artificial islands. A prominent current issue is sea-level rise and how the UNCLOS deals with islands that are specially impacted by that phenomena.
Artificial islands have posed thorny questions in the South China Sea in recent years. What types of challenges have these (and other territorial issues) presented to international law norms?
They are considerable as while the UNCLOS refers to artificial islands, what is being witnessed is a rapid development of state practice with respect to artificial islands. This can be seen not only in the context of the South China Sea but also elsewhere including in the Maldives, the Middle East, and also in the South Pacific. Technological advances are making artificial island construction much more viable and this is a trend that will continue into the future.
Does this book contribute to any debates or academic controversies surrounding islands under international law?
Yes. It asks questions with respect to the distinction between islands and rocks, it addresses issues with respect to islanders and self determination, and considers islands and sea-level rise. It concludes with an analysis as to whether there is a distinctive ‘regime of islands’ in international law.
Does this book relate to any other current research projects or teaching you’re involved in?
My recent course in Advanced International Law drew upon a good deal of research undertaken for this book, as will my Master of Laws course in the Law of the Sea. I am currently working on the 3rd edition of my book, The International Law of the Sea (Bloomsbury, 2016), and again research undertaken for the islands book will find its way into the 3rd edition of that work.
Islands and International Law is available in hardcover, softcover and digital formats. Purchase your copy here.