Today, July 12, is Kiribati Independence Day. This Pacific Island nation is made up of 32 atolls in three island groups, plus one raised coral island, in the central Pacific. The country is spread over 1,351,000 square miles of ocean – an area equivalent in size to the continental United States, according to the State Department. Kiribati has a permanent population of about 100,000 people who live on 21 of the atolls and islands. I’ve previously mentioned Kiribati (pronounced “kirr-i-bhass”) in this blog when I wrote about changes to the International Date Line. When you look at a modern map you’ll see that the line goes around the groups of islands so that they are all on the west side of it (which of course means it was actually Independence Day there yesterday).
The Republic of Kiribati’s main island chain was formerly called the Gilbert Islands. In 1892 these islands, along with other groups of islands in the area, became a British protectorate and in 1915 were made a colony. The Gilbert Islands gained independence in 1979 and took the name “Kiribati” – the transliteration of “Gilbert’s” in the native language. The other two island groups, the Phoenix Islands and Line Islands, were formally included in the republic in 1983 after the United States relinquished all claims to them in a treaty of friendship known as the Treaty of Tarawa, which was signed in 1979 following Kiribati’s independence. The Kiribati Constitution of July 12, 1979, contains provisions relating to the three branches of government, free elections, and fundamental rights and freedoms. The country has a common law system and court structure that resulted from it being a British colony, but customary laws also form part of the legal system.
The islands of what is now Kiribati were the scene of some of the bloodiest battles of World War II, including the Battle of Tarawa. More recently, the country has been in the news due to the challenges it faces as a result of rising sea levels. Various entities have stated that Kiribati is one of the most vulnerable nations in the world to the effects of climate change and could become uninhabitable within a few decades if sea levels continue to rise.
The Kiribati government, and particularly its President, has been very vocal about climate change and other environmental issues at the international level. The government has set up a web portal relating to climate change and its impact on the country, and a unit within the Environment and Conservation Division also provides information. An Adaptation Program is being implemented with support from various organizations. In addition, a relocation strategy has been developed by the government, which states that
The science is clear – climate change threatens the long-term survival of Kiribati. As such, the Kiribati Government acknowledges that relocation of our people may be inevitable. It would be irresponsible to acknowledge this reality and not do anything to prepare our community for eventual migration in circumstances that permit them to migrate with dignity. That said, relocation will always be viewed as an option of last resort. We will do all that we can to preserve Kiribati as a sovereign and habitable entity. At the same time, if relocation becomes necessary and nothing has been done to ready people for the move, it will not be possible to rapidly relocate over 100,000 people in a way that preserves the dignity of those being relocated and minimises the burden on the receiving countries.
News articles and academic papers in publications around the world have highlighted the questions relating to the situation if mass relocation of Kiribati’s population becomes necessary, including the legal implications. For example, some legal experts have discussed whether such migrants would be considered refugees and concluded that under the existing international conventions they would likely not be recognized as such. Conferences have been held to discuss these and other issues, and there have been reports by the UN and other agencies, as well as comments from the UN Secretary General, regarding Kiribati and climate change.
You might also see increasing references to Kiribati in the news in a completely different context: the search for evidence relating to the disappearance of Amelia Earhart. Last week it was reported that a team from the International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery was traveling to Nikumaroro Island in Kiribati’s Phoenix Islands group to “try to establish whether Earhart survived the apparent crash of her aircraft.” I started to see articles appearing on this topic earlier this year, although the theories and research have been around for much longer.
The Library of Congress, including the Law Library, has many interesting research tools and resources relating to the topics referenced above, including:
- The Veterans History Project website (try searching for Tarawa)
- Photographs relating to the Battle of Tarawa (search for Tarawa in the Prints and Photographs Online Catalog)
- Books on climate change and climate change law (try searching the Library’s Online Catalog for these terms)
- Books on Kiribati, including its history, people, culture, environment, laws, and politics (try searching for Kiribati together with other terms of interest in the Online Catalog)
- Or just try searching the whole www.loc.gov website using the terms Tarawa, Gilbert Islands, or Kiribati, as well as for items on Amelia Earhart.