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November 10, 2016

Responding To: The Global Challenge of Climate-Induced Migration

Sovereignty, Migration, and the Environment

Rene Micallef

Earlier this year, many Norwegians supported a proposal to give a centenary birthday present to mountain-less Finland. The idea was to transfer a stretch of land (tiny, by Norwegian standards) on which stands the peak of Mount Halti. In October, however, the Norwegian prime minister Erna Solberg quickly dismissed the idea citing Article 1 of the Norwegian constitution, which stipulates that the kingdom of Norway is “indivisible and inalienable.”

Solberg could have dared to question the sense of the absolute Westphalian concept of sovereignty enshrined in the constitution. The basic law of the land denies—in the name of sovereignty—the right of a sovereign people to alienate a tiny piece of the nation’s territory. To be sure, there is probably a way of amending the first article of a democratic country’s constitution, but it may seem capricious to go to such lengths to make a “birthday present.”

Anote Tong’s speech raises the question of whether there are any countries today willing to grant land to the Pacific nations whose land is rapidly sinking and disappearing due to climate change, so that they might continue to exist as sovereign nations according to the Montevideo Convention (i.e. having a permanent population, a defined territory, etc.). Such a reason may be less capricious than that of a “birthday present,” but probably more contentious. The alternatives that the Westphalian system offers to these nation-states are not very attractive: (1) emigration and incorporation of their people into other nation-states; (2) reducing Kiribati, Tuvalu, etc. to the status of a “sovereign subject of international law,” such as the Sovereign Military Order of Malta, (3) the creation of new “floating” national territory (imagine what would happen in the South China Sea if that were allowed!), (4) adoption of environmentally- and financially-costly technical solutions, such as those employed in Holland and New Orleans.

In his 1983 book Spheres of Justice, Michael Walzer suggested that nation-states with underutilized territory not willing to admit migrants may have the moral duty to give up land to other polities. He uses Australia and its historical “White Australia Policy” as an example. Today, Australia is a diverse nation that is very welcoming towards skilled immigrants and less so towards unskilled migrants, and maintains a cruel attitude towards asylum seekers who are desperate to avoid “waiting in line” for a generation or two and squalid refugee camps. In his 1952 apostolic exhortation Exsul Familia, Pius XII goes further, insisting that people who cannot provide for their family in their home country have a moral right to immigrate into another country.

Certainly, the conflicts at the end of the Cold War, religiously-branded terrorism, global recessions, xenophobic political movements, and the apocalyptic images of hundreds of millions of environmentally-displaced persons conjured in past years have not helped us to reflect calmly on the issue of mass human mobility in a globalizing world. Environmentalists and forced migration experts have avoided the issue as much as they could after COP15. Yet, much as I appreciate the “act local” approach highlighted by Tong in his speech, I believe that we cannot effectively deal with the global problems highlighted by climate-change and environmental problems unless we are ready to start questioning the rigid, absolutist notions of Westphalian sovereignty that dominate our laws and political imagination, especially during electoral campaigns.

Fr. Rene Micallef, S.J., is an associate professor at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome. He is a citizen of the Republic of Malta and has been a member of the Society of Jesus since October 1997.

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