Political philosophy to the rescue of islanders

Political philosophy to the rescue of islanders

Small island nations have been one of history’s consistent political losers. Precisely because they are so small, they lack the power to resist domination by larger powers.

After seizing the Marshall Islands from Japan during World War II, the United States proceeded to use the the islands as a site for over 100 atmospheric nuclear tests. Decades of litigation resulted in only paltry compensation for the disposessed islanders.

The British expelled thousands of Chagos islanders from their homeland in the 1960s to make way for a military base and recently refused them the right to return to their tiny island in the Indian Ocean. The grounds? It would be too expensive to relocate them.

Nowadays, it is through pollution and global warming that world powers most threaten small island nations. If current trends hold, many inhabited islands will be submerged completely due to rising sea levels. Assuming large states are unwilling to reverse this trend by implementing drastic pollution controls, we have to ask: Will they compensate islanders for eliminating their territories altogether, and how?

Mathias Risse, a political philosopher at Harvard, supports a radical proposition made by Anote Tong, president of the island nation of Kiribati:

[S]catter his people of about 100,000 through the nations of the world as rising sea levels swallow up their native island.

Risse justifies this solution by invoking the 17th-century ideas of Hugo Grotius, who argued that the Earth should be viewed as owned collectively by humanity. If we take this view, states are obligated to accept immigrants whose ownership rights have been infringed upon because their home territories no longer exist. This raises the further question: Are states that contribute more to global warming more obligated to accept the resulting refugees?

This is all abstract, normative philosophy that rests on a contestable assumption; Risse theorizes about about what governments should think and do rather than what they in reality do think and do. But these issues might end up in court. Such philosophical arguments would then play an important role in determining the fate of the many islanders soon-to-be made homeless by global warming.

Photo: TORSTEN BLACKWOOD/AFP/Getty Images, Wikipedia