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Becoming the World’s First Digital Nation – Reflections on the Security Implications for Tuvalu

In a world facing the extreme consequences of climate change, the Pacific Island nation of Tuvalu is taking a radical step to secure its future. Situated just over 1000km north of Fiji and Samoa, the country of just 12,000 residents is home to a unique culture and history. Yet, with the threat of being completely underwater by the end of this century due to rising sea levels, Tuvalu is looking to the digital world for a solution.[1] The country aims to become the world's first "digital nation," an unprecedented move with the goal of preserving its heritage and identity in the face of this existential threat. The move raises important questions about the country and its people’s sovereignty and self-determination in a digital world: What does it mean to be a "digital nation"? and how will it protect its citizens and its data?


 

Tuvalu’s Approach - what is a digital nation?


At the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP27) in November 2022, Tuvalu's Minister for Justice, Communication, & Foreign Affairs, Simon Kofe, brought the country's digital vision to the world stage. In a speech delivered from the metaverse’s virtual twin, islet Te Afualiku, Kofe told the summit:

As our land disappears, we have no choice but to become the world’s first digital nation. Islands like this one won’t survive rapid temperature increases, rising sea levels, and droughts so we will recreate them virtually”.[1]



Becoming a digital nation implies building a version of itself in the digital world. With the most important characteristics of the country being its lands, ocean and culture, Tuvalu will preserve its physical landscapes through the use of virtual twins, which has already started with the digital recreation of Te Afualiku. This preservation effort also includes the digitization of cultural heritage, including traditional songs, historical documents, recorded cultural practices, and stories, helping to preserve them enduringly. On top of recreating its landscapes and cultural heritage in the metaverse, Tuvalu intends to maintain its status as a functioning state by transferring its governance and administrative systems digitally. This would allow Tuvalu to continue to operate as a sovereign nation regardless of the physical location of its government or citizens.


“Our hope is that we have a digital nation that exists alongside our physical territory, but in the event that we lose our physical territory, we will have a digital nation that is functioning well, and is recognized by the world as the representative of Tuvalu”, said Kofe.[2]


This transition is part of Tuvalu’s broader efforts to secure permanent statehood and establish maritime boundaries, which are at risk due to the effects of climate change and existing international laws. In the upcoming parliamentary session, the statehood and territorial integrity bill will be presented along with other constitutional amendment bills.


Digital Statehood – So What?


One of the most obvious challenges facing Tuvalu’s proposition is that no one international agreement would be currently able to recognise this proposed new status, which overlaps across a number of international conventions such as the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, the International Migration Convention, and UNESCO Cultural and National Heritage. As the Rising Nation Initiative posits, Tuvalu must press forward a political declaration that will reaffirm the commitment of the international community to preserve its sovereignty and rights, as well as raise awareness and advocacy.[3]


As a digital nation, Tuvalu’s concept of citizenship and identity will be redefined, as citizens will be identified and tracked through digital means. The creation of a national digital identity system will provide its citizens with a secure and reliable online identity that they can use to access services, interact with others, and participate in the digital economy. This would impact the way citizens interact with their government, with each other, and also the physical state in which they reside. All raising significant questions over risks of digital hack leaving someone stateless or their identity entirely compromised.


And of course, the essential question that must be raised is, “Whose laws apply?” A proposition for Tuvalu’s physical diaspora was a government-backed plan to acquire 2000 acres of land in Fiji, and moving the population of Tuvalu there. While this alone presents complicated discussions of jurisdiction, the jurisdiction of digital citizens becomes yet more complicated.


 

We would love to hear suggestions from Tuvaluans, digital experts, specialists in international law, and resilience planners on what measures need to be taken to secure the digital statehood concept. Please email to info@commonwealthsecurity.org to continue this discussion.

 



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