In November 2019 the 1982 UN Law of the Sea Convention has been in force for 25 years. The Convention has almost universal support, with 168 parties. When it was negotiated 1974-1982 it codified existing international law and a new law was created, resulting in a comprehensive framework for conservation and utilization of the oceans and its natural resources. For coastal states, in particular, the Convention is an important basis for international cooperation and for the governance of the oceans.
200 nautical mile EEZs
The perhaps most important element of UNCLOS is that coastal states gained sovereign rights over the natural resources in Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs). This revolutionized the world map – enormous ocean areas which previously were open to access and where resources were owned by nobody, became the de facto property of the coastal states. When the EEZs of states overlap, the states are obliged to agree on an equitable boundary, based on international law.
Continental shelves and deep seabed
The coastal states also have sovereign rights over the resources on and in the subsoil of the continental shelves below the water column. Where continental shelves extend beyond EEZs, their outer limits are determined in a process involving the coastal state and the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf at the UN in New York.
The Convention furthermore provides that the mineral resources on the seabed beyond the outer limits of the continental shelves are the common heritage of mankind. The management of these resources is vested in an International Seabed Authority. The polymetallic nodules at the deep seabed contain minerals such as cobalt that are important to the greening of our economies.
The Convention also provides rules for the management of living marine resources. The sovereign rights over the resources also bring responsibilities, to conserve and utilize the resources as well as to cooperate on their management when resources are transboundary. Also, where the resources occur also in the high seas beyond national jurisdiction, states are to cooperate on their management in regional fisheries management organizations.
An evolving framework
The global framework for oceans governance constituted by the Convention and its implementing agreements is evolving over time. During the 1990s agreements addressing deep seabed minerals and fisheries, respectively, were concluded. In fisheries, this brought the precautionary approach to management as well as a strengthening of international cooperation. A third implementation agreement is now in the works, on conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity in areas beyond national jurisdiction.
Also, every year the UN General Assembly adopts comprehensive resolutions on oceans and the law of the sea and on fisheries, reviewing and directing the implementation of the Convention and related instruments and processes.
How about the next 25 years?
Climate change and its impacts are by far the largest challenge before us in future ocean governance. Global warming brings a series of problems, including changing biological productivity, changes in the distribution and abundance of fish stocks, sea-level rise, and the decline in sea ice in polar regions. Other major challenges are related to overfishing, loss of biodiversity, pollution, and littering, and ocean acidification. These problems are to some extent related, and the fundamental driving forces behind them are the growing world population and our increasing consumption.
At the same time, important responses to these problems are to be found in the oceans, such as wind and hydrokinetic energy production without CO2 emissions, minerals for the greening of the economy, and more and high-quality nutritious food for a growing population.
The global framework for the governance of the oceans based on UNCLOS is of fundamental importance for addressing these challenges. It gives states responsibilities and guidance on management as well as international cooperation. The main obstacle for effective implementation of the Convention and its related instruments is the lack of or inadequate institutions, education, resources, and political will to fulfill the responsibilities the framework provides. Improvements in this respect will require massive, additional international efforts and investments in capacity building in developing countries in particular.
Furthermore, with an increasing world population and increasing pressures on the oceans, there is a growing need for considering various activities and pressures together, in addition to ensuring that various activities are effectively managed. As stated in the preamble of the Convention already at its signature in 1982, “the problems of ocean space are closely interrelated and need to be considered as a whole”.