Did you know that the oceans have their own constitution? Since 1994, the UN Convention of the Law of the Sea has formed the sole legal framework for all maritime activities. During a visit to Brussels for a workshop on the small-island developing states Alice Hicuburundi from UN-Oceans provided an explanation on this complex subject.
'The drafters of the convention understood that all the problems in the oceans were closely related to each other', explains Alice Hicuburundi. 'They therefore needed to be tackled in a coherent and holistic manner.' The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (or UNCLOS) groups all of these aspects together. It defines (1) the various marine areas, (2) the rights and obligations of maritime navigation, (3) peace and security, (4) conservation and management of living marine organisms, (5) protection of the marine environment, (6) marine research, (7) activities on the sea bed and (8) the peaceful resolution of conflicts. 'The obligation to cooperate is at the core!' UNCLOS also deals with migration and the obligation to rescue people at sea. It provides land-locked countries with the right of access to seas. Three bodies, including the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea, ensures compliance with the convention.
The obligation to cooperate is at the core!
Of course, UNCLOS cannot encompass all eventualities. 'From the start, it was clear that the Convention needed to be supplemented with more detailed regulation.’ As such, the UN adopted the Fish Stocks Agreement in 1995, which sets out principles for the management of straddling fish stocks. Each year, the UN General Assembly reviews developments in the area of maritime law. The fact that UNCLOS remains the sole legal framework is confirmed each time. Every year, a meeting is held to prepare for the General Assembly: the Consultative Process. It reviews developments in ocean affairs. For example, maritime waste and micro-plastics were scrutinised in 2016.
168 of the 195 UN Member States have ratified the convention. Countries including Turkey, the US, Israel and Venezuela have not yet taken this step. 'Even so, even countries which have not ratified UNCLOS recognise a significant portion of the regulation.' Some countries - especially land-locked countries - are not yet aware of the advantages of the convention. All the small-island developing states are party to UNCLOS.