Law of the Sea: Statement by H.E. Herman Schaper at the commemoration of 30 years UNCLOS
Statement by H.E. Herman Schaper,
Permanent Representative of
the Kingdom of the Netherlands to the United Nations
At the commemeoration of 30 year UNCLOS
New York, 8 June 2012
Excellencies, Distinguished delegates, Ladies and Gentlemen,
It is with pleasure that I take the floor today to address you on the special occasion of the thirtieth anniversary of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. This truly unique document, which has no equal in international law in terms of the complexity and diversity of the issues it governs, provides for a well-balanced legal order for the world’s oceans, and all human uses thereof.
Throughout history, the oceans have served as a place where States meet, and where their interests coincide. They have been the scene of long-standing traditions of fishing and maritime trade, but also of naval warfare and attempts at appropriation by States of parts of maritime space. Aware of the importance of peaceful ocean use for international transport and commerce, in his Mare Liberum Grotius famously defended the notion that the oceans cannot be appropriated by anyone, and that every State has a right of access to the oceans and its natural resources. Since the publication of his work, the freedom of the seas has been the guiding principle of ocean governance.
As population increased, however, the negative effects of excessive human use of the oceans became more apparent. Ever larger fishing fleets put pressure on fish stocks, resulting in the collapse of certain targeted species. Increased industrialization and the growing size and number of merchant vessels led to the marine environment becoming severely polluted.
Seeking to address these issues, the Third Conference on the Law of the Sea produced the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea after lengthy negotiations. The Conference succeeded in harbouring broad support for the wording of the Convention, as was witnessed by the 119 States that signed it on the first day it was open for signature.
Since its entry into force, on 16 November 1994, the Convention has gained almost universal participation. As of today, 162 States have ratified or acceded to it approaching universal adherence and many of its provisions have attained the status of customary international law. The obligations arising from these provisions have thereby become incumbent on parties and non-parties alike.
Subsequently, the Convention’s provisions on deep seabed mining and fishing have been complemented by the 1994 Agreement on the Implementation of Part XI, as well as by the 1995 Fish Stocks Agreement.
The Convention’s binding system for the peaceful settlement of disputes provides for numerous possibilities for States to settle their maritime disputes through litigation or arbitration by the International Court of Justice, numerous arbitral tribunals, or the purpose-built International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea. In the fifteen years since its inception, 19 cases have been submitted for trial to ITLOS, signifying its importance as an international court specialized in adjudicating the often complex questions arising out of varying interpretations of the law of the sea.
Another institution established pursuant to UNCLOS, the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf, has seen a growing number of requests for recommendations. While the Commission’s workload may be of growing concern to States Parties, it also serves to illustrate the interest States have in establishing the limits of their continental shelf in conformity with the rules laid down by UNCLOS. I wish the newly elected Commission success with its important work.
Often dubbed a ‘constitution for the oceans’, for the past 30 years UNCLOS has served as the foundation upon which the elaborate legal regime pertaining to the oceans and all uses thereof has been built. Whereas UNCLOS can remain to function unamended, the legal regime it supports needs to develop constantly in response to emerging ocean uses or new threats to the marine environment.
Particularly with respect to the latter, it is widely recognized that the international law of the sea will have to develop rapidly, preferably through an additional implementing agreement, so as to prevent the degradation of marine ecosystems, especially those situated partly or wholly beyond the limits of national jurisdiction, which may potentially result in irreparable harm and the loss of marine biodiversity.
With this in mind, we can appreciate and celebrate UNCLOS for what it is: a well-balanced, comprehensive framework addressing all areas of the oceans and all human uses thereof, which, due to its structure, allows for the steady development of an international legal regime for the oceans that is suitable for serving the needs of future generations.