The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea

By Borgese, Elisabeth Mann | UNESCO Courier, August-September 1991 | Go to article overview

The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea


Borgese, Elisabeth Mann, UNESCO Courier


The adoption in 1982 of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea was a milestone in the history of international relations. The Convention contains the first comprehensive, binding, enforceable international environmental law. it is the first legal instrument effectively to integrate environment and development within the concept of sustainable development. It is also the first instrument to provide for a system of mandatory, binding settlement of disputes arising not only from environmental issues but from all other issues relating to the uses of seas and oceans.

The Convention is based on two fundamental concepts: the concept of the Common Heritage of Mankind and the idea that the problems of ocean space are closely interelated and need to be considered as a whole.

The concept of the Common Heritage of Mankind, applicable to areas (such as the deep seabed or outer space), to resources (such as minerals and metals), and to abstractions (such as science and technology) subsumes four other fundamental concepts:

Development The Common Heritage of Mankind must be developed for the benefit of mankind as a whole.

Equity: in the distribution of benefits, particular consideration must be given to the poor and disadvantaged.

Environment- The Common Heritage of Mankind must be developed with due consideration for the conservation of the environment and its resources. Mankind includes present and future generations, which have an equal right to share in the common heritage.

Security, The Common Heritage of Mankind is reserved for exclusively peaceful purposes.

The incorporation of the Common Heritage concept in the UN Convention is of such far-reaching cultural importance that we have not even begun to fathom all its implications.

The Common Heritage of Mankind implies a new economic theory, based on a new concept of ownership, or rather non-ownership, which may provide a point of convergence in a common effort to meet the environmental challenge.

The economics and philosophy of the common heritage provide a logical basis for common and comprehensive security. Common, since in the contemporary world the security of one can no longer be founded on the insecurity of the other and the security of each must be the security of all. Comprehensive, since in the contemporary world, security comprises economic and environmental security as well as military security.

The idea that the problems of ocean space are closely interrelated and should be considered as a whole has important consequences. For while the problems arising from the different uses of the oceans interact, the uses of the sea in turn interact with terrestrial activities. Much of the world's food comes from the sea; seabed metals and minerals are bought and sold on the world commodity market; offshore oil is used for the same purposes as onshore oil; the marine environment is part of the biosphere; the naval arms race cannot be dissociated from the general question of the arms race and disarmament.

An integrated approach to other world problems is just as necessary as it is for the management of ocean affairs. Land boundaries are becoming porous, as production systems, financial systems, communication and information systems move unhindered across them.

In the case of the oceans this interrelationship was more obvious. This is why the Law of the Sea is the most advanced legal instrument and institutional framework for the integration of Environment and Development. Let us try to learn the lessons the ocean has taught us and apply them to wider global concerns. E.M.B. over the world numerous beliefs have been attached to this. Generally, the caul is thought to possess extraordinary qualities and it is not by chance that, in northern Europe and Sicily alike, it is reputed to be a preservative against drowning. Being born with a caul on one's head is a sign of good luck.

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