Adrift at Sea

By Ravikumar, Shruti | Harvard International Review, Summer 2000 | Go to article overview

Adrift at Sea


Ravikumar, Shruti, Harvard International Review


US Interests and the Law of the Sea

While more than 130 countries have become party to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), the United States, beholden to the short-term interests of its mining lobby, has yet to hold Senate hearings on the document. Prospective parties to UNCLOS first met in 1958 to create a corpus of international law for the 70 percent of the world's surface, the oceans, which the United Nations has termed the "common heritage of mankind."

According to former UN Secretary-General Javier Perez de Cuellar, UNCLOS embodies "the will of an overwhelming majority of nations from all parts of the world, at different levels of development and having diverse geographical characteristics." But the United States, after refusing to sign the document in its initial formulation, has been consistent only in its objections. By failing to ratify UNCLOS because of fear of compromising international power and economic interests, the United States has relegated itself to bystander status in a significant functional body of international jurisprudence.

The convention encompasses a broad range of international issues. It seeks to delineate coastal and ocean jurisdiction, to sanction the protection of marine environments, and to legislate inter-state disputes over maritime issues. National sovereignty, states' rights, mining, environmental interests, military positions, and technological advances are just several of the stakes involved. The convention has at times reconfigured traditional state relationships, and has been both a source of global frustration and hope.

Unintended Consequences

UNCLOS aims to accommodate conflicting interests by legislating on four main issues. It extends and defines coastal jurisdiction in terms of power and responsibility, strives to create laws for oceans beyond the control of individual states, regulates the marine environment on a global scale, and provides a vehicle for sea-dispute settlements in the form of the International Tribunal. The reach of the convention includes both the ocean floor beyond all state boundaries and national Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs), the 200 nautical miles (nmi) beyond the 12 nmi sovereign territorial seas in which coastal nations have the sole right to explore and reap the products of mines, oilfields, and fisheries.

At stake in the convention are issues as broad and complex as they are relevant; treaty negotiators found many of the solutions to maritime problems produced contradictory results. For example, rights of free passage are essential to both commercial and military endeavors, but legislation concerning ocean pollution creates tension between responsibilities of coastal states and rights of undisrupted passage. Defining ownership of coastal waters raises questions of fishing rights, and the proper boundaries of continental shelves, which are rich in oil and natural gas (and which exist within 200 nmi of national coasts). One of the most contentious issues is the debate over deep-sea mining, as a wealth of minerals, such as copper, nickel, cobalt, and manganese, are found at depths of more than 15,000 feet.

Even the EEZs, which were among the earliest successful legislation of UNCLOS, have engendered controversy. The tensions raised from EEZ controversies are indicative of some of the inherent conflicting interests between states that UNCLOS has attempted to resolve. For example, in 1972, Britain attempted to annex Rockall, a tiny uninhabitable island in the North Atlantic, for the oil deposits in its 125,000-square-mile EEZ. Ireland, Iceland, and Denmark have all expressed competing claims to the island or its surrounding ocean zones. The environmental group Greenpeace recently joined the fray, occupying the island in a high-tech solar survival capsule in 1997 to protest British oil exploration in the area.

The seemingly benign concept of leasing EEZs between nations has also generated international controversy, again demonstrating a facet of tightly-knotted issues at stake.

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