Academic journal article Journal of International Affairs

Mineral Resources of Stateless Space: Lessons from the Deep Seabed

Academic journal article Journal of International Affairs

Mineral Resources of Stateless Space: Lessons from the Deep Seabed

Article excerpt

The International Seabed Authority was established in 1994 by the parties to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and the parties to the associated agreement on the authority's implementation. However, conventions and agreements can only define the structure of a regime--full understanding of a new regime evolves from internal decisions and processes that develop after it is established. It has been 10 years since the authority convened for its first substantive session, thereby providing a body of work by which it can be evaluated.

The work of the authority to date has gained little visibility beyond the delegations and organizations immediately involved in its work. The processes it has developed go far in demonstrating how the organization will carry out its responsibilities in the future. As the first multilateral organization with the responsibility to manage the exploitation of mineral resources in stateless space, the authority's 10 years of experience provide a guide not only to the future of the deep seabed but also to the future of collaborative efforts to manage the development of other resources beyond the limits of national jurisdiction.


Minerals from the deep ocean floor were only a scientific curiosity in 1876 when nodules of iron and manganese oxide were discovered on the deep seabed by a British research expedition on the HMS Challenger. (1) Depth and distance ensured that interest in these minerals would remain scientific rather than economic for many years to come. It was not until the 1960s, when demand rose for the nickel, copper and cobalt contained in some of these deposits, that these minerals gained economic and political attention. More recently, two other forms of seabed mineral deposits, cobalt crusts and polymetallic sulfides, have been studied and considered candidates for economic exploitation.

Even though the economic potential of seabed minerals attracted the interest of mineral and ocean technology firms, the huge investment required for commercial development could not be raised unless investors could secure both exclusive access to a deposit and international recognition of their titles to the minerals they recovered. These issues became a topic of debate at the United Nations in 1970, when the UN General Assembly, with the support of the United States, adopted the Declaration of Principles Governing the seabed and the Ocean Floor, and the Subsoil Thereof, beyond the Limits of National Jurisdiction. Six of the Declaration's 16 paragraphs dealt specifically with the resources of the seabed and the regime that would manage their development. They read as follows:

1. The seabed and ocean floor, and the subsoil thereof, beyond the limits of national jurisdiction (hereinafter referred to as the area), as well as the resources of the area, are the common heritage of mankind.

2. The area shall not be subject to appropriation by any means by States or persons, natural or juridical, and no State shall claim or exercise sovereignty or sovereign rights over any part thereof.

3. No State or person, natural or juridical, shall claim, exercise or acquire rights with respect to the area or its resources incompatible with the international regime to be established and the principles of this Declaration.

4. All activities regarding the exploration and exploitation of the resources of the area and other related activities shall be governed by the international regime to be established ...

7. The exploration of the area and the exploitation of its resources shall be carried out for the benefit of mankind as a whole, irrespective of the geographical location of States, whether land-locked or coastal, and taking into particular consideration the interests and needs of the developing countries...

9. On the basis of the principles of this Declaration, an international regime applying to the area and its resources and including appropriate international machinery to give effect to its provisions shall be established by an international treaty of a universal character, generally agreed upon. …

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