Magazine article UN Chronicle

The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea Multilateral Diplomacy at Work

Magazine article UN Chronicle

The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea Multilateral Diplomacy at Work

Article excerpt

The year 2014 marks the twentieth anniversary of the entry into force of the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (the "Convention"). (1) The Convention has been widely accepted. As of 16 November 2014, the number of States Parties to the Convention stood at 166, including the European Union.

During the commemoration of this anniversary at the twenty-fourth Meeting of States Parties on 9 June 2014, the Convention was described by the Secretary-General of the United Nations as one of the most significant and visionary multilateral instruments of the twentieth century. He noted that as a "Constitution for the oceans" most of its provisions were now widely recognized as reflecting customary international law and the Convention had shown its dynamic character through its ability to address new challenges. Delegations at the meeting underscored that the Convention sets out the legal framework within which all activities in the oceans and seas must be carried out as well as its universal and unified character. They also highlighted that the Convention represented one of the most successful international treaties ever negotiated and paid tribute to the drafters, in particular Ambassador Arvid Pardo of Malta. (2)

The negotiations that led to the adoption of the Convention in 1982 were complex and lengthy, but they were also exemplary from the point of view of multilateral diplomacy. They began after 1967 when Ambassador Pardo's proposal to the General Assembly to examine "the question of the reservation exclusively for peaceful purposes of the seabed and ocean floor, and the subsoil thereof, underlying the high seas, beyond the limits of present national jurisdiction and the use of their resources in the interests of mankind" led to the establishment of an ad hoc committee by the Assembly that same year. That committee was transformed one year later into the Committee on the Peaceful Uses of the Seabed and the Ocean Floor beyond the Limits of National Jurisdiction (the "Seabed Committee").

In 1970, the General Assembly declared that the seabed and ocean floor, and the subsoil thereof, beyond the limits of national jurisdiction, as well as the resources of the area, are the common heritage of mankind. (3) It then transformed the Seabed Committee into a Preparatory Committee for the Third United Nations Conference on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS III).

In convening UNCLOS III, the General Assembly recognized that the problems of ocean space are closely interrelated and need to be considered as a whole. Therefore, when UNCLOS III began its work in 1973, it had before it an extensive list of issues and a great number of proposals and variants (4) prepared by the Seabed Committee. There were also additional proposals submitted to the Conference itself.

UNCLOS III was therefore challenged to devise a negotiation process (5) that would enable it to deal with the breadth and interrelationships among the issues, the complexity and novelty of some of those issues, the objective of a convention and the need to reach consensus among a large number of States with competing interests, as well as the absence of a preparatory text. The negotiators were also mindful of the inability of UNCLOS I and II in 1958 and 1960, respectively, to agree on the maximum breadth of the territorial sea and fishery limits.

The realization that the problems of ocean space are interrelated and need to be considered as a whole also led to the concept of package deal (6) and its formalization in the Rules of Procedure of the Conference together with the agreement to proceed on the basis of consensus. The Conference recognized that due to the widely divergent interests on issues of such paramount importance to States, a process of simply voting through a majority view would not lead to a lasting legal regime. Therefore, the Rules of Procedure adopted by the Conference in 1974 departed from the pattern normally applicable to United Nations conferences for the taking of decisions. …

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