Magazine article UN Chronicle

The Ocean's Wealth Is Not Inexhaustible. (Reversing the Loss of Environmental Resources)

Magazine article UN Chronicle

The Ocean's Wealth Is Not Inexhaustible. (Reversing the Loss of Environmental Resources)

Article excerpt

I still remember the day, twenty years ago, when delegations from every comer of the world lined up in one of the conference rooms at UN Headquarters in New York for the momentous occasion of the adoption in 1982 of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). It was a major diplomatic event that had been awaited with a mixture of anxiety and hope by all participants, having in mind the enormous interests at stake and the difficulties faced through the years in the long, complex and at times frustrating negotiations that led to its completion. For those of us who attended the 1973 Third United Nations Conference on the Law of the Sea, this was a very special day indeed, one that would be with us for the rest of our professional lives.

Fruit of many years of negotiations involving the participation of the whole community of nations and other interested partners (over 180 delegates), the 1982 Convention managed to canvas a most comprehensive legal regime for the oceans and seas, "dealing with all the law of the sea matters". This regime was the culmination of a great deal of efforts exerted over decades by many nations in their attempt to codify and develop the law of the sea--efforts that started with the 1930 Hague Codification Conference and were carried through three UN Conferences on the law of the sea.

Bearing in mind the extensive new law development it embodies, in addition to the codification of existing rules and principles it absorbed, the Convention is an example of swift international development never before experienced. This is more so if account is taken of the fact that until half a century ago the vast ocean space, occupying almost three fourths of our planet, was practically a no-man's land, whose space and resources were under the realms of the freedom of the seas principle.

The economic and geopolitical interests of States had not boiled to the point of prompting them to extend their boundaries to the vast ocean space and its resources, exception being made of the fifteenth-century treaty arrangement on the partition of the oceans between Spain and Portugal, the maritime Powers of the day, soon overtaken by the Grotian era of freedom of the seas.

Indeed, the oceans back then had no boundaries and were, in the words of Grotius, "free and open to all", except the territorial sea--a narrow strip claimed by coastal States and generally confined to a width of three nautical miles from the shoreline. As a matter of fact, until the end of the Second World War, States boundaries were essentially land boundaries. The oceans were considered too vast and their resources inexhaustible.

By the mid-twentieth century, a number of factors prompted some coastal States to change course. Technological developments, with the economic and geopolitical changes that came about, led to a never-ending process of States' unilateral claims over ocean space and resources. As coastal States unilaterally grabbed different parts of the oceans and their resources, conflicts arose among countries over these resources, overlapped claimed areas, and ocean pollution that threaten coastal resorts and all forms of coastal life. As a result, from a no-man's-land situation, different parts of the oceans and their resources were unilaterally brought under the jurisdiction of coastal States. The need for agreed regulations became of paramount importance in order to curb and prevent ocean-related conflicts between States.

The set of Conventions adopted at the First UN Conference in Geneva in 1958, though representing a substantial progress in bringing some order to States' claims and ocean-related activities, failed to achieve the goal of stopping the avalanche of unilateral claims, since the newly independent States did not participate in their negotiations. These Conventions were considered by many developing nations as pursuing essentially the interests of the traditional sea Powers and the economic interests of distant-water fishing nations. …

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