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What a Fool Believes...
by Todd Ziebarth : Editor, Terrain.org

Governing the World's Oceans

To say that the world’s oceans are important for human existence sounds like an understatement when you consider the following:

  • The world’s oceans cover nearly 71 percent of the earth’s surface and contain 97 percent of the world’s water.
  • The oceans are home to over 97 percent of all life on earth and produce one-third to one-half of the global oxygen.
  • Approximately 90 percent of all international trade is transported by sea and over 29 percent of the total world production of oil comes from the oceans.

Earth from space.

Given the importance of the oceans to human beings around the globe, it makes sense for the nations of the world to work together to wisely use and, as necessary, protect them.

The most significant step in this direction is the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS)—the world’s primary legal instrument for governing the world’s oceans. About 20 years ago in Montego Bay, Jamaica, the United Nations created UNCLOS as a mechanism to develop a unified global effort to maintain a stable order on the world’s oceans as well as to guide the use and management of the ocean’s resources.

An international treaty often referred to as the constitution for the oceans, UNCLOS sets out the overall legal framework for all activities on the oceans and seas and contains detailed rules governing all ocean uses. It comprises 320 articles and nine annexes, governing all aspects of ocean space, including maritime zones and rights of navigation, conservation and management of living marine resources, and protection and preservation of the marine environment.

UNCLOS establishes a 12-nautical-mile territorial sea for each country with a coastline, within which countries are free to enforce any law, regulate any use and exploit any resource. It also preserves the right of innocent passage in territorial seas, and guarantees rights of transit passage for ships and aircraft through and over straits used for international navigation.

In addition, UNCLOS creates exclusive economic zones, in which a country with a coastline has the right to explore, exploit, manage and conserve all resources, such as fish, oil and gas, to be found in the waters and on the ocean floor extending 200 nautical miles from its shores as well as to produce energy from water, currents and winds. In such a country’s exclusive economic zone, it also has jurisdiction to regulate the establishment and use of structures for economic purposes, marine scientific research, and protection of the marine environment.

UNCLOS also requires countries with a coastline to adopt measures preventing and reducing pollution and encourages such countries to make optimum use of fish stocks without risking depletion through over-fishing. It requires them to take measures to deal with all sources of pollution of the marine environment, including from land-based sources, from or through the atmosphere or by dumping; from vessels; from installations and devices used in exploration or exploitation of the natural resources of the seabed and subsoil; and from other installations or devices operating in the marine environment.
The requirement to adopt anti-pollution measures seems particularly important given that, according to the United Nations, the biggest threat to the health of the marine environment stems from human activities on land producing such pollutants as sewage, oils, radioactive substances and heavy metals. The provision to encourage the optimal use of fish stocks also appears particularly critical given that most of the world’s marine fishing areas have already reached their maximum potential for fish captures, with, according to the United Nations, about 50 percent of fish stocks fully utilized, 25 percent over-fished and 25 percent with potential for increased fish harvests.

Finally, UNCLOS declares the resources of the seabed beyond national jurisdiction the “common heritage of mankind,” and established the International Seabed Authority to manage these resources. It also breaks new ground in international treaty law by establishing a compulsory settlement of disputes system. When countries that are party to the convention fail to reach a peaceful solution to their disputes that may arise out of the interpretation or application of UNCLOS, they are obligated to refer the dispute to the settlement of dispute procedures contained in the convention.

Earth from space.

While many of these provisions make common sense for the average person, they are subject to sharp scrutiny and rancorous debate in the world of international politics. While 138 countries became party to UNCLOS between 1982 and 2002, several countries have yet to do so, including the United States. In fact, one of the sticking points to the convention, and a point that has prevented the United States from becoming a party to it, are its provisions relating to deep seabed mining, including provisions that opponents of the convention feel will deter rather than promote future development of deep seabed mineral resources beyond national jurisdiction.

What is interesting about this objection is it relates to an activity—deep seabed mining—that has yet to occur on a viable scale. According to the Congressional Research Service, while various mining consortia have invested in exploration activities and prototype technology for deep seabed mining, economic viability is insufficient to warrant commercial recovery from deep seabed mining anytime soon. Thus, the international regime and institutions provided for in the convention apply to an international activity not yet taking place.

In reaction to the opponent’s objections to these provisions, the United Nations amended UNCLOS in 1994. Subsequently, President Clinton signed the convention and the agreement containing the amendments, and then transmitted them to the Senate, which referred it to the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations. The convention and the agreement containing the amendments remain pending in this committee.

Therefore, while the United Nations celebrates the twentieth anniversary of what has been called the strongest comprehensive environmental treaty now in existence, the United States, similar to its position on many issues of global importance, remains on the outside looking in.

From my perspective, however, a supposed world leader should be in the game, with its sleeves rolled up, helping to set the rules for a new era in the governance of the world’s oceans. Instead, we appear to be on a perennial vacation at the ranch, determined to go our own way, potentially at a significant cost.


Todd Ziebarth is a policy analyst at the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. He is also a founding editor of Terrain.org. In addition to his regular Terrain.org column, Ziebarth sometimes reviews books and CDs for the journal. He has a master's degree in public administration and a master's degree in urban and regional planning.
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“Oceans: The Lifeline of our Planet. Anniversary of the United Nations Convention of the Law of the Sea: 20 Years of Law and Order on the Oceans and Seas (1982-2002).” Accessed on the United Nation’s website (http://www.un.org) on August 16, 2002.

“10 December 1982 – Montego Bay, Jamaica.” Accessed on the United Nation’s website (http://www.un.org) on August 16, 2002.

Marjorie Ann Browne, “The Law of the Sea Convention and U.S. Policy,” CRS Issue Brief for Congress, February 14, 2001. http://cnie.org/NLE/


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