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Making Waves at the 25th Meeting of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea

NOTE: This guest post was written by Angelo Piro. Angelo is a student majoring in Diplomacy and International Relations and Economics at Seton Hall University. Angelo’s focus has been on the role of international organizations in development and good governance, recently studying the prevention of electoral violence from an international perspective. He is fluent in English and Spanish, and has a working knowledge of Russian. Angelo has studied at Dubrovnik International University, in Dubrovnik, Croatia, and is currently interning with the Permanent Mission of Honduras to the United Nations. He writes for the Diplomatic Envoy, and is a member of the Seton Hall United Nations Association.


Coinciding with World Oceans Day, the UN hosted the 25th Meeting of State Parties to the UN Convention of the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) from June 8th to the 12th.  This meeting saw the coordination and consultation among the 166 parties to the convention, along with various legal and technical organs of the UN dealing with related issues, as well as the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea (ITLOS).

While this event comprised mostly of updates regarding the current status of various measures and cases at issue among coastal states, certain points of the proceedings showed many interesting developments for the future of two of the world’s emerging legal regimes.

Expanding mandates and power

One thing that was quite clear is that as the role of UNCLOS and ITLOS continues to grow, their mandates and legal and political power will grow as well. Their operations and budgets continue to grow, as well as the members who are party to the UNCLOS. The number of cases in front of has also increased, pointing to the growing normalization of the jurisdiction of these bodies. One key development has been the settling of what was called in ITLOS Case 21, which addressed the violation of fishing policies of third parties within a number of small island nations. While the exact legal contents of the case don’t extend far beyond the waters of the parties and a small number of fishing vessels, the implications of the proceedings are powerful. With Case 21, the tribunal asserted a now accepted automatic opinion issuing power for this case, and a large number of other possible areas. While not binding, these opinions have the power to greatly influence cases and can help in developing normative law.

This development is a victory for those in favor of a more robust and expansive legal framework for the peaceful settlement of maritime disputes.  The growing jurisdiction and decision making power of both UNCLOS and ITLOS means that issues of maritime limits will see a more structured, legalistic and apolitical arbitration, however, how certain opinions will translate to actual binding results has yet to be seen. UNCLOS and ITLOS have a greater amount of power, yet need to find a way to successfully apply it.

New Conflicts Ahead

Of additional note among the state parties were emerging conflicts that may point to the major maritime disputes of the next few years.  While not specifically addressing any particular state, Iceland seemed to present a rather aggressive front when speaking about an ongoing case involving its exploration for energy in its waters. This will likely follow into future debates on oceanic limits in the arctic region, as ice caps slowly recede and make available many more square miles of sea bed for exploration and exploitation.

One additional area that sparked interest were cases involving the East and South China Seas. While no case or decision has moved far enough in the relevant bodies assembled here, the generalities of the cases were addressed by some parties, most notably Japan. Additionally, China seemed reluctant to allow for the growing compulsory authority of ITLOS under Case 21, which is seen as a challenge to the growing maritime power as its portfolio of contentious maritime disputes grows. What will become of these cases still has yet to be determined.   As these and many other contentions move forward, it is readily evident that the need for UNCLOS is growing quickly.

Waning Influence

As these two organizations grow in size and scope, they have run into certain stumbling blocks.  One of the most noted problems experienced by the state parties was the pace at which cases are being handled by the various subsidiaries of UNCLOS.  Many states noted that despite an increase in the overall operating time of the bodies, there has actually been a reduction in the decisions issued.  While the UNCLOS Secretariat attributed this slow down to a mixture of increased submissions, additional information submitted by states and the growing scope and complexity of the cases at hand, the frustration felt by many states may cause some to forgo submitting to the authority of the body.

An additional issue brought up by some was the lack of enforceability of decisions made by the organizations.  Noting that both bodies do include a robust legal structure, some states raised the issue that the powers of prevention and enforcement of decisions lies primarily with home states.  While this may be welcomed by some states, this lack of enforceability may undermine the legitimacy of future decisions.  How both bodies choose to move forward in attempting to normalize and codify their decisions will affect their importance in the coming years.


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