UNCLOS 1982: Forty Years for Peace and Sustainable Development of the Seas and Oceans

9/11/2022| 17:38

According to Assoc.Prof.PhD. Nguyen Thi Lan Anh, Director of the East Sea/South China Sea Institute (Diplomatic Academy of Vietnam), the 1982 UNCLOS has proven as a comprehensive, fair legal framework, a peace mechanism of maritime dispute settlement and a sustainable, futuristic value convention.

Over the past 40 years, UNCLOS is not only an international legal document of universal value, helping countries establish a comprehensive, fair and peaceful legal order at sea, but also but also has futuristic values in line with the sustainable development goals of mankind.

In this article, the 1982 UNCLOS' values of being " A comprehensive and fair legal framework" and "A sustainable, futuristic value convention" will be discussed.

UNCLOS 1982: Forty Years for Peace and Sustainable Development of the Seas and Oceans

Plenary session of the 1982 UNCLOS’s 30th Conference. Picture: The World& Vietnam Newspaper

A comprehensive and fair legal framework

Prior to the 1982 UNCLOS, the United Nations held the First Law of the Sea Conference and achieved the first international legal framework governing sea and ocean issues in 1958. This is a great achievement in establishing the first international legal order at sea, harmonizing the different interests of the coastal states and the common interests of the international community. However, the 1958 Conventions revealed such many limitations as the incomplete determination of the boundaries of the sea, the ignored interests of developing countries in dividing maritime rights, the undiscussed part of the international seabed beyond the continental shelf limits of coastal states and the hesitation on protocol on dispute settlement restricts the option of compulsory settlement through the International Court of Justice (ICJ).

The 1982 UNCLOS overcame the limitations of the 1958 Conventions. For the first time, the 1982 UNCLOS finished regulations on determining the boundaries of sea areas, defining as internal waters, territorial sea, contiguous zone, exclusive economic zone, continental shelf, high seas and the international seabed area. In particular, the exclusive economic zone came into existence as an effort of protecting the economic privileges of developing countries and newly independent countries in the 1960s of the twenty century.

With regard to the continental shelf, the 1982 UNCLOS stipulates the criteria for determining the continental shelf boundary based on objective geographical criteria respecting the principle that land dominates the sea. Accordingly, the continental shelf is a geological concept which is the natural extension of the land territory of the coastal states. Therefore, countries can define the width of the legal continental shelf as 200 nautical miles from the baseline while countries with a natural continental shelf wider than 200 nautical miles are allowed to define an extended legal one.

The interests of landlocked or geographically disadvantaged countries are also taken into account when regulations on transit and fishing are provided in exclusive economic zones. In addition, the characteristics of archipelagic states were also first considered and codified into the legal status of archipelagic states. In particular, in addition to inheriting the regulation of freedom of the high seas, the 1982 UNCLOS first established the legal status of the Common Heritage of Mankind.

A sustainable, futuristic value convention

Not only creating a comprehensive and universal legal framework, an innovative dispute settlement mechanism promoting peace and stability at sea, the 1982 UNCLOS also has progressive provisions associated with the sustainable, forward-looking sea and ocean governance. The obligation of “cooperation” is at the heart of the Convention when it is mentioned 60 times in 14 different articles such as provisions on cooperation in the field of marine environment protection and preservation, cooperation in marine scientific research, cooperation in science and technology transfer, etc.

In the field of protection and preservation of the marine environment, the 1982 UNCLOS assigns responsibility and obligations of coastal states within the exclusive economic zone, and determines the obligation of cooperation between countries within the high seas. In particular, Part XII of the 1982 UNCLOS is dedicated to providing for the protection and conservation of the marine environment with 11 sections.

In addition to section 1 on general obligations applicable to member states, Part XII of the 1982 UNCLOS contains specific provisions on cooperation at the regional and international levels, and provides technical assistance for developing countries in assessing the impact of pollution sources on the marine environment. In particular, the 1982 UNCLOS classifies the causes of marine pollution like pollution from land sources, mining activities, etc. to develop regulations to prevent marine environmental pollution at the national and international levels and to determine the relevant parties' responsibility. In addition, the 1982 UNCLOS also has specific provisions for iced sea areas and determines the relationship with other specialized international treaties in the field of environmental protection.

In the field of marine scientific research, the 1982 UNCLOS emphasized the guarantee of both harmonies between the sovereign rights and jurisdiction of coastal states and the interests of the community. Accordingly, the Convention stipulates that countries and international organizations disseminate the marine scientific research’s information and knowledge. At the same time, the Convention also requires countries and international organizations to cooperate and create favorable conditions for the exchange of scientific data and information, as well as for strengthening the capacity building of developing countries in the field of marine scientific research.

In particular, to overcome inequality between countries in this field, the UNCLOS 1982 dedicated Part XIV to the issue of technology transfer. Consequently, the Convention defines the principle that countries cooperate directly, or through international organizations, in order to actively create favorable conditions for the transfer of marine science and technology in fair and reasonable conditions.

Bao Huy