1 Living with the oceans. – A report on the state of the world's oceans

Law of the sea

The law of the sea: A powerful instrument
> Today, a raft of international treaties determines which state has jurisdiction over coastal waters and the seabed and where a country’s fishing fleet may legally operate. However, the extraction of mineral resources from the ocean floor and climate change are confronting the international law of the sea with new challenges. Balancing the protection of the marine environment with intensive use of the oceans is also a difficult task.

A constitution for the seas

> Humankind has exploited the sea for centuries, and this has frequently led to conflict. With the adoption of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) in 1982, the international community created a comprehensive framework for legal governance of the seas which, over time, has evolved into a powerful body of law. However, it cannot provide an answer to every problem that arises.

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The limits to the law of the sea

> The changes in the marine environment resulting from global warming are clearly revealing the limits to the law of the sea in its present form. The Arctic ice sheets are shrinking, opening the way to the long-hidden mineral deposits in the seabed and sparking a new rush for resources. Another hot topic at present is to what extent humankind is permitted, as the law stands, to interfere with the marine ecosystem in order to cushion the impacts of climate change.

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The future of the law of the sea

Under pressure from climate change, species extinction, overfishing and maritime navigation, the law of the sea – the constitution for the seas – faces numerous challenges. There is ongoing tension between the freedom of the seas and their territorialization as epitomized by the concept of “mare clausum”. While occasional amendment of established provisions may be required in response to new knowledge and developments, this invariably harbours the risk of expanding national jurisdiction over the sea. The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) must always be the starting point for any legal analysis. With this Convention, the international community’s desires and aspirations have been incorporated into a framework which enjoys almost universal acceptance and which has so far proved to be more flexible and open than often assumed. UNCLOS will therefore continue to develop its normative effect in the international law of the 21st century. The prerequisite, however, is states’ willingness to cooperate and seek peaceful solutions to any disputes that may arise – especially in view of, and in response to, the new challenges arising on and beneath the seas.