A constitution for the seas
The origins of the law of the seaDecember 2022 will mark 40 years since the international community agreed the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). The adoption of this major convention governing the use of the oceans is regarded as a historic milestone, for it answers the question of who may lay claim to the sea and its resources and thus establishes the basis for its collective and sustainable management under international law.
Progress towards the Convention was slow and fraught with difficulty, however. The origins of the international law of the sea date back to the time of the Roman Empire. In 529 AD, the Roman Emperor Justinian I decreed that the sea, like the air, was common to all and that no one may lay claim to it; it may thus be used by everyone. This quickly became the universal view; however, attitudes changed in the Middle Ages, when coastal states began to exercise sovereignty over the coastal waters adjacent to their kingdoms or territories. This development culminated in the signing of the Treaty of Tordesillas – a city in northern Spain – by seafaring nations Portugal and Spain on 7 June 1494. With the blessing of Pope Alexander VI, these two countries divided up the world and its oceans between them along a north-to-south meridian, with Spain receiving all the sea areas in the western Atlantic, the Pacific and the Gulf of Mexico and Portugal being granted the eastern and southern Atlantic and the Indian Ocean.
- 8.1 > At the end of the 15th century, two maritime powers, Portugal and Spain, wielded such huge influence that Pope Alexander VI shared out the world between them. Territories to the west of the blue line in the Atlantic were awarded to Spain, and those to the east, to Portugal. The demarcation line was adjusted in the Treaty of Tordesillas.
- Just 100 years later, the treaty was largely obsolete: the Reformation, initiated by Martin Luther, had split the Church, and Protestant England and the Netherlands were now vying to establish themselves as seafaring nations and colonial powers alongside Catholic Spain and Portugal and were seeking to trade with territories overseas. The Treaty of Tordesillas was an obstacle to their endeavours. It prevented the Netherlands, for example, from sending ships across the Indian Ocean to its colony in the East Indies (now Indonesia). The dispute escalated when the Netherlands captured a vessel from the Portuguese in 1603. In order to provide a measure of post hoc justification for the attack, for which it was responsible, the United East India Company (Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie – VOC) commissioned one of the country’s best lawyers to produce a legal appraisal of the incident. The lawyer’s name was Hugo Grotius (1583 to 1645).
Born in Delft in the Netherlands on 10 April 1583, Hugo Grotius was soon acclaimed as a child prodigy. At the age of 11, he was permitted to enrol at university; upon completing his studies just four years later at the age of 15, he went on to become a lawyer and diplomat. Grotius was happy to accede to the East India Company’s request and composed a legal treatise, only one chapter of which would be published during his lifetime. In this treatise, entitled Mare liberum (“the free sea”), Grotius expounded his theory that unlike the land, the sea could be neither occupied nor defended by anyone; every nation should therefore have unrestricted access to the ocean and be free to use it.
A counter-opinion was presented by the English scholar John Selden (1584 to 1654) in 1635. In two volumes entitled Mare clausum (“the closed sea”), Selden defended the legal right of the English monarchy to dominion over all waters around the British Isles, concluding from this that among other things, this gave England exclusive fishing rights in these waters. On this basis, according to Selden’s argument, the English monarchy also had the right to require foreign fishermen to acquire licences and pay taxes in order to fish in English waters. John Selden thus placed the interests of the coastal state above the principle of the “free sea” which everyone could use.
- 8.2 > The Dutch jurist and diplomat Hugo Grotius argued that the sea was no one’s property; all nations should therefore have free access to the ocean.
- The concepts of Mare liberum and Mare clausum propounded by Grotius and Selden, respectively, are still in use among experts in the law of the sea to this day: the former when the principle of the “free sea” is at stake, and the latter when national claims to jurisdiction over areas of the sea are at issue. In practice, however, the principle of the “free sea” has applied since the 17th century, albeit limited by the three-mile zone. This concept was developed by the Dutch jurist Cornelis van Bynkershoek (1673 to 1743), who posited that a state should be able to exercise sovereign jurisdiction over the area of their coastal waters which they could defend with a cannon shot from the land. At that time, the range of a cannon was approximately three nautical miles (equivalent to 5.6 kilometres). Although this three-mile rule was never enshrined in writing, it was accepted by so many states that it soon came to be recognized as customary law.
- 8.3 > The English scholar John Selden took a dispute over fishing rights as an opportunity to proclaim the British monarchy’s dominion over all waters around the British Isles. He thus placed the interests of the coastal state above the principle that the seas were free for every nation to use.
- As the coastal states steadily gained the ability to exercise effective control of the sea far outside the range of a cannon shot, the three-mile breadth of the territorial sea was increasingly called into question. In the first half of the 20th century, ever more states began to extend their claims to jurisdiction. These numerous “go-it-alone“ approaches sparked tensions between coastal states and seafaring nations. If the breadth of waters under national jurisdiction were extended, this would create the risk that more than 100 straits and shipping routes of major significance worldwide would fall under exclusively national control – including hotspots of commercial shipping such as the Strait of Gibraltar. Alarmed that a multitude of diverse national rules for the territorial sea would make international shipping, fishing and resource extraction infinitely more complicated, the seafaring nations became fervent champions of freedom of the seas. Other voices entered the debate, calling for nation-states’ rights to regulate in the territorial sea to be limited to specific topics: rules to protect the marine environment from pollution caused by shipping accidents, discharges from ships or fuel leaks, for example. Other experts, in turn, argued that coastal states should be permitted to regulate all human activities within their territorial waters.
In order to introduce a measure of agreement and order into this confusion of interests, the United Nations convened three successive international conferences on the law of the sea. The first of these conferences, held in Geneva, Switzerland, in 1958, was attended by 86 states. Together, they adopted four Geneva Conventions, thereby establishing a set of general rules governing the delimitation and exploitation of maritime areas and laying the key foundations for a collectively binding legal regime for the maritime space. The four agreements, known as the Geneva Conventions on the Law of the Sea, covered: (1) the territorial sea and the contiguous zone; (2) the high seas; (3) fishing and conservation of the living resources of the high seas; and (4) the continental shelf.
The second conference took place in 1960, again in Geneva. This time, the objective was to reach agreement on the territorial sea and fishery limits. The negotiations proved inconclusive, however. Among other things, the participating states proved unable, at that time, to reach agreement on the breadth of the territorial sea and thus failed to clarify one of the most pressing issues of the day. In 1973, the United Nations convened a further conference on the law of the sea, this time in New York, in order to consider aspects of marine mining. However, the 160 participating nations seized the opportunity afforded by the meeting to rewrite the rules on the use of the ocean. The process took a full nine years. After eleven sessions and a total of 585 days of deliberations, the international community signed the new constitution for the seas – the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) – in Montego Bay, Jamaica, on 10 December 1982. The Convention entered into force on 16 November 1994.
A convention like no otherThe United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) is perhaps the most complex and comprehensive international treaty ever concluded. It comprises 17 parts with a total of 320 articles, as well as an additional nine annexes containing supplementary provisions. It not only draws together the Geneva Conventions – the “old” law of the sea, which continues to apply – in a single unified treaty. It also divides the sea into various legal zones, regulates the use of these areas, e.g. for shipping, fishing and marine scientific research, includes provisions on seabed mining and the protection of the marine environment, and stipulates how disputes between two or more Parties are to be settled.
Four new institutions were established under the Convention for these and other purposes:
- the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea (ITLOS) in Hamburg, Germany; the Tribunal’s jurisdiction is limited to legal disputes concerning the interpretation and application of the Convention;
- the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (CLCS), which convenes in New York;
- the International Seabed Authority (ISA) in Kingston, Jamaica;
- the regular Meetings of State Parties to the Convention.
- 8.4 > The judges at the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea (ITLOS) in Hamburg rule solely on legal disputes concerning the interpretation and application of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.
- In addition, two supplementary agreements which deal with implementation currently exist:
- the Agreement relating to the Implementation of Part XI of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (abbreviated to “Deep Seabed Agreement”). This Agreement was adopted on 28 July 1994 and contains detailed provisions on mining in areas beyond national jurisdiction;
- the Agreement for the Implementation of the Provisions of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea of 10 December 1982 relating to the Conservation and Management of Straddling Fish Stocks and Highly Migratory Fish Stocks (Fish Stocks Agreement). This Agreement was adopted on 4 December 1995 and limits all Parties’ freedom of fishing in respect of highly migratory fish stocks and stocks in areas under and beyond national jurisdiction.
- A third implementing agreement on the conservation and sustainable use of marine biological diversity in international waters, i.e. marine biodiversity in areas beyond national jurisdiction (BBNJ) is currently being negotiated by the international community. The aim is to establish a binding legal framework which draws together the many existing individual measures on the conservation of biodiversity and ensures the protection and sustainable use of ecosystems in the high seas on a cross-sectoral basis. Responsibility for this topic is currently divided among multiple agencies, including the International Maritime Organization (IMO) and the regional fisheries management organizations (RFMOs). In all cases, however, their jurisdiction is limited. There is also a lack of common guidelines and progress based on effective interinstitutional cooperation at all levels and across sectors. The new implementing agreement is intended to rectify this situation.
The rules and obligations set forth in the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea apply first and foremost to the 168 Parties, which include the EU (as at May 2021). However, most of the provisions are also binding on states which have not acceded to the Convention, including the USA, as they constitute a body of established customary law which has been recognized and applied by these countries over a period of almost 40 years.
Dividing up the oceanThe United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea attempts to achieve a balance between the interests of the nation-states and the freedom of the seas and defines various maritime zones and the corresponding extent of certain sovereign rights of the coastal states. These zones are:
- the internal waters and the territorial sea,
- the contiguous zone,
- the exclusive economic zone,
- the continental shelf,
- the high seas and the Area.
The internal waters and the territorial seaSaline waters landward of the baseline or low-water mark are defined as internal waters. The territorial sea, by contrast, is on the seaward side of the baseline and extends for up to 12 nautical miles (one nautical mile is 1852 metres). States have complete sovereignty over their internal waters because – like the territorial sea – they form part of its territory. Nations also have wide-ranging sovereignty over their territorial sea; this includes rights to the airspace, the water column, the seabed and the ground below the seabed. However, a coastal state may not prohibit the innocent passage of foreign ships through its territorial sea.
Passage is considered innocent if, while passing through the territorial sea, the ship in question does not use or threaten violence, does not spy on the coastal state and does not at any time pose a threat to the security of the coastal state in any other way. The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea defines potential threats in detail: for example, submarines must surface for the passage and hoist their flag. The Convention also prohibits unlawful discharges and other forms of marine pollution. The coastal state may designate shipping channels that must be used for passage and can levy charges if it provides services that enhance the safety of shipping. However, when designating shipping channels and traffic separation schemes, it must heed the recommendations of the International Maritime Organization (IMO).
Article 37 of the Convention on the Law of the Sea stipulates that the coastal state must grant foreign ships right of transit passage if the territorial sea is part of a strait or waterway that links parts of the high seas or different exclusive economic zones with each other and is used by international shipping. Coastal states have less scope for restricting the right of transit passage than for curbing innocent passage: in principle, transiting ships have the same freedom as on the high seas. Transit passage can be suspended or restricted only in the event of the threat or exercise of military force by the ship. Submarines can be submerged while passing through straits.
- 8.5 > On 24 October 2014, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier (right) and his Dutch counterpart Bert Koenders signed the German-Netherlands Treaty on the Use and Management of the Territorial Sea between Three and Twelve Nautical Miles from the Coast (known as the Ems-Dollart Treaty).
- Defining boundaries in the territorial sea can become a contentious political issue. Germany and the Netherlands, for example, have been wrangling for decades over the precise delineation of the national border in the territorial sea. The two countries did not reach agreement until 2014, when they signed the German-Netherlands Treaty on the Use and Management of the Territorial Sea between Three and Twelve Nautical Miles from the Coast (known as the Ems-Dollart Treaty). Under its provisions, the two states maintain their divergent legal standpoints regarding the delineation of the national border in the territorial sea, but agreed a joint system for the management of maritime traffic in the navigation channel to and from their ports along the Ems.
Furthermore, under the terms of the Treaty, the Westerems Commission was established as a permanent commission to deal with shipping matters in the navigation channel, including decision-making on the precise route of the channel. With regard to non-living natural resources and the construction of installations, e.g. for renewable energy generation, the two parties reached agreement on a demarcation line to assist in determining which system of national law is applicable. The Netherlands has jurisdiction on the western side, while Germany has jurisdiction on the eastern side of the line.
- 8.6 > The dispute between Germany and the Netherlands in the territorial sea stems from their divergent views regarding the delineation of the national border in the Ems estuary. While the Netherlands draws the border along the deepest points in the river, Germany refers to a letter of feoffment dating back to 1464, which places the border along the western low-water line of the Ems. As a pragmatic solution, in operation since 1960, the two countries have agreed an area of shared use in the territorial sea up to three nautical miles (and up to 12 nautical miles since 2014) with a clear midline (since 1962); the treaty between the two countries defines their respective responsibilities in relation to various management issues.
The contiguous zone and the exclusive economic zoneThe contiguous zone adjoins the territorial sea, extending a maximum of 24 nautical miles beyond the low-water line. In this zone, coastal states may exercise certain powers of inspection and, for example, enforce customs regulations vis-à-vis third countries. Beyond the contiguous zone is the exclusive economic zone (EEZ), which can extend up to 200 nautical miles from the low-water line. This zone does not form part of the coastal state’s sovereign territory. However, the coastal state has exclusive rights to fish in this area, to extract resources, to engage in marine mining and to approve, erect and operate artificial islands and installations such as oil drilling platforms and offshore wind farms. In this zone, the coastal state also has jurisdiction over marine conservation and marine research. This means that foreign states must obtain the consent of the coastal state if they wish to conduct scientific studies in the exclusive economic zone. However, the Convention makes it clear that a coastal state may not assert any territorial claims to any part of the exclusive economic zone; in other words, it may not seek to incorporate the EEZ into its national territory. Third countries have freedom of navigation in this area and may also lay submarine cables and pipelines here. When doing so, however, they must take account of existing structures.
The continental shelfThe United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea sets out special rules on the continental shelf, which in large part lies below the exclusive economic zone, but is regarded as a separate marine zone. A coastal state has exclusive rights within the entire continental shelf area provided that it lies within the 200-nautical-mile limit. Under the law of the sea, every coastal state is entitled to a continental shelf of up to 200 nautical miles, even if in geological terms the shelf is narrower than this. If the geological continental shelf extends beyond this 200-nautical-mile limit – which is the case with an estimated 85 coastal states – the coastal state may, under Article 76 of the Convention on the Law of the Sea, extend the outer limit of the shelf.
To do so it must make a submission to the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (CLCS), setting out the scientific data that show that the relevant part of the seabed and subsoil thereof constitute a natural prolongation of its continental margin. As a result of this requirement, the continental margins are now some of the most comprehensively surveyed areas of the sea, with detailed data available on the topography and geology of the sea floor here. Elsewhere, particularly in the deep sea zones, there are still many large areas of white on the maps of the seafloor. By June 2021, just 20.6 per cent of the global seafloor had been mapped.
The extended continental shelf is an area of jurisdiction in which only the coastal state has the right to explore and exploit the natural resources of the seabed. The coastal state is, however, required to pay royalties from the profits generated by marine mining in these areas to the International Seabed Authority. Freedom of fishing and freedom of maritime navigation apply in the waters above the extended continental shelf.
The baseline is normally the low-water mark – in other words, the lowest point reached by the sea at low tide – as marked on officially recognized nautical charts. However, as a standard nautical chart zero does not exist at the international level and the position and course of all low-water marks have never been formally established, the data used by coastal states to plot the baseline vary considerably. In the case of estuaries, islands along the coast or deeply indented or highly unstable coastlines, baselines may be plotted using natural points along the furthest seaward extent of the low-water line (promontories, fringes of islands, etc.).
- However, there are legal limits to the extension of the continental shelf: the new outer limit of the continental shelf must not be more than 350 nautical miles from the coastal state’s baseline or more than 100 nautical miles from the 2500-metre isobath. A combination of the two methods is permitted.
In the Arctic, where the coastal states have been making overlapping territorial claims for decades, the delimitation of boundaries is complicated by the fact that three underwater ridges – the Lomonosov Ridge, the Gakkel Ridge and the Alpha-Mendeleev Ridge – run along the floor of the Arctic Ocean. A special provision in the Convention on the Law of the Sea therefore applies: Article 76 of the Convention distinguishes between submarine ridges and submarine elevations.
Depending on whether a ridge or an elevation is joined to a coastal state’s continental shelf, different rules apply. If parts of the continental shelf run over a submarine ridge, only the 350-nautical-mile rule can be applied; the rule on the 2500-metre isobath cannot be invoked. However, if the continental shelf extends over a submarine elevation, both rules apply, since it is assumed that the submarine elevation will generally consist of the same material as the continental shelf. Submarine ridges, by contrast, usually consist of volcanic rock and are therefore of a different material from the continental shelf.
These complex rules in the Convention on the Law of the Sea hamper the work of the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf. The Commission considers all submitted applications and makes a recommendation. If the coastal state adjusts the outer limit of its extended economic zone in accordance with the recommendation, this outer limit is final and binding. What is not clear is what happens if a coastal state opposes the Commission’s recommendation and sets an outer limit that is not in accordance with the recommendation. The Commission is not a body with judicial powers: its purpose is only to ensure that the delimitation of boundaries complies with scientific standards.
- 8.7 > A Somali pirate by the wreck of a Taiwanese fishing boat which he and several other men have hijacked. Suspected piracy and human trafficking are two of the few circumstances in which the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) permits the use of force on the high seas.
- As the Commission is chronically underfunded, it generally takes several years, and in some cases several decades, to consider an application and reach a decision. Moreover, the Commission is not responsible for situations in which two coastal states with opposing or adjacent coastlines argue over the precise boundary of their continental shelves or over overlapping areas to which they lay claim. In such cases, the Convention on the Law of the Sea requires the countries involved to conclude one or more boundary agreements. In other words, the states concerned have to sort out these disputes among themselves. If this were to fail, the dispute could be settled by an international court such as the International Court of Justice or the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea – provided that the countries involved recognize its jurisdiction.
In the Arctic, the willingness of the coastal states to negotiate and compromise has in the past enabled many disputes over boundaries and territories to be resolved. In September 2010, for example, Norway and Russia signed a cooperation agreement that put an end to four decades of argument over the boundary of their adjacent economic zones and continental shelves in the mineral- and resource-rich Barents Sea. The boundary that has been agreed gives equal weight to the claims of both countries. The two parties also agreed that any new, as yet undiscovered resource deposits that straddle the boundary would be exploited jointly.
The delimitation of the continental shelf in the North Sea was also a subject of dispute for many years. Here, the European continental shelf is almost entirely covered by the sea. The International Court of Justice therefore instructed the parties to the dispute to agree a workable solution which ensured that each party would be granted all parts of the continental shelf that constituted a natural prolongation of its land territory in or under the sea, insofar as this was possible without detriment to the natural continuation of the land territory of another party. In 1972, the Federal Republic of Germany concluded an agreement with Denmark, the United Kingdom and the Netherlands on the delimitation on the continental shelf.
The high seasThe high seas commence at the outer limit of the exclusive economic zone. The term “high seas” applies to the entire water column but does not include the seabed. Experts in international law describe the high seas as “global commons”, for they are open for use by all states on an equal basis. No state may claim sovereign rights over, or appropriate, any part of the high seas.
Within the limits of the high seas, all states have the freedom of the high seas: among other things, this means that ships have free passage and aircraft have the right to overfly. In addition, anyone can fish or conduct research in these areas, although certain aspects of freedom of fishing are now regulated in more detail by numerous international treaties and also by the Fish Stocks Agreement.
- 8.8 > The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) divides the sea into various legal zones, with the state’s sovereignty decreasing with increasing distance from the baseline (see table overleaf).
- In accordance with the Convention, all human activities on the high seas must be peaceful in nature. However, all states have a duty to repress piracy and human trafficking. Furthermore, with the exception of marine distress signals, all ships are prohibited from engaging in unauthorized broadcasting, defined as the transmission of sound radio or television broadcasts, on the high seas intended for reception by the general public. Warships may not seize any other vessel unless there are grounds to suspect piracy, human trafficking (slavery) or other offences subject to penalties under the Convention.
The Convention also establishes a duty of states to cooperate on the conservation and management of the living resources of the high seas, including, in particular, fish, marine mammals and seabirds.
Decisions on species conservation and the management of resources should be taken on the basis of the best scientific evidence, the prerequisite being that this evidence is available to all states concerned.
The Parties’ compliance with these and other marine conservation provisions set forth in the Convention is inadequate, however. It was therefore recognized some time ago that the principle of freedom of the high seas was not sufficient to hold Parties to account and ensure that they made adequate provision to protect the marine environment in international waters. In 2015, the United Nations General Assembly therefore voted to commence negotiations on a third implementing agreement, mentioned above, on the conservation and sustainable use of marine biological diversity in areas beyond national jurisdiction (BBNJ agreement), thus restricting the scope and freedom of the nation-states. This presupposes, of course, that the agreement is ultimately adopted and ratified by the member states.
The AreaThe United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) defines the “Area” as the seabed and ocean floor and subsoil thereof, beyond the limits of the continental shelf, as well as all the non-living resources contained therein. It is made clear that this definition does not include the water column or the air space above these waters. The Area and its mineral resources have been declared part of the common heritage of mankind and may be used solely for peaceful and beneficial purposes. Unlike the situation with the high seas, however, such use requires authorization, for which an application must be submitted to the International Seabed Authority, which oversees all human activity within the Area. All states have equal rights of access and benefit-sharing in respect of the Area and its resources. It is also important to note that states are liable for all activities undertaken by their nationals within the Area.
Balancing interests – an ongoing processOn the face of it, the division of the ocean into the zones defined in the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea provides the clarity sought by all stakeholders. A closer look, however, reveals that as a result of the human demarcation of these artificial zones, a specific area of the sea may be subject to several different legal regimes, depending on the type of use. In the waters of the exclusive economic zone, for example, the coastal state has exclusive usage rights where fishing and the construction of wind energy installations are concerned. However, in this same maritime zone, the freedom of the high seas applies when topics such as sea rescues or anti-piracy measures are the main focus of interest.
The situation is complicated by the fact that nature itself pays no heed to these artificial boundaries: shoals of fish, for example, migrate freely between the zones. In some cases, this may mean that a multitude of agencies is responsible for the sustainable management of one and the same stock, whose survival can only be guaranteed if all these agencies work together. On the other hand this example shows that when it comes to the sustainable use of marine resources, the interests of the coastal states must constantly be weighed in the balance against the freedom of the seas. And decision-making is rarely straightforward, least of all when stress factors such as climate change impacts, pollution, noise, coastal development and resource extraction likewise make themselves felt across every inter-zonal boundary.
Regional seas conventionsThe United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea includes special provisions on inland seas (enclosed seas) and semi-enclosed seas. A number of highly significant stretches of water, including the Black Sea, the North Sea, the Baltic Sea, the Mediterranean, the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Mexico, fall into this category. The Convention requires the coastal states to cooperate in a number of thematic areas, with shared responsibility for fisheries management, the protection of the marine environment and scientific research in their respective waters; it also calls for their collaboration with other states and international organizations.
One example of this type of regional cooperation in the European context is the Helsinki Commission (HELCOM), a framework in which all nine Baltic Sea states and the European Union work together to develop strategies to protect the Baltic Sea. Core topics include the conservation of biodiversity, fisheries and shipping, pollutant discharges and eutrophication of the sea by riverine inputs or airborne deposition. The representatives of all the Baltic Sea states collaborate in five permanent working groups and in a multitude of expert groups and projects, and develop recommendations and strategies with the aim of restoring the ecological balance in the Baltic Sea. These recommendations and strategies are not legally binding, however: implementation is a matter for the Contracting Parties.
Regional seas conventions and action plans now exist in at least 18 sea areas worldwide. They are regarded as one of the key instruments in international marine management, often also known as “ocean governance”. The major advantage of regional conventions is that nations are often more willing to agree joint objectives and activities, and hence to cede some of their rights, at the regional level than in the much larger international arena. Furthermore, regional conventions allow the parties to make area-specific arrangements, which often offer far greater prospects of success than would be the case with more general international rules.
Rethinking coastal zone managementRegional seas conventions and action plans provide participating coastal states with a common framework and make it easier for them to develop and implement their own integrated management programmes for coastal areas and the territorial sea. The term “integrated coastal zone management” denotes a regulatory and governance approach in which coastal areas are recognized as a complex, dynamic system involving multiple interactions between human communities and marine and coastal ecosystems across zonal and sectoral boundaries. This means – according to one of the key principles of the integrated approach – that coastal issues can no longer be addressed solely within the parameters of the traditional sectors: their spheres of competence overlap far too often for that. Furthermore, stakeholders in the fisheries, tourism, energy, shipping, resource extraction and environmental sectors may well pursue competing or even conflicting interests; the resulting measures are almost always detrimental to the marine environment.
For that reason, integrated marine management aims to develop inter-zonal, cross-sectoral guidelines for sustainable use of the ocean and its resources. At present, this approach is mainly applied in regional action plans, e.g. in the European Union, where the European Commission has developed an Integrated Maritime Policy covering five major and converging policy fields: the blue economy, marine data and knowledge, maritime spatial planning, integrated maritime surveillance, and sea basin strategies. However, regional seas conventions are by no means a prerequisite for successful integrated coastal zone management. With good planning and implementation, coastal states can improve their coastal zone management and ocean governance with integrated approaches even if they act on their own.
Due to the division of the sea into separate zones under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea and the multiple spheres of competence, however, even integrated marine management quickly reaches its limits. Experts note that one reason is the ever-increasing number of stakeholders and agencies involved. This system may still be relatively straightforward at the local level, but decision-making becomes ever more complex, cumbersome and ineffective with each successive tier (regional, national, transregional, international). A further obstacle, the experts say, is the lack of information-sharing between the numerous participating sectors and institutions, as well as a general lack of awareness of how measures or changes in one sector impact on all the others.
- 8.10 > Regional seas conventions are regarded as the jewel in the crown of environmental diplomacy as they facilitate regional cooperation and actions which would be almost impossible to implement at the international level. They are therefore one of the most important tools in the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) toolkit. The table lists 18 regional seas conventions and action plans currently involving more than 146 nations.