Calls for Upholding Law of the Sea Convention Dominate Lisbon Dialogue as Delegates Outline Ways to Improve Ocean Conservation
LISBON, 30 June — Calls for the full implementation of the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea dominated the seventh Lisbon dialogue today, with delegates describing the landmark treaty as a “beacon” of multilateralism and “starting point” for improving the conservation and sustainable use of the ocean through international law.
“The Convention guarantees a good balance between environmental preservation and economic exploitation,” said Vivian Balakrishnan, Minister for Foreign Affairs of Singapore, who co-chaired the discussion with Gudlaugur Thor Thordarson, Minister for Environment, Energy and Climate of Iceland, alongside the week-long 2022 Ocean Conference.
Making presentations under the theme, “Enhancing the conservation and sustainable use of oceans and their resources by implementing international law, as reflected in the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea,” were four legal and policy experts, who outlined various reasons why the Convention remains the “true constitution” for the world’s oceans.
Panellists included Michael Lodge, Secretary-General of the International Seabed Authority; Vladimir Jares, Director of Division for Ocean Affairs and the Law of the Sea, United Nations Office of Legal Affairs; Rena Lee, President of the Intergovernmental Conference on an international legally binding instrument under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea on the conservation and sustainable use of marine biological diversity of areas beyond national jurisdiction; and Jia Yu, Deputy Director-General, China Institute for Marine Affairs, Ministry of Natural Resources.
“This Convention is a flagship achievement of the United Nations,” said Mr. Lodge, praising its robustness and visionary aspect. He questioned whether it would be possible to adopt such a text today, given the weakened status of multilateralism. The Convention includes provisions on pollution and biodiversity and considers the needs of all States. He also clarified that the legal regime provided for in the Convention has been gradually supplemented with agreements on fish stocks and the seabed over the years. In addition, 31 seabed exploitation contracts have been awarded without giving rise to any dispute, attesting to the proper functioning of the legal regime. He denounced the isolated appeals calling for an adjustment of the Convention, stressing that “it would be a mistake to listen to them”.
“How does the application of the law of the sea bring us closer to achieving Sustainable Development Goal 14 (life under water)?” asked Ms. Lee, recalling that negotiations on a legally binding treaty on biological diversity in areas beyond national jurisdiction are taking place within the Convention’s framework. “This text remains our foundation,” she attested, indicating that the future instrument would need to respect the Convention. The negotiation process must bring together all stakeholders, she added, especially scientific experts.
Ms. Yu underscored that the Convention is compatible with other rules of international law, making it possible to address new maritime issues that arise. The Convention also addresses pollution and takes into account the legitimate interests of countries in all their diversity. The Minister called for the full implementation of the Convention and greater pollution control. After detailing measures taken by China to preserve fish stocks, she said the Government supports an international legal instrument on the conservation and sustainable use of marine biodiversity in areas beyond national jurisdiction.
Mr. Jares, speaking on behalf of Miguel de Serpa Soares, Under-Secretary-General for Legal Affairs and United Nations Legal Counsel, United Nations Office of Legal Affairs, said the Convention comprises 168 parties, including the European Union. It enshrines the right of all States to scientific research on the oceans and provides for research partnerships among States, provisions that would benefit from awareness raising, he said, underscoring the importance of marine science in the delimitation of the continental shelf.
When the floor was opened, lead discussant Mārtiņš Paparinskis, Reader in Public International Law at University College London, and Member Designate of the International Law Commission, pointed to the role of the International Court of Justice in implementation of the Convention, particularly as related to rights on the high seas and delimitation of the continental shelf. Sea-level rise linked to climate change has far-reaching consequences for the law of the sea and for the rights and obligations of States, he confirmed. Given the importance of these issues for many States, the Commission has established a working group, he said, adding that some States would like to request an advisory opinion from the Court on these matters.
Lead discussant Jakob Granit, Director General, Swedish Agency for Marine and Water Management, and Chair of the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources, stressed the robustness of the international law of the sea, while mentioning the remaining shortcomings. He hoped that the Intergovernmental Conference “BBNJ” would make it possible to fill some of them. He called for an increased fight against illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing, stressing the importance of regional cooperation, such as that on Antarctica.
During the interactive dialogue, ministers and senior officials from around the world underscored their countries’ commitment to the Convention, including those from Ecuador, the Philippines, Indonesia and Viet Nam, who all called for respecting the sovereign rights enshrined in the Convention. Timor-Leste’s representative recalled that his country was able to delimit its maritime zones thanks to a conciliation agreement with Australia — provided for by the Convention.
“For its fiftieth anniversary, the Convention is in good health,” Argentina’s delegate emphasized, praising the “vitality” of the text and the proper functioning of its organs. It is a living example of how national interests can be reconciled with global concerns, the representative of Bangladesh added, while expressing regret over the inadequacy of technology transfer.
Several delegates touched on the issue of sea-level rise induced by climate change, including the representative of Vanuatu, who stressed that “our position is clear: maritime areas must be preserved in the face of such an elevation”. The call was echoed by the representative of the Pacific Islands Forum, who said greater efforts must be made to achieve Sustainable Development Goal 14, particularly in terms of financing. The speaker from French Polynesia, meanwhile, delivered the vision of the “peoples of the canoe”, advocating for better preservation of “species and spaces”, and stronger resistance against illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing. The creation of “blue corridors” between exclusive economic zones is also essential, he said.
On issues relating to biological diversity in areas beyond national jurisdiction, delegates from the United Kingdom and Finland alike expressed hope for an ambitious, “future-proof” treaty, which includes the establishment of effective cooperation mechanisms. “We urgently need such an instrument,” added Finland’s delegate, while her counterpart from Bangladesh expressed hope for a text that would not be “watered down”. Chile’s delegate expressed her country’s expectation for a “solid text” that would fill existing gaps, in compliance with the Convention, and not weaken existing treaties.
Alexander Tudhope, Chair of Climate Studies, School of Geosciences, the University of Edinburgh, moderated the discussion.