UN Convention on the Law of the Sea inquiry launched

Professor Steven Haines giving evidence. Photo credit HRAS
Professor Steven Haines giving evidence. Photo credit HRAS

An inquiry into the future of the United Nations on the Law of the Sea Convention (UNCLOS) and its applicability in 21st century has been launched by the UK House of Lords Select Committee on International Relations and Defence. The House of Lords inquiry is considering the extent to which the UNCLOS is fit for purpose in 2021 and is examining the enforcement of UNCLOS, its dispute resolution mechanisms, and the extent to which it has proved able to adapt to new and emerging challenges, including climate change, autonomous maritime systems, and issues of human rights and human security at sea.

The inquiry will explore the UK’s current policy towards UNCLOS and approach in practice, and consider which international partners and alliances will be important for the UK to address these challenges and uphold its interests.

On Wednesday 20 October, the Committee on International Relations and Defence invited three academic experts on international law of the sea and ocean governance to provide oral evidence as witnesses. The Committee heard from Professor Steven Haines, Professor of Public International Law, The University of Greenwich and Trustee of Human Rights at Sea, Professor Malgosia Fitzmaurice, Professor of Public International Law, Queen Mary, University of London, and Professor Sir Malcolm Evans, Professor of Public International Law, University of Bristol.

All three experts highlighted that while the Convention on the Law of the Sea is the constitution of our oceans, it must to a great extent be seen and understood as a product of its time. Despite its detailed regulation in relation to maritime delimitation and States’ various maritime zones as well as some general guidance on how to use the oceans’ natural resources in light of the principle of the common heritage of mankind, the Convention says very little, if anything on human rights at sea.

Professor Sir Malcolm Evans highlighted that as long as the Convention says more about protecting fish than protecting people at sea, there will be a gap concerning human rights protection at sea. Prof. Haines highlighted the challenge with insistence on the exclusive jurisdiction of the flag State and the abuse of the flag’s jurisdiction by the open registries.

Overall, the Committee is seeking evidence on issues including:
– Enforcement of UNCLOS and the success of its dispute resolution mechanisms.
– The role of the International Maritime Organisation.
– New and emerging challenges facing the effective implementation of UNCLOS, including:
i) Climate change
ii) Maritime security and human rights at sea
iii) Autonomous maritime vehicles
iv)The regulation of access to economic resources
v) The UK’s current policy and practice, and recommendations for future priorities

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