Life itself arose from the oceans. The ocean is vast and covers 140 million square miles, some 72 per cent of the Earth’s surface. The ocean has always been an important source of food for the life it helped generate, and from earliest recorded history it has also served trade and commerce, adventure and discovery. It has separated and brought people together.
Even now, when the continents have been mapped and their interiors made accessible by road, river and air, most of the world’s people live no more than 200 miles from the sea and relate closely to it.
Freedom of the Seas
The oceans had long been subject to the freedom of-the-seas doctrine – a principle put forth in the 17th century, essentially limiting national rights and jurisdiction over the oceans to a narrow sea belt surrounding a nation’s coastline. The rest of the seas were declared free for all and belonged to none. While this situation lasted into the twentieth century, by mid-century there was an impetus to extend national claims over offshore resources.
There was a growing concern over the toll taken on coastal fish stocks by long-distance fishing fleets and over the threat of pollution and wastes from transport vessels and oil tankers carrying noxious cargoes that plied sea routes across the globe. The threat of pollution was always present for coastal resorts and all forms of ocean life. The navies of the maritime powers were competing for a worldwide presence in surface waters and even under the sea.
United Nations Law of the Sea Convention (UNCLOS)
The United Nations is working to ensure the peaceful, cooperative, legally defined uses of the seas and oceans for the individual and common benefit of humankind. Urgent calls for an effective international regime over the seabed and the ocean floor beyond a clearly defined national jurisdiction set in motion a process that spanned 15 years and saw the creation of the United Nations Seabed Committee, the signing of a treaty banning nuclear weapons on the seabed, the adoption of the General Assembly’s declaration that all seabed resources beyond the limits of national jurisdiction are the common heritage of mankind, and the convening of the Stockholm Conference on the Human Environment.
The UN’s groundbreaking work in adopting the 1982 Law of the Sea Convention stands as a defining moment in the extension of international law to the vast, shared water resources of our planet. The convention has resolved several important issues related to ocean usage and sovereignty, such as:
- Established freedom-of-navigation rights
- Set territorial sea boundaries 12 miles offshore
- Set exclusive economic zones up to 200 miles offshore
- Set rules for extending continental shelf rights up to 350 miles offshore
- Created the International Seabed Authority
- Created other conflict-resolution mechanisms (e.g., the UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf)
Protection of marine environment and biodiversity
The UN Environment Programme (UNEP), particularly through its Regional Seas Programme, acts to protect oceans and seas and promote the sustainable use of marine resources. The Regional Seas Conventions and Action Plans is the world’s only legal framework for protecting the oceans and seas at the regional level. UNEP also created The Global Programme of Action for the Protection of the Marine Environment from Land-based Activities. It is the only global intergovernmental mechanism directly addressing the link between terrestrial, freshwater, coastal and marine ecosystems.
The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), through its Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission, coordinates programmes in marine research, observation systems, hazard mitigation and better managing ocean and coastal areas.
The International Maritime Organization (IMO) is the key United Nations institution for the development of international maritime law. Its main task is to create a fair and effective, generally accepted and implemented legal framework for the shipping industry.
Marine shipping and pollution
To ensure that shipping is cleaner and greener, IMO has adopted regulations to address the emission of air pollutants from ships and has adopted binding energy-efficiency measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from international shipping. These include the landmark International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships of 1973, as modified by a 1978 Protocol (MARPOL), and the 1954 International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution of the Sea by Oil.
In 2017, the International Code for Ships Operating in Polar Waters (Polar Code) entered into force. The Polar Code covers the full range of design, construction, equipment, operational, training, search and rescue and environmental protection matters relevant to ships operating in the inhospitable waters surrounding the two poles. It was an important regulatory development in the field of transport and trade facilitation, alongside a range of regulatory developments relating to maritime and supply chain security and environmental issues.
In recent years there has been a surge in piracy off the coast of Somalia and in the Gulf of Guinea. Pirate attacks are a danger to the welfare of seafarers and the security of navigation and commerce. These criminal acts may result in the loss of life, physical harm or hostage-taking of seafarers, significant disruptions to commerce and navigation, financial losses to shipowners, increased insurance premiums and security costs, increased costs to consumers and producers, and damage to the marine environment.
Pirate attacks can have widespread ramifications, including preventing humanitarian assistance and increasing the costs of future shipments to the affected areas. The IMO and UN have adopted additional resolutions to complement the rules in the Law of the Sea Convention for dealing with piracy.
The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), through its Global Maritime Crime Programme (GMCP) combats transnational organized crime in Africa focusing on countering piracy of the Horn of Africa and Gulf of Guinea. The programme has delivered support to states in the region by carrying out trials and imprisonment of piracy suspects as well as developing maritime law enforcement capabilities through the facilitation of training programmes. From the piracy prosecution model, prisoner transfers and training of members in the judicial system of the Atlantic and Indian Ocean, to full-time mentoring to coast guards and police units in Somalia, Kenya and Ghana, the UNODC GMCP has accomplished many successes in a challenging environment. This has been achieved through a variety of programmes aimed at promoting maritime safety and bolstering the countries’ rule of law and justice systems.