U.S. underseas cable industry needs UNCLOS protection
Currently the vital U.S. underseas cable industry has to rely on the outdated 1884 telegraph treaty for its legal basis when defending its rights to lay, maintain, and repair underseas cables. U.S. ratification of UNCLOS would better protect U.S. companies’ existing cable systems and foster additional investments by giving telecommunications the legal certainty to their claims that they need.
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From a global and national security perspective, submarine communications cables also play an essential role. For example, “a major portion of the [U.S. Department of Defense] data traveling on undersea cables is unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) video, essential for war preparation.”49 As one scholar observed, “without ensured cable connectivity, the future of modern warfare is in jeopardy.”50 A further example of the importance of cables to the military is the development of the Global Information Grid (GiG) by the U.S. Department of Defense.51 The GiG is the “globally, interconnected, end-to-end set of infor- mation capabilities for collecting, processing, storing, disseminating and managing information on demand to warfighters, policy makers and support personnel.”52 The Grid utilizes portions of the international telecommunications systems and has been described as a “global network that can be used to control a global battlespace.”53
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The 2010 ROGUCCI report highlighted an important item regarding UNCLOS in that some coastal nations do not comply or have failed to enact legislation that enforces the protection of undersea cables.62 Notwithstanding concerns raised about UNCLOS, the U.S. Congress has not ratified UNCLOS, even after a strong showing before the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations (SCFR) in 2007 pertaining to the 1994 UNCLOS Ratification Agreement. The before the SCFR speaks to the conclusion: “It would be in the best interest of the U.S. to ratify this treaty because the U.S. telecom and power companies, the U.S. Navy and scientists, can seek the assistance of the U.S. government to enforce the rights of cable owners to lay, repair, and maintain cables outside of territorial seas and to prevent these rights from being diminished without U.S. involvement. "” Currently, a vote of the entire U.S. Senate has yet to be scheduled. Without passing this legislation, the U.S. can only resort to the 1884 Convention rules on telegraph cables in the event it seeks to enforce cable protection. "64
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Critics of UNCLOS raise the argument that since many of the rights spelled out in UNCLOS can be considered customary international law to which the US adheres, there is not need to formally ratify the convention.
From first hand experience, I can say this academic argument fails in the real world. Customary international law requires a court decision to determine state practice, before it can be said to be binding law. Last year I involved in a non-cable major marine pollution case pending in a US court where the issue was the rights of a European coastal nation to refuse entry to a leaking supertanker after the crew had been rescued. I think the issue is well addressed in UNCLOS, but both sides presented expert witnesses and detailed memorandums arguing for different interpretations of what the applicable state practice and customary international law is. Ultimately, we won't know the answer until the Judge decides the issue. The point is that telecom companies can not make business investments on such an illusive basis as customary international law. They need reliable and discernable international law which UNCLOS expressly provides.
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In November 2007, there was a report of the intentional sabotage of a cable in Bangladesh, which resulted in a total loss of communications for at least one week causing a loss of 1.05 million U.S. dollars in revenue by the Bangladesh Telegraph and Telephone Board.201 In addition, there have also been reports of cable theft in Jamaica in 2008 where Cable and Wireless Jamaica lost 1.5 million dollars,202 and a 2010 attack by separatists against the beach manhole con- nection of a submarine cable system linking the Philippines with Japan.203 In March 2013, it was reported that 16 tons of submarine cables laid on the sea- bed between Bangka Island and the Riau Islands in Indonesia were stolen.204 Perhaps more disturbingly is an incident that occurred in April 2013, when there were interruptions on multiple undersea communications cables that link Europe to the Middle East and Asia including I-ME-WE, TE North, EIG and SEA-ME-WE 3.205 While initially chalked up to dragging ship anchors, the Egyptian coast guard caught three divers trying to cut the SEA-ME-WE-4 near Alexandria, although the motives of such an act remain unknown.206
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Currently, undersea cables are protected by the following international treaties: the International Convention for Protection of Submarine Cables of 1884, the Geneva Convention of the Continental Shelf, and the Geneva Convention on the High Seas are separate but, both ratified in 1958, and the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) of 1982. The 1958 Geneva Convention incorporates earlier treaties regarding the laying and repair of cables on the high seas. The U.S. has signed, but not ratified UNCLOS, which entered into force in 1994 and currently has 153 nations as parties.57
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UNCLOS is needed as well close to home. UNCLOS provides clear boundaries between seabed users and coastal nations with universal norms. These same norms are needed with respect to federal and state government policy.
In the last eight years, the traditional rights of cable owners outside of territorial waters have been the victim of steady encroachment by certain state agencies and certain federal agencies which seek to expand their regulatory reach over international cables- in California or Oregon out to 200 nautical miles, in New Jersey out to 110 nautical miles off their coasts. Compare these with state jurisdictions over international cables of 3 nautical miles claimed by Florida or New York, and the quandary of cable owners can start to be appreciated. These jurisdictional differences translate into added delays of 1-2 years and millions of additional dollars for installing new cable systems. This jurisdictional confusion would be harmonized by UNCLOS.
The current uncertainty and conflicts over the limits of the United States continental shelf and margin and the rights and obligations of international cables laid on it will be largely resolved by UNCLOS.
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Given the likely economic and military impacts of cable breaks, the ability to threaten or protect submarine cables and their shore landings will be increasingly important in future conflicts. In a crisis, an aggressor could use multiple coordinated attacks on cables to compel an opponent to back down or employ them as part of an opening offensive to cut off the defender’s military forces from national commanders, intelligence data, and sensor information. Cable attacks could also be highly destabilizing, since they could prevent a nuclear-armed opponent from controlling and monitoring its strategic weapons and early-warning systems. In response, the country targeted could choose to place its nuclear weapons in a higher alert condition – or initiate a preemptive attack.
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Accession to the Law of the Sea Convention would better protect U.S. companies’ existing cable systems and foster additional investments. Companies would benefit from the legal certainty provided by treaty-based rights to lay, maintain, and repair cables, and conduct surveys incident to laying cables. Like shipping companies, telecom interests emphasize that they cannot merely rely on customary international law because of the threat of encroachments by coastal states. Russia’s attempt to delineate cable routes on its continental margin in the Arctic proves that fears of encroachment are not theoretical. As a non-party, the U.S. loses more than just credibility to lodge diplomatic protests to such actions because, with respect to its submarine cable provisions, the Convention permits parties to invoke its meaningful dispute resolution procedures. U.S. telecom companies have repeatedly emphasized that they are comfortable with, and want to rely on, the compulsory dispute resolution provisions in the Convention.
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About two years ago, French fishing vessels unreasonably obstructed a British repair vessel in carrying out cable maintenance off the coast of France by blocking its path. UNCLOS provides remedies which would protect the cable owner's rights in these situations. Judge Wolfrum, the President of the International Law of the Sea Tribunal, is in the audience and could certainly expand on this point. For those who may feel that was only a British and French problem, you would be wrong. The cable involved carried US traffic.
Since 1998 China6 is requiring permits for cables not landing in the country, but which transit its EEZ. The Russian Federation since 1995 is claiming the right to delineate cable routes on its continental shelf in the Arctic as far north as the North Pole. Both of actions are violations of Article 79 of UNCLOS which does not allow a coastal nation to delineate or permit the routes of transiting international cables on the continental shelf.
Last February, in response to a proposal by the province of Nova Scotia to possibly mandate cable routes and require payments to bottom fishermen for use of the seabed in international waters, North American cable owners based their strong jurisdictional arguments against the plan on the straight forward provisions of UNCLOS, which since Canada is a party to UNCLOS, are binding.
UNCLOS is a powerful tool to overcome these encroachments on the freedom to lay cables, but US companies suffer, because the United States has not become a party. If the United States is a party to UNCLOS, then US telecom companies, the Navy, and scientists can enlist the U.S. government to enforce the rights of cable owners to lay, repair and maintain cables in international waters. Without the status of a party to UNCLOS, the United States has no access to the important remedies under UNCLOS to enforce treaty obligations on behalf of US companies or government agencies.
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Tapping today’s fiber-optic cables is theoretically possible, but it is easier to cut or damage them and significantly impact the cables’ users. And while the exact location of cables is not publicly available, improvements to “bottom survey” equipment and unmanned undersea vehicles are making finding cables easier and faster. In time-sensitive military or diplomatic operations, the loss of communications for a few minutes or hours can be catastrophic. With financial transactions, the loss of even fractions of a second can cost millions of dollars as high-speed trades miss their targets and other transactions fail to go through or are lost entirely. The dozens of cable outages that occur each year do not cause a complete loss of service, but they do slow data-transfer speeds as information is re-routed through fewer intact cables. Most of these cable breaks happen in relatively shallow water, when rough weather moves cables around until they break or fishing trawlers catch a cable in a net. Some outages, however, have more nefarious origins. In 2013, three divers with hand tools cut the main cable connecting Egypt with Europe, reducing Egypt’s Internet bandwidth by 60%.
Repairing a submarine cable at sea is difficult and time consuming. First the break has to be located using built-in monitoring systems that can indicate the cable segment in which the break is likely to have occurred. Cable repair ships then must go to that location and pull up the cable until they get to the damaged spot. A new section of cable can then be spliced in, which can take several days to complete.