UNCLOS is best regime for Arctic Governance
UNCLOS represents the consensus of decades of debate on how best to govern shared ocean resources and to handle disputes over border conflicts. The Arctic nations have settled on UNCLOS, adopting it in their laws and subsequent agreements, and it forms the basis for governance of the Arctic region.
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Reforming the treaty, however, would be difficult. The UNCLOS is not a region-specific treaty: over 150 nations are signatories, and 145 have ratified it.154 The UNCLOS initially took over a decade to acquire the required number of signatures to become effective.155 The dramatic reform required to make the UNCLOS an effective means to protect the Arctic would likely require member states to redraft large portions of the massive document. Nations around the world would subsequently have to acquiesce to the changes.156
If the international community makes the required changes to the UNCLOS, there is always the risk that current member states will rebuke the new treaty. If the reformed treaty fails to gain acceptance, not only would the Arctic remain unprotected, but so would the world’s other oceanic environments. This risk may not be worth its potential cost. Even if member states form a consensus of better protecting the Arctic environment, and more ratify the treaty, it still may prove to be ineffective. Many nations, including the United States, tend to ratify treaties only to claim reservations about provisions they do not like.157 This severely limits a treaty’s ability to create the kind of change necessary to protect the Arctic.
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The United States benefits from a rules-based international order that enhances economic well-being, respects human rights and human dignity, and supports mechanisms for the peaceful resolution of disputes while providing for territorial integrity and defense of the United States and its allies. In the Arctic, which is in rapid flux due to the changing climate, no one country can manage the coming challenges alone. A collective approach is needed to mitigate and adapt to changing realities, advance scientific understanding, and build resilience and capacity; the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea is part of this rule-based order.