Law of the sea is an ideal framework for arctic governance
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Over the past year or so, some of the most interesting law of the sea issues for us have come from the Arctic, where climate change is creating the prospect for increased shipping, oil and gas activity, tourism, and fishing. As a result, the law of the sea has become more relevant than ever. I want to conclude with a few observations and some ideas about ways forward regarding the melting Arctic.
My first observation is that while some have expressed concern that the Arctic is a “lawless” region, this could not be further from the truth. For one, the law of the sea, as reflected in the Convention, provides an extensive legal framework for a host of issues relevant to the Arctic. It sets forth navigational rights and freedoms for commercial and military vessels and aircraft in various maritime areas. It addresses the sovereignty of the five Arctic coastal States – the U.S., Russia, Canada, Denmark, and Norway – by setting forth the limits of the territorial sea and the applicable rules. It addresses sovereign resource rights by setting forth the limits of the exclusive economic zone and the continental shelf and rules governing those areas. It provides the geological criteria relevant to establishing the outer limits of the continental shelf beyond 200 nautical miles – a topic of great interest these days as the Arctic coastal States seek to extend their respective shelves to the limits permissible under international law. For Parties to the Convention – that is, the four other coastal States – it sets forth a procedure for securing international recognition of those outer limits. International law also sets forth rules for resolving cases where the maritime claims of coastal nations overlap. And finally, the law of the sea provides rules regarding marine scientific research in the Arctic and sets out the respective rights and responsibilities among coastal States, flag States, and port States regarding protection of the marine environment.
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.