Customary International Law
Customary international law are those aspects of international law that derive from custom. Along with general principles of law and treaties, custom is considered by the International Court of Justice, jurists, the United Nations, and its member states to be among the primary sources of international law.
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LOSC critics often argue that the treaty’s navigational provisions are redundant given that countries – including the United States – comply with customary international law. However, as navies around the world modernize, states may seek to redefine or reinterpret customary international law in ways that directly conflict with U.S. inter- ests, including freedom of navigation. Ratification will help the United States counter efforts by rising powers seeking to reshape the rules that have been so beneficial to the global economy and to U.S. security. China, for example, seeks to alter customary international law and long-held interpretations of LOSC in ways that will affect operations of the United States as well as those of many of its allies and partners. Some U.S. partners and allies share China’s view on some of these issues. Thailand, for example, has adopted China’s view that foreign navies must have consent of the coastal state before conducting military exercises in its Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), a view that runs counter to traditional interpretation of the treaty.10 LOSC provides a legitimate and recognized framework for adjudicating disagreements that will enable the United States to sustain access to the global commons.
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Admiral Clark's statement indicates that becoming a party to UNCLOS will help solidify United States rights that now exist only in customary international law.95 Opponents of UNCLOS claim that the United States should not become a party because the United States already enjoys the benefits of UNCLOS through customary law and, therefore, should not unnecessarily incur the treaty's burdens.96 however, ignores the fact that customary law can change and can also be influenced by how parties to UNCLOS decide to interpret its provisions.97 If the United States is not a party, it will have no say as to how the law develops.98 By becoming a party to UNCLOS, the United States will be able to ensure that the law of sea develops in congruence with its national security and other interests.99
"National Security Implications in the Global War on Terrorism of the United States Accession to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea
." Dartmouth Law Journal
. Vol. 7, No. 2 (2009): 117-131. [ More (9 quotes) ]
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The United Nations did not invent the law of the sea. There has been a law of the sea in effect for many centuries. When Spanish and Portuguese explorers first charted new sea routes to the Americas and Asia, their governments imagined that they could lay claim to all the ocean vastness in between. Successful challenges by new maritime powers, especially Britain and Holland, soon established the principle that the high seas should be open to all. In the early 17th century, the Dutch jurist Hugo Grotius published an extremely learned treatise which summed up the new approach in a catchy phrase: “freedom of the seas.” To secure freedom on the seas, there had to be rules applicable to most situations that also acknowledged—and thereby constrained—necessary exceptions. These rules were developed over centuries in a process of mutual accommodation—and occasional challenge by war at sea—among major maritime powers. Nearly all of this law was “customary law,” meaning that it reflected actual practice among maritime states—including particular agreements among particular states—without being set down in any formal document.
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UNCLOS opponents are correct on at least one point. The customary international law of the sea – at least as generally understood today – is consistent with U.S. national security interests. The U.S. government has said as much. However, in relying on the apparent harmony between UNCLOS and customary law as rationale for the U.S. to remain outside the treaty, opponents have failed to address a critical question: What if UNCLOS or customary law changes? Is it possible that today’s favorable legal environment could evolve adversely to U.S. interests? "
The question is more than speculative. Through the years, a variety of nations have advanced legal theories inconsistent with critical U.S. ocean policy interests.16 Historically, these nations have lacked the will or ability to affect meaningful change in the international law of the sea. Today, however, this dynamic is changing.
Consider, for example, U.S. military operations in the off-shore area known as the EEZ, as codified by UNCLOS, comprising the waters beyond a nation’s territorial sea extending a maximum of 200 nautical miles from the coast.17 For years, the U.S. has consistently maintained the right under customary international law to conduct military activities in coastal state EEZs. Over the past decade, however, the People’s Republic of China has initiated confrontations with U.S. ships and aircraft operating in the Chinese-claimed EEZ and its associated airspace. The Chinese have boldly rejected long-standing U.S. positions on customary international law and also challenged conventional interpretations of critical UNCLOS provisions. "
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The U.S.’s post-World War II record of success in shaping a favorable law of the sea agenda was achieved without a serious rival. For decades, developing nations looked to the Soviet Union for leadership in opposing perceived imperialistic trends in U.S. foreign policy. However, within the law of the sea, the Soviet antagonist was notably absent. As the nation most capable of challenging U.S. operations and underlying legal doctrines, the Soviets had no interest in doing so. The U.S. and Soviet Union were, in effect, law of the sea allies.53
Today, China shows far less inclination toward cooperation. Although Chinese legal arguments are not entirely original, what separates China from the traditionally ineffectual opponents of military maritime mobility is China’s ambitious naval modernization.54 The Chinese have served notice they intend to be at least a regional maritime power and perhaps more. Moreover, the Chinese intend to protect their maritime interests by redefining key aspects of the maritime legal regime.55
If indeed the Chinese are inclined to lead a law of the sea insurgency from a position of maritime strength, the international political climate for doing so is more favorable today than 1982, when UNCLOS opened for signature, or even than 1994, when UNCLOS entered into force. Today, states with coastal concerns and interests of their own may find China’s arguments useful in their own contexts. Two especially fertile justifications for increased regulation are protecting the coastal marine environment and ensuring off-shore security.
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Custom can also develop rapidly based upon interpretations of treaties, as well as the rulings and declarations of international bodies and courts that can declare an existing customary rule.87 In the past 50 years, customary rules have developed quickly in response to technological innovation or in times of fundamental change.88 Moreover, rapid changes to custom do not require multiple instances of state practice,89 particularly when a state with special influence in the field seeks change.90 Most recently, the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon resulted in changed custom concerning the use of force in self-defense against non-state actors91 and those who support or harbor terrorists.92 Such changes to the well-settled field of international humanitarian law would have been unthinkable in an earlier era.
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International customary laws have developed out of “concordant practice by a number of states . . . over a considerable period of time,” when such practice is thought to be required by, or consistent with, the prevailing international law, and when such practice is generally accepted by other states.117 As mentioned in section III, the Convention itself is based in part on international customary laws. In addition, when an issue is not regulated by the Convention, the customary laws serve a gap-filling role, and because the Convention binds only its signatories, customary international law remains an important means of transacting with non-signatories of the Convention.118 However, the Convention expands the “existing norms to suit new developments where the existing norms are no longer sufficient,” creates new norms, and in some cases replaces old norms that are no longer appropriate.119 Thus, asserting customary international law will not secure all the benefits of the Convention for the United States because the signatories of the Convention do not have to extend specific rights established in the Convention, or those which are modifications of the existing rules, to non-signatories.120 For example, Canada may choose not to grant the United States the right of scientific research in the EEZ or in the continental shelf.121
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The United States did not sign UNCLOS,76 but remains a party to Geneva LOS.77 UNCLOS superseded the Geneva LOS conventions as to parties of both treaties.78 Those parties include the major players in the fight against maritime piracy. Somalia, Kenya, Seychelles, Yemen, Denmark, France, Germany, the United Kingdom, China, India, and Japan are all parties to UNCLOS.79 Indeed, UNCLOS currently has 160 state parties,80 a sufficiently large proportion of all states for it to constitute a codification of customary international law.81 Additionally, submission for ratification gives UNCLOS force as between the United States and other state parties, and the United States has stated its intention to respect the rules of UNCLOS on “navigation and other matters.”82
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The Convention guarantees rights of innocent passage through territorial seas, transit passage through straits and archipelagoes, and freedom of all vessels on the high seas. Seafaring vessels, such as container ships, crude oil tankers, and bulk carriers, carry over 95 percent of all goods imported to or exported from the United States. Guaranteeing their free movement is both an economic and a national security concern, as these ships transport the majority of this country’s oil and other crucial commodities and goods.
The Convention’s detractors argue that U.S. ships can rely on customary international law to ensure their mobility. But customary international law is not well- suited to the needs of business. By definition, it is hard to find and apply customary law because it does not exist in one place. Its rules can and will shift over time. Shipping companies benefit from a set of stable, written rules that they can easily reference during a dispute. The Law of the Sea Convention serves this function by codifying key navigational rights in a single, central authority.
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And this expression of the national interest has been the precise locus of the isolationist backlash against UNCLOS. Treaty opponents have been unable to mount a serious challenge to the underlying substantive policy goals in favor of ratification of the Convention by the United States. The ability of the U.S. Navy to project power, under its Freedom of Navigation (FON) program as part of UNCLOS,9 has received a lot of negative attention of late, as coastal states (especially archipelagic nations and those bordering strategic straits)10 have renewed attempts to limit access by constraining the doctrines of innocent and transit passage under UNCLOS. Treaty opponents have cleverly argued that there is no need for the U.S. to ratify UNCLOS because all of its FON provisions are already reflected in customary international law (CIL). The problem – as recognized by the Pentagon – is that CIL formulations for FON are largely derived from the state practice following the 1958 Geneva Conventions (to which the U.S. is a party).11 It is not a credible international legal position, however, to rely on CIL frozen-in-time nearly a half-century ago. In order for the U.S. to effectively object to improper impositions of navigation interferences by coastal states, there must be a baseline (both literally and figuratively)12 of state behavior – and that standard is UNCLOS.
Even though U.S. has not ratified UNCLOS, it still has committed itself to abiding by its principles in two ways: through numerous policy statements and laws drafted in accordance with UNCLOS and committing the U.S. to abiding by it; and due to the fact that the Law of the Sea has become customary international law.
Opponents of UNCLOS claim that the United States should not become a party because the United States already enjoys the benefits of UNCLOS through customary law and, therefore, should not unnecessarily incur the treaty's burdens. However, this ignores the fact that customary law can change and can also be influenced by how parties to UNCLOS decide to interpret its provisions.
U.S. security interests in the oceans have been adequately protected to date by current U.S. ocean policy and implementing strategy. U.S. reliance on arguments that customary international law, as articulated in the non-deep seabed mining provisions of the 1982 Law of the Sea Convention, and as supplemented by diplomatic protests and assertion of rights under the Freedom of Navigation Program, have served so far to preserve fundamental freedoms of navigation and overflight with acceptable risk, cost and effort.