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World View

The Law of the Sea’s next wave

/ 08:53 PM December 27, 2012

LONDON—Thirty years ago, the Cold War was at its height and the United Kingdom had just clawed its way out of recession. Perhaps those factors explain why, this month in 1982, when 119 government delegations chose to sign the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (Unclos), the UK was not among them. According to Donald Rumsfeld, Britain’s then-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher declared Unclos to be “nothing less than the international nationalization of roughly two-thirds of the Earth’s surface.”

Fifteen years later, when the UK finally acceded to Unclos under a Labor government, the convention was applying, for the first time in history, an internationally agreed legal framework to the majority of coastal waters around the world. Countries’ rights to fish, minerals and other resources were enshrined in law, with recourse to international adjudication should disputes arise. The right of free passage on the high seas was assured.

Britain and other countries must now learn from, rather than repeat, the Thatcher government’s mistake. A new debate is emerging about how we govern and exercise stewardship over the high seas—the 45 percent of the Earth’s surface that lies beyond national jurisdictions.


We know that a resource crunch of unprecedented scale is coming. Non-oil commodity prices have risen precipitously in the last decade. The high seas can provide food, minerals and novel resources for technology and medicine. But the weaknesses of the current governance regime, epitomized by rampant illegal, unregulated and unreported fishing, threaten to undermine the global security and sustainability to which well-managed oceans can contribute.

Unclos is a symbol of global cooperation, compromise and international law that was more than 20 years in the making. The failure of the US Senate to ratify it serves only to strengthen the case against America’s capacity for global leadership. But Unclos will need to evolve if it is to meet 21st-century challenges.

In 1982, fishing fleets did not have the technology to trawl the middle of the oceans. Our understanding of the ocean’s crucial role in protecting against climate change was in its infancy. The mineral riches of the ocean were not well understood.

Today, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization reports that more than three-quarters of the world’s fish stocks are either fully exploited or overexploited, while some populations of the larger fish that we eat have fallen to less than 10 percent of their historical level. Every year, fishing fleets spend more and more money—much of it from government subsidies—trying to catch more and more fish. But they fail, because the stocks are no longer there.

The World Bank estimates that overfishing alone costs the world $50 billion a year; and it is the poorest people in the poorest countries, more than a billion of whom depend on fish for their main source of protein, who suffer the most. So there is a moral as well as an economic imperative for action.

Governments have two responsibilities: to lead by example, and to build international alliances and agreements that are enforceable and effective. From overfishing and piracy to the possible degradation of carbon sinks, the need for governments to fulfill both obligations has never been greater.

Two years ago, as British foreign secretary, I led the process of protecting the ocean around the Chagos Islands in the British Indian Ocean Territory—the largest single marine area in the world (covering an area twice the size of the UK) where no commercial fishing is allowed. A host of threatened species, including turtles, sharks, rays, tuna and coral is now protected.

The current British government has a similar opportunity to turn 800,000 square kilometers of Pacific Ocean around the tiny British Overseas Territory of Pitcairn into a no-take marine reserve. Pitcairn’s seas are full of species found nowhere else: A bold and funded commitment by the UK government to protect them, which would have the islanders’ support, would place Britain at the leading edge of expertise in a crucial knowledge sector of the future.


Proper governance in international waters is more difficult to achieve, but is equally pressing.   Many of the intergovernmental organizations charged with managing fisheries regionally are in fact mismanaging spectacularly. Only 0.5 percent of the high seas, outside national jurisdiction, are protected. Ironically, in an era of mounting resource competition, cooperation to rebuild depleted fish stocks would actually result in a greater catch for all.

The Rio+20 meeting this summer came close to launching negotiations to plug the holes in

Unclos. The move was blocked, partly by the same fear of multilateralism that held back the Thatcher government 30 years ago. But this legacy of the Cold War is out of sync with the times. Unless we manage our interdependence far more effectively, we will all be poorer.

In the coming months, international pressure to tackle this crisis will grow. Governments, companies and individuals have a responsibility to listen to the facts and decide for themselves if they are part of the problem or the solution. From companies exploiting weak enforcement of rules to countries hiding behind short-term definitions of national interests to consumers letting supermarkets get away with unsustainable purchasing, we need a renewed debate on the future of our oceans and the life that they support.

This month’s anniversary of Unclos is a reminder of the great things that countries can accomplish when they work together—and of the significant steps that remain. Project Syndicate

David Miliband, foreign secretary of the United Kingdom from 2007 to 2010, is a member of Parliament.

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TAGS: column, david miliband, law of the sea, Unclos
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