Global perspective Human stories

UN marks 20th anniversary of landmark treaty governing use of the world's oceans

UN marks 20th anniversary of landmark treaty governing use of the world's oceans

The United Nations today marked the 20th anniversary of a landmark international treaty governing the use of the world's ocean space and all activities conducted within it, with senior UN officials praising the accord for bringing order and structure to the maritime environment.

At today's commemorative meeting at the UN General Assembly in New York, Secretary-General Kofi Annan called the Convention on the Law of the Sea a milestone for the rule of law. "In a world of uncertainty and insecurity, it is indeed a great achievement to have established this Convention, and to ensure the rule of law in an element where human beings from different nations have interacted through the centuries," he said.

The Convention was opened for signature on 10 December 1982 in Montego Bay, Jamaica, after nine years of negotiations, with a record 119 countries signing on. The treaty came into force on 16 November 1994, and is fast approaching universal participation, with 138 States Parties, including the European Union, and 157 signatories.

Among its provisions, the "constitution for the oceans" established that the seabed and ocean floor beyond the limits of national jurisdiction are the "common heritage of mankind," whose use and protection are the right and responsibility of all. The treaty also called for the compulsory settlement of disputes, set out the overall legal framework for all activities in or on the oceans and seas, and provided detailed rules governing all uses of the oceans and defined the rights and responsibilities of States.

In his statement today, the Secretary-General noted that over the last two decades the implementation of certain aspects of the accord have been "inadequate," pointing out that the world's fisheries are becoming increasingly depleted, and the environment is becoming dangerously and seriously degraded.

"These are threats not only to food security and to the livelihoods of many coastal communities, but also to human health and to life itself," he said. "The oceans and the seas are vitally important for the earth's ecosystem. They provide vital resources for food security, and without them, economic prosperity and the well-being of present and future generations could not be sustained."

He urged countries to improve their cooperation on the issue, and appealed also to those not party to the treaty to ratify the Convention. "There could be no bigger tribute to its success and importance than to see it become truly universal," he said. "Peace and security, development and trade, cooperation and the rule of law would be strengthened by that achievement."

General Assembly President Jan Kavan of the Czech Republic said the elaboration of the Convention represented an attempt to establish "true universality" in the effort to achieve a just and equitable international order governing ocean space. "For the first time the Convention offers a universal and complex legal framework for sharing the oceans as a common heritage of mankind," he stressed.

The text of the Convention is not only the result of the codification of customary law, Mr. Kavan added, but embodies the progressive development of international law as well by setting up the International Seabed Authority and the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea. "The high number of States Parties to the Convention is the best proof of the magnificent success of all those who participated in this work," he said.