Thirty years ago, the Cold War was at its height and the UK had just clawed its way out of recession. Perhaps those factors explain why, last week in 1982, when 119 government delegations chose to sign the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), the UK was not among them.
According to former US secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld, then-British prime minister Margaret Thatcher at the time 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 Labour Party 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. However, 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 the US’ capacity for global leadership. However, 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 over-exploited, 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. However, they fail because the stocks are no longer there.
The World Bank estimates that overfishing alone costs the world US$50 billion a year; and it is the poorest people in the poorest countries — more than 1 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 fulfil both obligations has never been greater.