Achieving SDG 14: the Role of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea


By Miguel de Serpa Soares

Oceans, seas and coastal areas form an integrated and essential component of the Earth's ecosystem and are critical to sustainable development. They cover more than two thirds of the Earth's surface and contain 97 per cent of the planet's water. Oceans contribute to poverty eradication by providing opportunities for sustainable livelihoods and decent work. Over 3 billion people depend on marine and coastal resources as a means of support. In addition, oceans play a crucial role in the achievement of global food security, as well as human health and well-being. They are the primary regulator of the global climate, function as an important sink for greenhouse gases, serve as the host for huge reservoirs of biodiversity and play a major role in producing the oxygen we breathe.

Oceans, seas and marine resources are increasingly threatened by human activities, including increased CO2 emissions, climate change, marine pollution, unsustainable extraction of marine resources, and physical alterations and destruction of marine and coastal habitats. The First Global Integrated Marine Assessment, completed in 2015 under the United Nations Regular Process for Global Reporting and Assessment of the State of the Marine Environment, including Socio-Economic Aspects, provides a stark picture of the state of our oceans. Anthropogenic pressures on marine ecosystems, including ocean acidification and climate change, are challenging the resilience of the oceans and their resources, as well as their continued ability to provide important ecosystems goods and services. The United Nations General Assembly has noted with concern the findings of the Assessment: the world's oceans are facing major simultaneous pressures, affecting them in such a way that the limits of their carrying capacity are being or have been reached, and that delays in implementing solutions to the identified problems threatening to degrade the world's oceans will incur, unnecessarily, greater environmental, social and economic costs. The international community increasingly recognizes that developing an ocean-based economy-a 'blue' economy for current and future generations-requires the conservation of oceans and seas and their resources, and that they be managed and used in a sustainable manner, inclusive of all sectors and grounded in cooperation and coordinated efforts.

These challenges are not new. Each year, they are at the core of the General Assembly's considerations on oceans and the law of the sea and sustainable fisheries. Moreover, time and effort spent on identifying and creating action plans to address the problems mentioned above are discussed in more specialized fora and are reflected in the commitments agreed upon by Member States and relevant actors in the outcomes of major conferences on sustainable development.

It is worth recalling that the importance of oceans for sustainable development is widely recognized by the international community and is an integral part of the core commitments that Member States have made in that regard. This recognition is embodied in chapter 17 of Agenda 21, the Johannesburg Plan of lmplementation and the Rio+20 outcome document, "The Future We Want".

Among the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) that encompass the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, adopted by the General Assembly in September 2015, a stand-alone goal seeks to address the need for, inter alia, the sustainable use and conservation of life below water: Goal 14, "Conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development".

SDG 14 targets seek to prevent and reduce marine pollution; further the sustainable management and protection of marine and coastal ecosystems; address the impacts of ocean acidification; regulate harvesting and end overfishing, illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing and destructive fishing practices; conserve coastal and marine areas; increase the economic benefits to small island developing States and least developed countries from the sustainable use of marine resources; and strengthen the means of implementation, including increasing scientific knowledge, the transfer of marine technology and implementation of international law as reflected in the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

UNCLOS is frequently referred to as the 'constitution for the oceans'. It sets out, as recognized by the General Assembly, the legal framework within which all activities in the oceans and seas must be carried out, including with regard to the conservation and sustainable use of the oceans and their resources. The Convention recognizes the desirability of establishing, with due regard for the sovereignty of all States, a legal order that will facilitate international communication and promote the peaceful uses of the seas and oceans; the equitable and efficient utilization of their resources; the conservation of their living resources; and the study, protection and preservation of the marine environment. To that end, the Convention establishes a delicate balance between the need for economic and social development through the use of the oceans and their resources and the need to conserve and manage those resources in a sustainable manner. UNCLOS also aims at balancing the rights and obligations of coastal States with those of other States. It contains provisions relating to the rights of countries in special circumstances, such as landlocked States, as well as important terms dealing with the peaceful settlement of disputes.

As a framework, UNCLOS was intended to be developed further through more detailed rules adopted under competent intergovernmental organizations, including those at the regional level. The duty to cooperate, therefore, is a central feature of the Convention.  Both the Agreement relating to the implementation of Part XI of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea of 10 December 1982 (the Part XI Agreement) and the Agreement for the Implementation of the Provisions of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea relating to the Conservation and Management of Straddling Fish Stocks and Highly Migratory Fish Stocks (the Fish Stocks Agreement), reflect the ability of the international community to cooperate towards further developing UNCLOS and addressing gaps and newly emerging issues. Of note in this regard is the ongoing process established by the General Assembly through its resolution 69/292 on the development of an international legally binding instrument under UNCLOS on the conservation and sustainable use of marine biological diversity of areas beyond national jurisdiction.

UNCLOS embodies the three pillars of sustainable development-social, economic and environmental-and sets forth the legal framework for the sustainable development of the oceans and seas. The Convention covers a wide range of issues, such as the limits and legal regime of the various maritime zones, including the continental shelf; rights and duties of navigation; peace and security; conservation and management of living marine resources; protection and preservation of the marine environment; marine scientific research; development and transfer of marine technology; and activities on the seabed beyond the limits of national jurisdiction. The Convention also contains important provisions relating to migration by sea with the duty to render assistance (article 98). The General Assembly has consistently emphasized the unified character of the Convention and reaffirmed that it is of strategic importance as the basis for national, regional and global action and cooperation in the marine sector, and that its integrity needs to be maintained, as recognized also by the 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development in chapter 17 of Agenda 21.

The introduction to chapter 17 of Agenda 21 specifically confirms that UNCLOS sets forth the rights and obligations of States and provides the international basis upon which to pursue the protection and sustainable development of the marine and coastal environment and its resources. The Johannesburg Plan of Implementation, adopted at the 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development, invited States to ratify or accede to and implement both UNCLOS and the Fish Stocks Agreement, while recognizing the former's role as the overall legal framework for all ocean activities. In turn, target 14.c of SDG 14 speaks of enhancing the conservation and sustainable use of oceans and their resources by implementing international law as reflected in UNCLOS, which provides the legal framework for the conservation and sustainable use of oceans and their resources, as recalled in paragraph 158 of "The Future We Want".

The effective implementation of the Convention and its implementing agreements is, therefore, an essential basis for the achievement of Goal14 and related SDGs. It is, for example, in the interest of coastal States to enhance their national legislation, in harmony with the Convention, in relation to their exclusive economic zones, with a view to fully realizing the benefits of UNCLOS under the sovereign rights of the coastal State to explore and exploit, conserve and manage natural resources, whether living or non-living, and with regard to other activities for the economic exploitation and exploration of the zone. Realization of these benefits may lead to the attainment of food security and the fulfilment of nutritional needs, meeting the demand for new sources of raw materials and sustainable energy sources, and safeguarding the well­-being and livelihoods of communities relying on healthy oceans and resources for prosperity.

Nevertheless, despite the considerable progress that has been made in the development of this legal and policy framework, there remain important challenges in the implementation of existing applicable instruments, particularly the Convention. It is well-recognized that the problems of ocean space are closely interrelated and need to be considered as a whole through an integrated, interdisciplinary and inter­sectoral approach. In accordance with the Convention, and as reaffirmed by the General Assembly, there is a need to improve cooperation and coordination at the national, regional and global levels to support and supplement the efforts of States in promoting the integrated management and sustainable development of the oceans and seas.

In order to enhance the implementation of agreed commitments, including those contained in UNCLOS and its related legal instruments, three fundamental aspects can be highlighted: awareness-raising and increasing scientific knowledge; enhancing financing and developing capacity; and strengthening implementation and cross­sectoral cooperation.

Raising awareness of the state of the marine environment and of the existing commitments, as well as measures that can be taken to improve the state of the oceans, is an important step towards improving implementation. Increasing our knowledge of the oceans is one key action in that regard. Marine scientific research, as well as the exchange of information and data, can help build our knowledge of the oceans and seas and inform policymaking. The First Integrated Global Marine Assessment is a shining example of a global, General Assembly-driven effort to improve the science-policy interface and ensure that scientific knowledge can be translated into effective policymaking for the coherent management of the oceans.

The need for increased financing and enhanced capacity-building is also underscored. Developing countries, in particular small island developing States and least developed countries, face considerable hurdles in the management of maritime spaces due to the lack of resources and capacity. Ocean-related initiatives in many cases suffer from a lack of sufficient or sustainable funding, including for capacity-building. Innovative approaches and the effective use of partnerships could help overcome some of these obstacles.

If we are to maximize our benefits from the oceans over the long term and achieve sustainable development, our challenge will be to move from words to action. The Ocean Conference, which will be held at United Nations Headquarters from 5 to 9 June 2017, is set to play an important role in this regard.