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Law of the sea in 21st century: Lords Committee outlines actions for Government

1 March 2022

The House of Lords International Relations and Defence Committee has today published its report looking at the effective operation of the Law of the Sea in the modern era; entitled UNCLOS: The law of the sea in the 21st century.

Chair's comments

Commenting on the report, Baroness Anelay of St Johns, Chair of the International Relations and Defence Committee said:

“The UK is a major maritime power and has a strong overarching role to play in the development and maintenance of the law of the sea. It must, along with its partners and allies, step up to meet the 21st century challenges to UNCLOS (the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Seas), to ensure its continued relevance.

“UNCLOS represents a great example of what can be achieved when states come together and act in diplomatic cooperation. In some respects, even forty years after its ratification it remains operational because its key achievements of standardising states’ claims to maritime zones and providing a framework to settle any disputes remain largely successful.

“It is clear, however, that there are gaps in UNCLOS which affect its efficacy, especially in regard to modern issues that have arisen in the years since its ratification. These developments include rising sea levels, climate change and new technology related to maritime autonomous vehicles. It is also essential to address other issues that have become more prominent and problematic since UNCLOS was drafted: such as human rights at sea and maritime security. The treaty’s provisions must be updated and supplemented in order for UNCLOS to remain fit for purpose.”

Key conclusions

Key conclusions of the report include:

  • The report acknowledges key success factors and achievements of UNCLOS, principally that its framework status allows it to operate as a “living treaty” that can be adapted to reflect modern circumstances and develop international law; and that it represents a major example of diplomatic cooperation between member states.
  • The report concludes however, that if the provisions of UNCLOS are not supplemented, or further developed it would no longer be fit for purpose in the 21st century. The report highlights several gaps and weaknesses in UNCLOS that the Government needs to address to ensure its continued effective operation in the modern era.
  • The Committee recommends that the Government must continue to advocate for the protection of the marine environment and promote a more careful approach to the extraction of living and non-living resources.
  • The Committee expects to receive further detail in the Government’s response to this report on how the UK is preparing to support migrants in light of the risk some may lose their territories and statehood. The response from the Government must include details of those territories most likely to be at risk and the number of people likely to be adversely affected. The Committee also calls for the Government to continue pushing for recognition of the oceans within the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), and for greater coordination between the UNFCCC and UNCLOS processes.
  • The Committee urges the Government to work more closely with likeminded partners, via the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) and other international bodies, to address some of the regulatory gaps in UNCLOS. The Government should use its influence and voice within the IMO to explore ways it can update and amend the existing law to address concerns, including modern challenges such as maritime autonomous vehicles, human rights at sea, rising sea levels, new technologies and the quest for ever more resources. The Government must take a leadership role and work with others to ensure the link between vessels and the state in which they are registered is genuine and show a good example to other states by tightening the criteria for its own ship registry.
  • The Committee urges the Government to consider advancing an agreement to address human rights abuses at sea. Such an agreement must take a holistic approach to human rights so the Government works with likeminded partners to advance a unified approach to this issue. The approach will need to draw together practical solutions to challenges including mass migration, forced labour, physical and sexual crimes, and crimes committed by privately contracted armed security personnel, and must lead to the creation of new mechanisms to address human rights at sea. A full range of options should be considered including port state controls, sanctions, and private arbitration systems.
  • The Committee concludes that the Government must ensure its own domestic legislation fully reflects its obligations under international human rights law, in particular, the Nationality and Borders Bill. In response to this report, the Government must provide a full assessment of the compatibility of the provisions in the Bill dealing with so-called forced turnarounds with the UK's international responsibilities under Article 98 of UNCLOS. The Government should provide active support to developing states so that they too can uphold the principles of UNCLOS through law enforcement and environmental protection activities.

Further information