Mon | Nov 29, 2021

Editorial | Place law on sea in spotlight

Published:Monday | October 25, 2021 | 12:06 AM

Jamaica is not expected to share the same geopolitical considerations as developed countries with respect to the management of the world’s oceans. But a recently launched review, by a British parliamentary committee, of the United Nations Convention of the Law on the Sea (UNCLOS) will hopefully stimulate Jamaica and its Caribbean neighbours to undertake their own assessment of the agreement in the context of a rapidly changing global environment, including climate change.

Jamaica has another important reason why it should want to be at the forefront of this analysis. While most Jamaicans are unaware of this fact, the island is the headquarters of the International Seabed Authority (ISA), the body through which the convention’s 168 signatories control the planned mining of the world’s deep seabed of polymetallic nodules. Indeed, a Jamaican-sponsored company is among a handful that has thus far received licences for the exploration of minerals in the area reserved for developing countries.

Signed in Montego Bay in 1982, the convention not only clearly enunciated the territorial limits of coastal states, but expanded on the concept of exclusive economic zones, established a framework for the resolution of disputes, and articulated rules for the navigation of the seas. Additionally, the convention promulgated the “Area”, more than half the area of the world’s oceans, over which no country has sovereign control and the administration of whose mineral resources is vested in the ISA for the “common benefit of mankind”.

Since the ISA’s formal launch in the mid-1990s, at a time when the deep-seabed mining technologies were still embryonic, its work has attracted relatively little attention here. Indeed, its 30th anniversary last year was hardly a matter for celebration by Kingston, despite Jamaica’s early championing of the UNCLOS and the significant hand the late solicitor general, Ken Rattray, had in negotiating the convention and the establishment of the authority.


Jamaica’s seeming ambivalence about the convention and the ISA may be explained, in part, by the fact that what happens in Kingston is not the aspect of UNCLOS that draws public notice as a live aspect of geopolitical tensions, such as disputes over territory and navigation rights. The most prominent of these is the overlapping quarrels in the South China Sea over the ownership of several islands – and thereby the control of surrounding seas – between China, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan, whose independence China disputes, insisting it is a breakaway portion of the nation’s territory.

The United States, which has not ratified the convention, actively opposes Beijing’s claim to sovereignty over the South China Sea, arguing it to be a breach of international law. Its naval vessels and aircraft frequently encroach on the waters and airspace China contends to be its own in an attempt, Washington says, to assert the right of passage. The British navy has also recently joined the Americans in exercises on the fringes of the South China Sea.

Those tensions are exacerbated by the economic and geopolitical competition between the United States and some of its key allies and a rising China, and provide part of the context for the UNCLOS review by the UK parliament’s International Relations and Defence Committee. It comes months after the Tory government unveiled its post-Brexit “pivot to Asia” strategy under its new “security, defence, development and foreign policy”.

An invitation for submissions on its work, the committee said that it will not only explore whether the convention remained “fit for purpose in 2021, but the extent to which its dispute resolution arrangements have adapted to new and emerging challenges, including climate change, human rights and human security at sea”.

“It (the committee) will explore the UK’s current policy towards UNCLOS … and consider which international relations and alliances will be important for the UK to address these challenges and uphold its interests,” the announcement said.


It is not unreasonable, after nearly 40 years, for a country to review the efficacy of an agreement of which it is a signatory. Indeed, at the UNCLOS signing in Montego Bay, concerns over global warming and climate change did not loom nearly as large as they do now. And there may even be now questions of whether the 15-year contract for the Jamaica-sponsored company, Blue Minerals Jamaica Ltd, to explore nearly 75,000 square miles of the Pacific for polymetallic nodules (nickel, copper, cobalt, manganese) will be ultimately exercisable, given the known, and emerging, science about rising sea levels and related matters. There is, too, the debate over whether deep-seabed mining of the type that falls within the ambit of the ISA properly fits into the concept of the ‘blue economy’.

Jamaica and its Caribbean partners must not lose sight of the fact that notwithstanding the uncertainties and the flaws that may exist in the convention, it remains part of the global rules-based arrangements. It ought not to be another of the institutions overthrown or undermined in favour of power silos framed within ‘international relations and alliances’, leading to the marginalisation of those who are not part of the competing blocs. We should beware of stalking horses.

In that regard, the Caribbean Community, with Jamaica at the forefront, should undertake its review of the UNCLOS to identify the region’s reform priorities and to be prepared for what others may have on their agendas.