Coastal nations have made their underwater claims. But owning something means it’s now yours to lose
On November 1, 1967, United Nations ambassador Arvid Pardo of Malta delivered an impassioned speech to the United Nations General Assembly.
According to a Malta Department of Information press release, Pardo called for “international regulations to prevent the oceans from becoming a theatre for escalating conflict between nations, to stop sea pollution through negligence and to protect the resources of the sea.”
He also famously proposed that the planet’s seabed be considered a part of the “common heritage of mankind.”
Over the next fifteen years, 160 nations participated in the Third United Nations Conference on the Law of the Sea, producing in 1982 the Law of the Sea, which contained Pardo’s “common heritage” phrase in Article 136.
The convention also imposed on all the countries who ratified the treaty by May 13, 1999, a 10-year deadline, for claiming extensions of their continental shelf.
Last week, that deadline passed, ending what the Economist called a “scramble for the seabed.”
Several nations filed last-minute applications for a piece of the continental shelf pie that holds unknown and potentially vast stores of oil, gas and mineral deposits like gold, silver, copper and zinc. Some scientists believe that the Arctic alone contains up to 25 percent of the planet’s undiscovered oil and gas reserves.
Beneficial flora and fauna — such as sea cucumbers which are potentially useful in treating cancer — are another relatively untapped resource that’s close to the shore.
The Law of the Sea, to Pardo’s dismay, established Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs) granting nations exclusive rights to exploit marine resources within their zone, which typically extends 200 nautical miles from their coast.
“The most remarkable feature of the seabed scramble is that it gives the potential of huge economic gains to some of the world’s smallest and poorest countries — coastal states in Africa, island nations in the Pacific, poor places like Barbados, Suriname and Yemen, none of them usually seen as sophisticated maritime powers,” notes the May 14 Economist article. “If they are now lucky enough to gain new rights over oil or minerals, they may soon be able to exploit them.”
Pardo, known as the “Father of the Law of the Sea Conference,” bemoaned the loss of what he saw as mankind’s common heritage, saying in 1982 that the EEZs left nothing for humanity as a whole but “a few fish and a little seaweed.”
How we sort through all the various territorial claims that nations have to the seabed around their coastlines is indeed a difficult question.
But perhaps the ultimate question should not be who owns what, but rather why we believe we should own it at all.