The legitimacy of the United Nations Law of the Sea Treaty (UNCLOS) faces another challenge with the latest confrontation between Russia and the Netherlands. The current dispute is about whether Russia has the authority to exercise law enforcement activity in its waters without recourse from an international tribunal. A Dutch-flagged Greenpeace shipped was seized by Russian authorities and the crew of 30 people is not being released. The activists were there to protest oil drilling. They were initially charged with piracy but have since been charged with hooliganism – a charge with a lesser penalty. As recently as today, the activists were transferred to St. Petersburg’s pre-trial detention facilities.
The Dutch government seeks to release those that are imprisoned and it has called upon Russia to use an arbitration process under the UNCLOS. The Dutch claims that the Russia has no right to seize the ship in exclusive maritime economic zones. The Russians claim that the ship posed a security threat. Moreover, The Russian government argued that an international tribunal was outside the scope of the treaty because it impedes on Russia’s sovereign rights.
As proof, the Russian foreign ministry did not attend the hearing at the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea. This is an affront to the convention, as Russia ratified the treaty in 1997. This puts the entire convention at risk if world powers are dismissive and willing to forego the treaty’s protocols.
The purpose of the UNCLOS is to provide a mechanism for how to govern the shared responsibilities of the world’s oceans. This includes offshore drilling, fishing, shipping, and much more. 165 countries and the European Union have joined the convention. However, there are several up and coming issues that pose threats to the force and legitimacy of UNCLOS. First, the United States, one of the world’s largest powers, continues its long debate over whether it should ratify the treaty. Further procrastination on this matter threatens the credibility of the convention and could be a veritable problem when it comes to resolving future disputes.
Second, melting ice caps in the Arctic have posed significant problems and opportunities to many countries. New shipping lanes as well as access to new supplies such as oil and minerals have caused competition in the region. UNCLOS provides a mechanism for dealing with resource disputes, but if the convention continues to be undermined, it is less likely that major powers will deal with the disputes in a peaceful manner.
According to an American Security Project (ASP) report titled “The Arctic – Five Critical Security Challenges,” the United States has a lot to lose if it does not ratify the treaty. As other countries lay claims to territories far beyond their borders, the United States has no standing to claim and assert certain territories or resources as its own.
Perhaps if the United States were to move past decades old ideology and ratify the convention, it would provide legitimacy and the necessary backbone to pursue arbitration of current and future disputes. The current impasse faced by the Dutch and Russian governments over the convention’s arbitration mechanism provides an impetus for the United States to become a party to the treaty. The time is ripe for US policymakers and the current Administration to flex their muscles and ratify the treaty before these type of conflicts become commonplace.