The Lawless Sea

The ocean is our planet’s life-support-system, keeping it healthy and productive. But overfishing and pollution are causing tremendous damage, and there is virtually no governance or rule of law to prevent it.

SANTIAGO – The rule of law is almost entirely absent, with virtually no governance or policing. Illegal, unreported, and unregulated economic activities are common. The powerful seize non-renewable resources at the expense of the powerless. Environmental degradation is on the rise.

That may sound like a description of a failed state, a desperately poor country beset by civil war, or a fictional dystopia. But it is none of the above. The vast region (45% of the earth’s total surface) with next to no governance or rule of law is the high seas – nearly two-thirds of the global ocean that lies outside of any country’s jurisdiction.

How is this possible? After all, there is the legally binding 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, which has been ratified by 166 states and the European Union. When UNCLOS was negotiated, the high seas were protected because they were inaccessible. But technological advances have enabled the exploitation of resources to extend farther and deeper than ever before. Fishing vessels can now operate across the ocean, and deep-sea drilling provides a growing proportion of our oil and gas. UNCLOS has not kept pace with these developments.

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