Composition and jurisdiction
Based in Hamburg, the Tribunal was established under UNCLOS of 10 December 1982, which entered into force on 16 November 1994. The Tribunal comprises 21 judges who are elected for nine year terms with renewable mandates. Elections are held every three years for a third of the judges. The composition of the Tribunal must reflect the principal legal systems of the world and assure an equitable geographical distribution. The first judges were elected by the States Parties in New York on 1 August 1996. Professor Rüdiger Wolfrum of Germany, an expert on international law, was one of the judges until 2017, serving as President of the Tribunal from 2005 to 2008.
The Tribunal is the key component of a comprehensive dispute settlement system that the States Parties have agreed to follow in all disputes between them on the interpretation or application of the Convention on the Law of the Sea. It has exclusive jurisdiction in some fields, for example with regard to certain disputes concerning seabed mining, for which a special Seabed Disputes Chamber has been established. Parties to the proceedings here are not necessarily states or international organisations, but can also be natural or legal persons. The Tribunal also has exclusive and binding jurisdiction in urgent proceedings on the prompt release of ships detained by another state in cases where the states involved cannot reach agreement within ten days.
The Statute of the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea forms Annex VI of the Convention on the Law of the Sea.
On 21 August 1981, the Third United Nations Conference on the Law of the Sea chose Hamburg as the future seat of the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea. Article 1 (2) of Annex VI of the Convention on the Law of the Sea thus reads: “The seat of the Tribunal shall be in the Free and Hanseatic City of Hamburg in the Federal Republic of Germany.” In 1986, the German Cabinet decided to construct premises for the Tribunal on state owned land in Hamburg and to place these, as well as furnishings and fittings, at its disposal free of charge. The foundation stone of the new building was laid on 18 October 1996, and the completed building was handed over to the Tribunal on 3 July 2000 at a ceremony attended by the UN Secretary-General. An Agreement on the Occupancy and Use of the Premises was concluded on 18 October 2000, and in November 2000 the Tribunal moved into its new home. The Headquarters Agreement between the Tribunal and Germany was signed on 14 December 2004. It places the Tribunal’s work in Germany on a secure legal footing and governs the rights and powers of the Tribunal and its judges and staff in Germany. The Tribunal is the first significant legal institution from the broader UN sphere to have its headquarters on German territory. Germany’s commitment to the Tribunal demonstrates its willingness to shoulder international responsibility and its great interest in the success of the UN and the development of the system of peaceful dispute Settlement.
The Tribunal has already adjudicated many disputes relating to the law of the sea involving a broad range of legal issues, predominantly in connection with the prompt release of vessels that had been detained on suspicion of illegal fishing.
Other important judgments were handed down in February 2011 in the form of an Advisory Opinion on environmental and liability standards with respect to activities on the seabed (case 17), in March 2012 a judgment regarding the dispute concerning delimitation of the maritime boundary between Bangladesh and Myanmar in the Bay of Bengal (case 16), in November 2013 in the form of an Order to release the Arctic Sunrise in the case of the Kingdom of the Netherlands v. the Russian Federation (case 22) and in April 2015 in the form of an Advisory Opinion in which the Tribunal reaffirmed its jurisdiction to issue the requested Advisory Opinion (case 21).