International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea issues new advisory opinion

01.02.2011 - Press release

The eleven judges of the Seabed Disputes Chamber of the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea today (1 February) rendered their advisory opinion in what has become known as Case No 17. The case centres around the question of to what extent states are liable when contractors they sponsor cause damage to the deep seabed. The International Seabed Authority in Kingston had presented the question to the Tribunal in spring 2010.

In the advisory opinion it has now issued, the Tribunal underlines the special responsibilities which states have when they sponsor contractors engaged in activities on the deep seabed. They have the obligation, for example, to apply the precautionary approach and to ensure that environmental impact assessments are carried out. States are required to take legislative measures to ensure that contractors comply with the United Nations 1982 Convention on the Law of the Sea. The Tribunal gives the example of the German Seabed Mining Act of 1995.

Today’s announcement was made in the presence of a number of experts and representatives of the parties involved. Germany was represented by the Federal Foreign Office. The Tribunal’s advisory opinion confirms the German Government’s interpretation of the law in every particular, as it was presented to the Tribunal during the course of the proceedings in Hamburg.

This advisory opinion is of some significance for international law. The “Area” comprising the seabed in international waters is designated by the above-named UN Convention as the “common heritage of mankind”. It is administered by the International Seabed Authority, which performs such duties as issuing exploration licences. This advisory opinion, which German judge Rüdiger Wolfrum helped draft, is of significance to Germany in part because the Federal Republic is still one of few states which have contractors able to carry out licensed exploration work. Since 2006, a ship owned by the Federal Institute for Geosciences and Natural Resources in Hanover has undertaken annual research trips in the central Pacific, which are conducted in accordance with inter alia the provisions of the German Seabed Mining Act of 1995.

The International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea has been situated in Hamburg since 1996. Pursuant to the UN Convention, it has jurisdiction over all issues regarding the international law of the sea.

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