With more than 7 billion people on Earth, it may seem like nearly every figurative corner of the world is occupied. So it may surprise you to learn that much of our planet actually belongs to no one.
Only a small fraction of the oceans have clear ownership in the form of exclusive economic zones and other types of boundaries. The rest — including many coastal areas — hold valuable resources that nations compete to control.
So how can the world prevent this dangerous, unsustainable free-for-all? One answer is the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, or UNCLOS.
UNCLOS can be described as the single most important international maritime agreement in the world. Among other things, it established a framework of maritime boundaries, jurisdiction and sovereignty and identifies the rights and duties of both coastal and non-coastal nations over ocean waters.
Since 1982, over 160 countries have ratified UNCLOS. I recently had the unique opportunity to be involved in the ratification process with one of the newest participants — and, in fact, one of the world’s “youngest” countries.
In January 2009, I attended a meeting in Manado, Indonesia as the newest member of CI’s program to support the Coral Triangle Initiative (CTI). Fresh from the Geopolitics, Territory & Security master’s program at King’s College London, I was learning all I could about the CTI and my new responsibilities.
The CTI began in 2007, when Indonesian President Yudhoyono called on the leaders of Malaysia, Papua New Guinea, the Philippines, the Solomon Islands and Timor-Leste, together known as the “Coral Triangle,” to work together to conserve and manage the region’s marine resources — some of the richest in the world — and ensure the future food security of their people.
My meeting on that fateful day was the fourth in a series of coordination meetings, all designed to hammer out the details of the CTI regional plan of action. Having received my obligatory binder, I did what any new person does: kept my head down, trying to read the binder and listen to the meeting without becoming completely overwhelmed. It wasn’t going that well until I heard the word “UNCLOS.”
The CTI representative from Timor-Leste stood up in the meeting and asked for assistance in initiating ratification. The five other countries had already ratified UNCLOS, which provided the legal foundation for CTI itself.
My focus at King’s College had been on the jurisdiction and equal implementation of UNCLOS, so I took a deep breath and volunteered CI to begin the process by completing a cost/benefit analysis on ratification. No small task, the analysis entailed review of current presumed boundaries, their changes under UNCLOS, and the economic and geopolitical ramifications of these changes, from fishing rights to oil and gas extraction.
As part of the Coral Triangle, Timor-Leste hosts globally significant biodiversity. It is also an important migratory pathway for cetaceans, including blue whales and dolphins, and provides breeding habitats for sea turtles. Timor-Leste’s marine and coastal ecosystems are thought to be in relatively good condition when compared to other countries in the region. By signing on to UNCLOS, the country would be empowered to ensure that sustainable management practices are established to safeguard these ecosystems.
Earlier this year, all this work finally paid off when Timor-Leste became the 165th country to ratify the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea. Ratification offers Timor-Leste a basis for internationally respected, permanent maritime boundaries, equal footing with its partner countries in the CTI and underlines its status as a full nation-state.
In addition, the work on UNCLOS ignited a partnership between CI and the people of Timor-Leste. In fact, CI became the first international environmental NGO to operate in Timor-Leste since the young country’s founding in 2002.
Since then, we have established the nation’s first co-management approach to safeguard marine resources, which seeks to promote local community engagement and empowerment through recognition of stewardship roles and partnership with government. We’ve also helped to create the first no-take zone.
I am very proud to have been a part of this process, and I have no doubt that joining UNCLOS will be a positive step for Timor-Leste.
Niquole Esters is the program manager for CI’s support to the Coral Triangle Initiative.