What You Need to Know About the United Nations Law of the Sea
If, at the beginning of my legal career 20 years ago, someone had told me I would one day write an international treaty with the potential to change the course of history, I would not have believed it. For one thing, international treaties are negotiated directly between nation states, and can take years to come to fruition. For another, I was headed into private practice, initially as a barrister. I saw myself advocating in courtrooms, not working on policy. But in 2015—after a decade at one of Canada’s leading law firms during which time I transitioned to a solicitor’s practice, followed by several years with my provincial law society and government—I received the opportunity to use my legal skills to protect all life. This opportunity has changed me both personally and professionally; I share what I’ve learned to inspire you to take your own bold next steps.
I first learned that Arctic sea ice is melting through my friend Parvati’s voyage to the North Pole several years ago. The polar ice is the Earth’s natural cooling system and ensures balanced weather patterns globally. Knowing that humans have never lived on the planet without that ice in place, I contemplated the dire implications of its loss. Surely, I thought, the international community would do everything in its power to mitigate the crisis. But I learned that instead of planning to protect the now-vulnerable Arctic Ocean, countries were seeking to do the exact opposite: exploit it for its resources.
It was Parvati’s suggestion to create the international Marine Arctic Peace Sanctuary (MAPS) Treaty to protect the entire Arctic Ocean above the Arctic Circle from exploitation. I was initially hesitant. Who was I, a private citizen, to draft an international treaty? And despite living on the shores of the Pacific Ocean for my entire life, I was not familiar with the laws created for our world’s oceans. But Parvati’s intuition was strong and she urged me to look into this. I agreed to research the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (Law of the Sea). I soon discovered that Parvati was correct: a treaty would be the only hope of protecting the vulnerable Arctic Ocean, and because of the Arctic Ocean’s key role as the climate linchpin for the Earth, it would also help protect all life.
The Law of the Sea, an international treaty adopted in 1982, provides a regulatory framework for nations to manage marine natural resources. Although the Law of the Sea gives member states the general obligation to “protect and preserve the marine environment”, it also gives them a sovereign right to exploit all resources found within 200 nautical miles from their coastlines. Because of this, vast stretches of the world’s oceans are subject to exploitation.
These provisions permitting exploitation apply equally to the Arctic Ocean, where the world can least afford it. The Arctic Ocean’s year-round frozen state used to ensure its protection from exploitative interests. The ice has served as an impenetrable fortress—but that fortress is now vanishing. As the Arctic sea ice recedes, the entire global climate system destabilizes, which threatens the health, safety and very lives of people all around the globe. Yet under the Law of the Sea as it stands, nations and business interests are free to take advantage of the melt and encroach ever further on this compromised ecosystem.
Bringing commercial activity into the Arctic Ocean at this critical time only exacerbates the growing ecological and humanitarian crisis caused by its melting. For example, commercial vessels break up the remaining ice. At the same time, their heavy fuel oil emits particulate matter that lands on ice, darkens it, and melts it faster. Further, scientists say the oil and gas buried in the Arctic seabed must never see the light of day if the world community is to keep its commitments in the Paris Agreement. Yet seismic surveys and oil rigs are starting to move into the Arctic Ocean, with immense noise pollution and immeasurable risk of spills.
I realized I could not just stand by and watch the exploitation in the Arctic Ocean continue. I had a Juris Doctor and years of practice, but most importantly, I had a willing heart. I stopped thinking about who I was to do this, and focused instead on how I could best serve the need.
That is how the international Marine Arctic Peace Sanctuary (MAPS) Treaty was born, as an addendum to the Law of the Sea. The MAPS Treaty updates the Law of the Sea to ensure the entire Arctic Ocean north of the Arctic Circle remains off limits to all commercialization, militarization and industrialization. With the signatures of 99 leaders of UN member states or specialized agencies of the UN, the MAPS Treaty comes into effect. It transforms the vulnerable and pivotal Arctic Ocean ecosystem, including the 200 nautical miles extending from coastlines, into the largest preservation area the world has ever seen.
When we take steps in trust and courage, we don’t necessarily see the full picture until we look back. Then, sometimes we discover that circumstances have aligned far more perfectly than we could ever have planned. That was the case for me. As time passed, and I learned more about how long treaty negotiations can take, Parvati’s suggestion to prepare a ready-made treaty for world leaders to sign became all the more brilliant in its elegant simplicity.
To be continued next month…
Vandana Erin Ryder is the General Counsel and Communications Manager for Parvati.org, and author of the MAPS Treaty. Her extensive legal career includes a major Canadian law firm, the Law Society of British Columbia, and the British Columbia Ministry of the Attorney General.