By letter of 9 June 2010, the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea (ITLOS) requested IUCN, in its capacity as an intergovernmental organisation, to participate in the Assembly of the International Seabed Authority and to provide a written statement to the Tribunal on Case No. 17 concerning Responsibilities and Obligations of States Sponsoring Persons and Entities with Respect to Activities in the International Seabed Area (Request for Advisory Opinion Submitted to the Seabed Disputes Chamber). This was perhaps the first request for an Advisory Opinion submitted to the Seabed Disputes Chamber of the Tribunal.
As a matter of policy, the Case has raised issues that IUCN, on behalf of Nature, believes are of importance. The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea was adopted as a package to be accepted as a whole. In the Convention it is recognized that the problems of ocean space are closely interrelated and need to be considered as a whole. Through the Convention a legal order for the ocean has been established to facilitate international communication; to promote peaceful uses of the ocean, the equitable use of marine resources, the conservation of marine living resources and the study, protection and preservation of the marine environment.
Among issues raised is a question of the scale of liability of a sponsoring State for activities associated with a contractor’s mining operations that may affect the water column above or adjacent to a seabed activity. A policy question arises as to whether acceptance of a limitation of liability of a sponsoring State in this Case may have any effect on this or other obligations of States under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea or on other instruments that protect the marine environment. IUCN strongly believes that obligations to protect and preserve the marine environment are as important as rights under the Convention and should be at the centre of any considerations of ocean management. Natural biodiversity, healthy ecosystems and human well-being depend on healthy oceans. We cannot afford to put additional stress onto the marine environment if we wish to continue to enjoy the benefits that the oceans provide us.
The invitation to IUCN and to other intergovernmental organisations represents a first opportunity for such organisations to provide submissions to the Tribunal. Several distinguished jurist members of the IUCN Commission on Environmental Law from its Oceans, Coasts and Coral Reefs Specialist Group provided legal reflections on a pro bono publico basis.