This is a guest post from Hannes Hansen-Magnusson, a Lecturer in International Relations at Cardiff University (contact by email: Hansen-Magnusson”at” or via twitter: @HansenMagnusson)

For centuries the political struggle over the legal status of global oceans was presented as one of mare clausum vs. mare liberum. These concepts concerned the possibility of movement as well as rights and responsibilities of seafaring nations and coastal states which had sometimes been the subject of small-scale physical confrontations at sea, such as the so-called Cod or Turbot Wars, but also of judicial processes, such as the Corfu Channel or Fisheries cases, which followed earlier conflicts. Overcoming confrontations such as these, progress was achieved after nine long years of negotiating the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) between 1973-1982. Since entering into force in 1994 UNCLOS has provided a constitution-like framework with which to quell physical confrontations and opened an institutionalized path for settling disputes and open questions through one of its three organizations (the International Tribunal on the Law of the Sea, the International Seabed Authority, and the Committee on the Limits of the Continental Shelf) or through the Permanent Court of Arbitration. Given these developments during the last two decades, it may be possible to speak of mare iudicatum or administratum as the new development towards a peaceful use of global oceans.

The point of this contribution is to remind ourselves as academics and practitioners that as progressive as this development may appear, it should be clear that the new order does not assert itself through an invisible force that is inherent in the provisions of UNCLOS and the procedural rules of different organizations charged with its implementation. Much depends on what happens in the day-to-day instantiation of it through the activity of seafarers and their states. Although these activities may be small-scale and local events, there is a chance of global reverberations, which is what this contribution is arguing: because in a global framework there can be no extra-ordinary events and localities, they all matter for the overall architecture.

In order to demonstrate this, I will revert to two current examples: the passage of the Crystal Serenity through the Northwest Passage (NWP), on the one hand, and politics in the South China Sea (SCS), on the other. Remote as they may seem in geographical terms and as they are treated as such by area specialists, there is a wider issue at stake which connects them, centering on the peaceful use of global oceans. Continue reading