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The Hamburg Tribunal Heats Up? Is ITLOS now in Business?

Published on September 15, 2010        Author: 

The International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea (ITLOS), which is based in Hamburg, is holding hearings this week in  advisory proceedings before that Tribunal. The case concerns Responsibilities and obligations of States sponsoring persons and entities with respect to activities in the International Seabed Area  and the request for the advisory opinion was submitted to the Seabed Disputes Chamber of ITLOS by the International Seabed Authority. The request represents the first advisory proceedings before ITLOS and the first case before the Seabed Disputes Chamber. The oral proceedings are the first before ITLOS in 3 years (the last being in 2007 and the last one before that was in 2004)!

In 1991, Keith Highet who argued many cases before the International Court of Justice wrote a brief comment in the American Journal of International Law (Vol. 85, No. 4 (Oct., 1991), pp. 646-654) noting how the ICJ had become busier than ever in the years immediately following the Court’s judgment in Nicaragua case. The title of this piece is adapted from his piece (The Peace Palace Heats Up: The World Court in Business Again?). The situation that in ITLOS today is no where near the same as that in the ICJ in the early 1990s but I simply wish to note that having been in the doldrums for much of its existence since it was set up in 1996. The Tribunal was created by the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) as one (of a number of means) of settling disputes under the UNCLOS. Except in one respect, it has not received much attention from potential users and very few cases have been referred to it. However, at this point in time there are 2 cases on the docket of ITLOS!! Apart from the advisory proceedings there is also a contentious case on its docket. This is the Dispute concerning delimitation of the maritime boundary between Bangladesh and Myanmar in the Bay of Bengal submitted to the tribunal in December 2009. Two cases is not much cause for celebration but these are two cases received less than 6 months apart. Is the Tribunal now in business?

Apart from requests for provisional measures and request for prompt release of vessels (the latter is the one respect in which ITLOS has received some attention from users), ITLOS has only previously had one case submitted to it on the merits. This was the Saiga Case (St Vincent and the Grenadines v. Guinea) submitted to ITLOS in 1998. I had just started out as a full time academic at the University of Nottingham and I acted as an adviser and assistant to Richard Plender QC who was counsel to St Vincent. I was involved in drafting some of the submissions to the tribunal and never imagined that ITLOS would not hold oral hearings on the merits of a dispute for another decade!  In that time, there has been no shortage of law of the sea disputes.

The dispute settlement provisions of UNCLOS (Part XV) provides for compulsory adjudication but gives parties a choice of procedures. The default choice (i.e the option to be pursued where no specific choice is made or where parties have chosen different procedures) is international abitration but parties may also use the International Court of Justice or ITLOS. Although more States have chosen ITLOS than any other option, States have refrained from referring  law of the sea disputes to ITLOS. I think that there have been 6 arbitrations initiated under UNCLOS, including an arbitration between Bangladesh and India initiated at the same time as the ITLOS proceedings before Bangladesh and Myanmar. There have also law of the sea cases before the ICJ in the period since ITLOS was created. Failure to refer cases to ITLOS suggests that States perceive disadvantages with that Tribunal when compared with the alternatives. Perhaps its biggest disadvantage is that it is untried and untested. States have some idea what they will get with the ICJ. With arbitration states pick the arbitrators and have some control over the process and this may give some comfort to States. Whether ITLOS continues to generate business might well depend on how it is perceived as performing in the 2 cases currently on its docket.

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