UN International Maritime Organisation websiteUNCLOS "has opened a new world for most coastal states, and small island states most of all." [picture: The UN International Maritime Organisation website]

[This is an excerpt from an article in The Round Table: The Commonwealth Journal of International Affairs.]

SIDS and UNCLOS: how small states matter

The coming into force of UNCLOS, with its 60th ratification, in November 1994 coincided propitiously with the first UN Conference on the Sustainable Development of Small Island Developing States, in Bridgetown, Barbados, just 7 months before (Griffith, 1995). The ever-increasing number of small and newly independent states on the world map – especially between 1962 (independence of Western Samoa, now Samoa) and 1994 (admission of Palau to the UN) – created a potentially powerful lobby, which first found expression and voice after the UN Sustainable Development (SD) Summit in Rio in 1992. These small states canvassed, argued for, and subsequently obtained their ‘own’ SD summit, tailor-made to focus on their own condition, and the argument that chronic vulnerabilities brought about by small size needed to be acknowledged and addressed with the support of the global community (Loper et al., 2005). Follow-ups of this first SD summit for SIDS have since been held every 10 years: in Mauritius in 2005 and in Samoa in 2014; the next is due in 2024. As another indication of their significance as a bloc, the year 2014 was declared by the UN as the year of small island developing states, closing the UN Decade for Sustainable Development (Crossley & Sprague, 2014). And a UN High Representative (shared with landlocked developing countries and Least Developed Countries) is meant to ensure that the specific concerns of SIDS are properly addressed within the UN’s agenda (UN, 2022).

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These same small states have also set up the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS) at around the same time (AOSIS, 2022). This inter-governmental organisation has been influential perhaps beyond the wildest dreams of its founders, especially by forcing a reference to a maximum mean increase of ‘well below’ 2 °C and preferably of not more than 1.5 °C above the pre-industrial temperature of the planet as an aspirational goal of UN member states’ Climate Action commitments under the UNFCCC at the Paris 2015 summit (Bodansky, 2016; Bolon, 2018). Until then, one can safely say that the notion of ‘small states’ was a loose terminology applied (top-down) by the Commonwealth, already in the 1980s, but also includes landlocked (apart from island) states with, therefore, no interest in UNCLOS and much less in common other than the legacy of British rule (Bacchus & Brock, 1987). Small states exist, and they matter: they themselves have grown to realise that their sheer numbers – almost one-fifth of all UN member states – helps them to press their case. Indeed, various international organisations are coming to terms with the fact that the sheer number of small states basically obliges them to take them seriously and to mainstream their concerns on their agendas (Corbett et al., 2018). And it was Malta, a small island state and then the smallest member state of the UN by land area that formally proposed the inclusion of an item in the agenda of the 22nd session of the UN General Assembly to discuss, in November 1967, a ‘declaration and treaty concerning the reservation exclusively for peaceful purposes of the sea-bed and the ocean floor, underlying the seas beyond the limits of present national jurisdiction, and the use of their resources in the interest of (hu)mankind’, and which paved the way to UNCLOS 15 years later (Meyer, 2022).

From rhetoric to substance: some examples of how SIDS ‘handle’ their EEZ

The recognition of EEZ rights under UNCLOS includes exclusive authority over ‘living resources’ which includes fishing. Many coastal states have typically sought to exploit this through the licencing of fishing vessels, foreign or domestic, to access and operate within their EEZs. In the case of SIDS, where the national fishing effort is negligible and mainly artisanal, such licencing and access fees target international fleets: such revenue can be a significant source of national income for many SIDS (Thorpe et al., 2005). However, these same states have also realistically struggled to properly regulate and control fishing activity in their waters. Monitoring, apprehending or preventing illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing, especially from distant water fleets, remains a real challenge (Scobie, 2019). SIDS can suffer from a lack of ‘positive sovereignty’, where the ability to effectively project power and control over their territory may not be fully established or articulated (Jackson, 1993): they have limited coast guard fleets, limited trained and available personnel, limited surveillance technologies and limited enforcement capabilities. This has meant that fish stock overexploitation has intensified; not just on the high seas, but even within the EEZs that SIDS notionally control. The situation is aggravated by the fact that fish are mobile; and two-thirds of known fish stocks are ‘transboundary’, swimming across EEZs (Palacios-Abrantes et al., 2020). Additionally, addressing IUU fishing does not necessarily mean that fishing quotas or catch levels are set sustainably: in a classic ‘tragedy of the commons’ situation (Hardin, 1968), some coastal states legally maximise the rents they accrue from legal fishing, thus also risking fish stock depletion and pelagic species extermination.

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SIDS are facing their new responsibilities as ‘large ocean states’ under UNCLOS with renewed vigour. The extension of their purview beyond (what are often very limited) land areas is a boon to their small economies, which have often been dependent on one single product (e.g., bananas, copra, oil, phosphate and nutmeg) or service (e.g., notably tourism, and finance) for export (Bertram & Poirine, 2018). The blue economy and its opportunities are now opening up. But how to translate this potential bonanza into a viable economic opportunity?

Godfrey Baldacchino is with the Dept. of Sociology, University of Malta, Malta and Malta Ambassador-at-Large for Islands and Small States.