Despite US non-ratification, the UNCLOS remains relevant to seasteaders

This post is authored by volunteer Michael Poon, a fourth year pre-law student at the University of California, Berkeley with an especial interest in moral philosophy and social organization.

Last month, two Senate Republicans joined 32 other senators in opposing the UN Convention on the Law of the Seas (UNCLOS), officially blocking a two-thirds supermajority from ratifying the international agreement. Opponents of the Convention, also known as the Law of the Sea Treaty (LOST), say it would hand too much authority over to other nations and hinder the United States’ ability to exercise sovereignty in its oceanic territory. But even with the US turning its back on the UNCLOS for the foreseeable future, it remains highly relevant to seasteaders.

The Convention is incredibly comprehensive. It deals with issues ranging from resource exploitation to environmental protection to determination of which entity has criminal jurisdiction over various kinds of cases. Other sections specify which vessels are allowed in different areas and at different times. It also sets a definition for piracy, provides rules for resolving conflicts on the ocean, and creates an International Seabed Authority to oversee the use of the seabed. The possibly familiar policy that a nation’s territory extends up to 12 nautical miles off its coast is also one formalized by the Convention. The list goes on.

The seasteader’s first response to this tangle of regulatory concerns may well be to ask, “Who cares?” After all, the knowledgeable seasteader may note, UN conventions do not apply to non-ratifying entities. If the country most relevant for many early seasteaders, the United States, has not ratified the Convention, why should they abide by its terms or even bother to learn what those terms are?

There are two major reasons to do so.

First, the Convention largely codifies preexisting customary international law, which is considered by many (including the US and its Supreme Court) to apply to all nations. So despite its non-ratification of the Convention, the US considers all vessels and persons within 12 nautical miles of its coast to be in its jurisdiction and will expect them to follow US laws.

Second and more importantly, abiding by international norms lends legitimacy. The main reason legitimacy is important is to ensure non-interference. Seasteads will be a new kind of entity — unknowns with no established patterns of behavior. Therefore, seasteads will not initially be guaranteed the trust of existing nations, and will have to diligently avoid the appearance of belligerence or trouble-making. For example, seasteaders could be seen as pirates, terrorists, or otherwise lawless persons, leading law enforcement from the coastal state to board the seastead and arrest its residents.

One way to build trust is to create predictability, such as by publicly and explicitly adhering to the UNCLOS and other international laws. By doing so, a seastead commits itself to a familiar pattern of behavior that also sets a friendly tone with existing nations. It says, “We hold your values of peaceful conflict resolution, of respecting the territories of nations, of shunning piracy.” In addition to creating predictability, this also bolsters legitimacy by signalling responsibility and non-aggression to the international community, making existing nations more likely to leave the seastead alone.

In addition to establishing predictability, adherence to the UNCLOS also announces shared values, which can in turn prevent interference by virtue of reciprocity. Adhering to the UNCLOS would effectively state: “We share your values of peaceful conflict resolution, so if you object to certain of our activites, you should send a delegation (and not board our seastead). We also share your value of respecting the territories of nations, so you should not disrespect our territory (by boarding our seastead). We share your value of anti-piracy, so you should not think we are pirates (and board our seastead).”

Predictability and legitimacy will also be necessary to establish economic relations with existing nations. This is clearly important, given that seasteads will depend heavily on trade for survival. Lastly, legitimacy and friendly behavior will help seasteads solicit aid in the event of an emergency such as piracy or large storms.

Thus, seasteads interested in autonomy, profitability, and safety have a vested interest in public adherence to customary international laws, the most relevant of which is the UNCLOS.

The full UNCLOS text is available online here. The Institute’s previous work on the subject can be found on the Law & Policy research page.


United Nations book image via


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