ITLOS
International Tribunal For The Law Of The Sea (Itlos)

Contact

Basic Documents

Judges Biographies

Cases
Links




Despite being established in 1982 by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea (ITLOS) did not become operational until 1996 when the UNCLOS finally entered into force. While it is beyond the scope of this short introductory note to detail here the reasons why the entry into force of the UNCLOS was long delayed, it suffices to say that the codification into a single agreement of a universal legal regime to regulate the access to and use of the resources of almost two-thirds of the Earth's surface was probably the largest and longest diplomatic undertaking in the history of the United Nations.

To be sure, the number, magnitude and complexity of the issues to be dealt with to conclude the UNCLOS have left a deep imprint on the structural and legal architecture of the ITLOS. Indeed, several states resisted the inclusion of a judicial body in the UNCLOS which could authoritatively settle disputes over its implementation and interpretation. As a result, unlike all other international judicial bodies, which are typically put at the center of the legal system that they have been created to preserve, the ITLOS is only one of four possible means available to parties to settle disputes. The other three options are the International Court of Justice, arbitration under Annex VII of the Convention, and special arbitration under Annex VIII. The ITLOS is not the default mechanism in case a state has not selected any of the four available fora. In that case, states are deemed to have selected arbitration under Annex VII.

At the time the UNCLOS was negotiated there were no international judicial bodies with universal scope except for the International Court of Justice. Sensitivity of the issue inevitably pointed to the World Court as the model for the institutional structure of the ITLOS. Hence, in a similar manner, albeit with several exceptions, the ITLOS does not, in principle, have jurisdiction over a dispute unless both parties have agreed to it, by way of ad hoc declaration, special agreement or previous optional declaration.

The ITLOS is organized very much like the ICJ but, because of its special focus, there are certain differences that set it apart. Firstly, unlike its kin, but like the Court of Justice of the European Communities, the ITLOS is endowed with a permanent special chamber with compulsory jurisdiction over a particular category of dispute. The 11-member Seabed Disputes Chamber (SBDC) hears disputes concerning activities in the seabed, ocean floor and subsoil beyond the limits of national jurisdiction (the so-called Area , which is managed by an agency known as the International Seabed Authority, which was established pursuant to the UNCLOS).

Secondly, reflecting the special nature of the activities to be carried out within the Area, the locus standi before the SBDC is different from the one before the full Tribunal. Not only can states and the International Seabed Authority have standing before the Chamber, but companies and individuals of States parties can also. This feature distinguishes the ITLOS from other international judicial bodies with universal membership and scope, like the ICJ and the World Trade Organization dispute settlement system, where non-state entities are not allowed to bring claims (to a certain extent this applies also to the International Criminal Court).

Thirdly, unlike most international judicial bodies, which decide cases virtually solely on the basis of international law, the SBDC can reach outside those limits. The SBDC can apply the UNCLOS; principles of international law; the rules, regulations and procedures of the International Sea-bed Authority; as well as terms of contracts concerning activities in matters relating to them.