International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea: A little New York in Hamburg | – history

Status: October 18, 2021 9:35 a.m.

Ships locked up, border conflicts at sea – these are cases for the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea, founded on October 1, 1996. On July 3, 2000, the official quarters of the ISGH in a new building in Hamburg were inaugurated.

by Janine Kühl

Am Internationale Seegerichtshof 1, 22609 Hamburg: This is the address of the few large and important UN institutions in Germany. The team around the Munich architect Alexander von Branca designed an imposing building around the classicist “Villa Schröder” on the Elbchaussee. The approximately 5,300 square meter new building in Hamburg-Nienstedten will be completed within four years for 123 million euros. For the official inauguration on July 3, 2000, the keys will be ceremoniously handed over to the then President of the ICC, Chandrasekhara Rao and his fellow judges in the presence of UN Secretary General Kofi Annan. After four years of provisional accommodation, the court will have its own place of activity.

ISGH: speaks right in disputes at sea and at sea

Since July 3, 2000, the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea has no longer been working on a temporary basis, but is based in the 123 million euro new building in Hamburg-Nienstedten.

A maritime tribunal in the port city of Hamburg – that sounds fitting. But what does it do? International Tribunal for the Law of the Seas (ITLOS)? Two thirds of our planet are covered by water. And of course there are legal conflicts here too. The International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea (ISGH) was created to judge disputes at sea and at sea. Kofi Annan, Secretary General of the United Nations with headquarters in New York until 2006, called the ISGH “a central component of the international peace and security order”.

The basis for the jurisprudence of the ISGH is the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which came into force in 1994 after nine years of negotiations. It was already clear at the beginning of the 1950s that rules were needed for what is allowed on and in the oceans – and what is not. Because more and more countries wanted to use resources from the sea. They enlarged their fishing and oil production areas. Conflicts arose more and more often.

Safe seat in Hamburg since 1981

The 21 judges of the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea in 1996 in the Hamburg City Hall, front from left to right Ex-Foreign Minister Klaus Kinkel, Ex-UN Secretary General Butros Butros-Ghali, the former ISGH President Thomas A. Mensah, the then Vice-President Rüdiger Wolfrum and the former First Mayor Henning Voscherau © picture-alliance / dpa Photo: Markus Beck

At the swearing-in of the judges on October 18, 1996 in the Hamburg City Hall, the then UN Secretary General Butros Butros-Ghali and the then Foreign Minister Klaus Kinkel were present.

At the UN Conference on the Law of the Sea on August 21, 1981 in Geneva, the participants agreed on Hamburg as the location of a maritime court. After UNCLOS came into force in 1994, it took two years before the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea began its work in the Hanseatic city on October 1, 1996, initially in an office building in the city center before moving to the Elbe in 2000 – a provisional arrangement. Since autumn 2000, the court has been working in the spacious new building, equipped with the latest technology, in the Nienstedten district, 80 percent of which is financed by the federal government and 20 percent by the city. While the president and around 35 employees live on site, the other judges usually only come to the Elbe for negotiations.

The first case: “MS Saiga”

The first case came to the Maritime Court in 1997: The West African state of Guinea had the tanker “MS Saiga”, which sailed under the flag of St. Vincent and the Grenadines, hijacked by pirates. The reason given by Guinea was that the ship had pumped oil into fishing boats in violation of Guinea’s national customs laws. The tanker was detained for a total of 80 days. The ICC sentenced Guinea to a heavy fine in 1999 for “excessive and inappropriate” conduct.

Maritime border conflict: Myanmar – Bangladesh

A sensational and landmark case was heard from December 2009. The procedure over the sea border between Bangladesh and Myanmar in the Bay of Bengal lasted over two years. Finally, the ISGH was able to announce the verdict in March 2012. With success: it was recognized by both parties and implemented exactly. This ended a conflict that had simmered for years and led to diplomatic and military clashes.

“Arctic Sunrise”: Russia initially does not recognize the verdict

A Russian coast guard ship escorts the Greenpeace ship

After the judgment of the ISGH, Russia initially refused to approve the “Arctic Sunrise”. Greenpeace wanted to draw attention to supposedly illegal oil drilling.

In the case of the “Arctic Sunrise”, the Netherlands and Russia were the parties to the dispute. The Greenpeace ship “Arctic Sunrise”, sailing under the Dutch flag, was arrested after attempting to occupy an oil platform in the North Sea in September 2013, and the crew was arrested. According to Russian information, the “Arctic Sunrise” was in Russian waters, which Greenpeace denied. The judgment of the ISGH of November 2013 provided for the surrender of the ship and the release of the crew on bail. Russia initially refused to recognize the verdict. Nevertheless, the crew was released. And the ship was also able to leave Russia again – but only in July 2014.

International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea: 21 judges from all over the world

In order to ensure balance and different perspectives in legal work, 21 judges at the ISGH represent all continents. They are elected by the current 168 contracting parties for a nine-year term. Five judges each come from Africa and Asia, four each from Central and South America and Western Europe and three from Eastern Europe. Every three years, elections for a third of the court are held at the UN headquarters in New York. In 2017 the judges elected the South Korean Jin-Hyun Paik from among their number as President of the ISGH. Paik’s three-year term of office ends at the end of September 2020. The acting judges will decide on October 1st who will be his successor. So far, no president has exercised the right to be re-elected.

ISGH ruling is binding

If two disputing parties – countries, organizations, companies or private individuals – turn to the Tribunal for the Sea, its decision is binding. However, the ISGH has no executive body that could enforce the judgments after they have been promulgated. A problem? “History has shown that judgments from international courts are generally recognized by states,” says Julia Ritter, press spokeswoman for the ISGH. “As far as the Maritime Court is concerned, all decisions so far have been accepted in the end.” In addition to the ISGH, parties to a dispute also have the option of referring to the International Court of Justice in The Hague or an international arbitration tribunal. The ISGH is solely responsible for matters relating to deep-sea mining.

Convention on the Law of the Sea

The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) regulates all areas of international law in more than 320 articles. For example, it specifies where the territory of the coastal countries ends and how shipping and fishing may use the oceans. It contains regulations to protect the marine environment, piracy and seabed mining. UNCLOS is the most extensive treaty of the UN. It was passed in 1982, but took twelve years for a sufficient number of states to ratify it. It came into force on November 16, 1994.

Special chambers for individual subject areas

So far, the Tribunal for the Law of the Sea has heard 29 cases, two of which are still resident. There are special chambers for the areas of deep-sea mining, fisheries, marine-environmental disputes and the determination of sea borders. Judges who have special knowledge in the respective legal field are represented in a special chamber. In addition, the parties to the dispute can form their own chamber. In addition to judges of the ISGH, this also includes so-called ad-hoc judges, who may be appointed by the parties to the dispute.

Less rush proceedings, more complicated cases

While urgent proceedings determined the work at the ISGH in the first few years, the issues are increasingly complicated and it takes up to two and a half years to clarify. In the case of an urgent procedure, it only takes 30 days for a judgment to be reached. Often it is about the release of a detained ship or the protection of the marine environment. Fundamental cases such as the clarification of sea borders, overfishing or deep-sea mining require a much longer period of time before a judgment is reached. It takes up to 18 months for the parties to the dispute to submit all documents. After several weeks of negotiations in Hamburg, the judges then have six months to pass a judgment. A simple majority is decisive for the overall judgment.

Deep-sea mining and climate change will become areas of conflict of the future

21 judges of the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea with President Jin-Hyun Paik front right © International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea (ITLOS)

The 21 judges of the ISGH (here a picture from 2017) represent international law and are not allowed to be legally active in their country.

In the future, the ISGH expects more cases in the area of ​​deep-sea mining. The 17th case from 2010/2011 already dealt with the possibilities of environmentally friendly deep-sea mining. A lot of research is still going on in this field. But once companies and states take action, the ISGH will probably have numerous points of contention to resolve. “There is no alternative to the subject of deep-sea mining, these cases can only be negotiated at the ISGH in Hamburg,” explains Julia Ritter. In addition, the judges expect conflicts that arise from climate change, such as border disputes due to rising sea levels.

New agreement: negotiations possible in Singapore

Since June 11, 2020 it has been possible to hold negotiations of the ISGH in Singapore as well. A corresponding agreement provides that Singapore will provide the ISGH with a building on site for this purpose. This offers the parties to the dispute the opportunity, for example, to negotiate conflicts between Asian countries in a relatively localized manner. “The seat of the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea will remain in Hamburg”, confirms Julia Ritter.

This topic in the program:

Hamburg Journal | 10/17/2021 | 19:30 o’clock

NDR Logo



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.