Guest Post: Law of the Sea Tribunal Adopts ‘Due Diligence’ Standard for Flag State Responsibility for IUU Fishing

Guest Post: Law of the Sea Tribunal Adopts ‘Due Diligence’ Standard for Flag State Responsibility for IUU Fishing

[Craig H. Allen is the Judson Falknor Professor of Law/Professor of Marine and Environmental Affairs at the University of Washington.]

The International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea (Tribunal) continued to develop the law of flag State responsibility in a 68-page advisory opinion issued on April 2, 2015 (Request for an advisory opinion submitted by the Sub-Regional Fisheries Commission (SRFC), ITLOS Case No. 21, Advisory Opinion of April 2, 2015). Five ITLOS judges wrote separate declarations or opinions.

A “Living” Law of the Sea Convention?

The April 2, 2015 advisory opinion was the first one issued by the full Tribunal. Four years earlier, the Tribunal’s Seabed Disputes Chamber had issued an advisory opinion, as it was expressly authorized to do under Article 191 of the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) (Responsibilities and obligations of States sponsoring persons and entities with respect to activities in the Area [Request for Advisory Opinion submitted to the Seabed Disputes Chamber], ITLOS Case No. 17, Advisory Opinion of Feb. 1, 2011). In response to the SRFC request concerning IUU fishing, however, several States, including Australia, China, Ireland, Spain and the UK, objected that the Tribunal lacks jurisdiction to issue advisory opinions except in disputes involving the international seabed. Writing separately, Judge Lucky characterized the States’ jurisdictional objections as “cogent, clear and articulate, as well as considerably persuasive,” but he ultimately rejected them (Separate Opinion of Lucky, J.). In doing so, Judge Lucky opined that UNCLOS “is akin to (comparable with) a national constitution” and that, just as the “living constitution” doctrine advocates argue, UNCLOS “must ‘grow’ in accordance with the times.” (Id. ¶ 9). Oddly, in interpreting the Convention, Judge Lucky did not cite the relevant articles of the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties until much later in his opinion.

The Opinion

Jurisdictional issues aside, this latest advisory opinion brings needed definition to the law of State Responsibility with respect to UNCLOS. The opinion was issued in response to a 2013 request by the Sub-Regional Fisheries Commission (SRFC) established by seven West African States). The SRFC submitted four questions, principally regarding the obligations and liability of flag States for IUU fishing by their vessels in the exclusive economic zones (EEZs) of another State. In all, 20 judges participated in the decision. They unanimously held that the Tribunal had jurisdiction to issue the advisory opinion, citing Article 138 of the Court’s own rules. At the same time, the Tribunal noted that since the Tribunal was established in 1996 this was the first time an advisory opinion had been issued by the full Tribunal.

In answering the questions presented, the Tribunal distinguished the flag State’s responsibility under UNCLOS from its liability. With respect to the latter question, the Tribunal declared that the liability of the flag State does not arise from a failure of vessels flying its flag to comply with the applicable laws and regulations, because “the violation of such laws and regulations by vessels is not per se attributable to the flag State” (¶ 146). Instead, the liability of the flag State arises from its failure to comply with its own “due diligence” obligations. Thus, the flag State will not be liable if it has taken “all necessary and appropriate measures to meet its ‘due diligence’ obligations” to ensure that vessels flying its flag do not conduct IUU fishing activities in the EEZ of the coastal States (¶ 148).

The due diligence standard adopted by the Tribunal can be traced to the arbitration panel’s decision in the CSS Alabama case, which involved Great Britain’s responsibility for damages done by the CSS Alabama, a Confederate States warship built in Great Britain, in violation of that State’s neutrality in the Civil War (Alabama claims of the United States of America against Great Britain, Award of Sept. 14, 1872, XXIX Reports of International Arbitration Awards 122, 129.) The standard was also adopted in the ITLOS Seabed Disputes Chamber’s 2011 advisory opinion (¶¶ 110-117), in which it cited the ICJ’s 2010 decision in the Pulp Mills on the Uruguay River case (2010 ICJ Rep. 14, 79, ¶ 197).

Importantly, in its opinion the Tribunal cited flag State responsibilities under Articles 58.3 (rights and duties of other states in the EEZ), 62.4 (utilization of living resources of the EEZ), 94 (duties of the flag State) and 192 (general obligation to protect and preserve the marine environment). In a separate opinion, Judge Paik elaborated on the flag States’ obligations under Article 94. Thus, the opinion’s examination of flag State responsibility and the due diligence standard is likely to find application beyond the context of IUU fishing in the EEZ.

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