South East China Sea award puts wind in the sails of UNCLOS environmental provisions.

Most of the political attention to the panel’s award on the South East China Sea issue has gone to the implications for Chinese sovereignty in the area. That is in itself neither surprising nor problematic. It is worth highlighting however that 2 out of 6 of the Panel’s conclusions, as listed by Herbert Smith Freehills, relate to environmental protection:

  1. failed to protect and preserve the marine environment by tolerating and actively supporting Chinese fishermen in the harvesting of endangered species and the use of harmful fishing methods that damaged the fragile coral reef ecosystem in the South China Sea;
  2. inflicted severe harm on the marine environment by constructing artificial islands and engaging in extensive land reclamation at seven reefs in the Spratly Islands;

If one includes a third one, ‘interfered with the traditional fishing activities of Philippine fishermen at Scarborough Shoal;’ as being part of the principle of sustainable development, then half of the Chinese infringements relate to environmental protection in the wide sense. These findings highlight how closely linked environmental protection is to natural resources and to territory generally, and how environmental protection has come of age and is now part of core debates in public international law. Sadly also, of course, how in their search for scarce resources plenty of nations continue to trample freely on values which the 1992 Rio Declaration already found to essentially be part of customary international law.

A Monash student of mine is writing on the Panel report from the environmental angle and I shall share as and when that analysis is available.

Geert.

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