International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea


The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) was opened for signature in Montego Bay (Jamaica) on December 10th, 1982 and came into force on November 16th, 1994 (April 11th, 1996 for France). It establishes a comprehensive legal framework governing all ocean space and uses of marine resources. Since Ecuador’s accession on May 22nd, 2012, 163 States or entities are currently party to the Convention (including the European Union).

In order to resolve disputes arising out of its interpretation and application, the Convention provided four different paths, with the choice being left to States:

  • the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea,
  • the International Court of Justice,
  • arbitration in accordance with Annex VII of the Convention,
  • special arbitration pursuant to Annex VIII of the Convention.

The Tribunal is an independent judicial body created by the Convention (Annex VI); it sits in Hamburg and has 21 judges, elected by secret ballot by States parties to the Convention. The judges must be persons of the highest reputation for fairness and integrity and recognized competence in the Law of the Sea. Moreover, the representation of the principal legal systems of the world and equitable geographical representation among the five geographic groups defined by the General Assembly of the United Nations must be provided in the Tribunal’s composition. Tribunal members are elected for nine years and may be re-elected; the mandates for one-third of the members expire every three years. The Chief Justice of the Tribunal is Japan’s Shunji Yanai; France has one judge in the person of Jean-Pierre Cot, whose mandate was renewed in 2011.

The Tribunal may, as deemed necessary, sit as a smaller body (chamber) to hear specific types of cases. In addition to the Seabed Disputes Chamber (whose creation is imposed by the Convention), the Tribunal has set up four Chambers, with 5 to 9 judges: the Summary Procedure Chamber, Fisheries Disputes Chamber, Marine Environment Disputes Chamber, and the Maritime Delimitation Disputes Chamber.

Since its first case in 1997, the Tribunal has handled seventeen cases and two others are still pending. France has been involved in litigation before the ITLOS in three cases, in which it has not been successful:

Case No. 5 known as the “Camouco” case (Panama v France), Judgment dated February 7th, 2000,
Case No. 6, known as the “Monte Confurco” case (Seychelles v France), Judgment dated December 18th, 2000,
Case No. 8 known as the “Grand Prince” case (Belize v France), Judgment dated April 20th, 2001.

Two recent developments are worth noting:

  • The Court seems to be undergoing a resurgence of interest on behalf of states parties to UNCLOS: four cases were submitted in quick succession in 2011, with, for the first time, a request for an advisory opinion (on the responsibilities and obligations of states sponsoring persons or entities in connection with activities in the international seabed zone, and a dispute regarding the delimitation of a maritime boundary (in the Bay of Bengal between Bangladesh and Myanmar));
  • The geographical distribution of judges was changed to the detriment of Western states. The traditional division into the five groups used in the UN system is now contested: the representation of the Western European and Others Group (WEOG) is considered by many countries relatively too large. This dispute disrupted the 19th Meeting of States Parties to the Convention (June 22nd-26th, 2009) and it was decided that the formula for allocating seats should be changed in the following manner:

“Starting with the next election [June 2011], the Tribunal shall be composed as follows:

a) five Judges from the African Group;

b) five Judges from the Asia-Pacific Group;

c) three judges from the Eastern European Group;

d) four Judges from the Latin American and Caribbean Group;

e) three judges from the Western European and Others Group;

f) the remaining seat shall be awarded following an election between candidates from the African Group, the Asia-Pacific Group, and the Western European and Others Group.”

The WEOG, originally having four seats, has lost one seat, which becomes “floating.” In practice, it has “recovered” the seat in the elections held in June 2011 at the 22nd Meeting of States Parties to the Convention, with the election of Malta’s candidate.

Updated on : 15.06.12