Global Responses to Global Problems
Ocean pollution, overfishing, habitat destruction, and loss of biodiversity are problems too serious and complicated for any country to tackle on its own. In 1987, the World Commission on Environment and Development listed three requirements that must be fulfilled to keep oceans healthy:
- Since all oceans are connected, they need to be managed by many countries working together.
- Countries located around semi-enclosed seas (such as the Mediterranean or Caribbean) need to come up with plans to manage resources and problems unique to those seas.
- To control land-based ocean pollution, national action plans and international cooperation are needed. One way countries cooperate to find answers to global problems is to develop international laws and agreements.
What Is International Law, Anyway?
International law is quite different from the laws of an individual country. For one thing, no single government makes these laws. Instead, countries get together and agree on rules and regulations that will govern them internationally. Usually, these written agreements are called treaties or conventions. All citizens of a country must obey the laws of their land, whether they like it or not. But no country has to obey an international treaty or convention unless it has agreed to do so. A country that breaks international rules after it has agreed to follow them can be subject to international dispute settlement procedures. It can also be penalized by other countries who may refuse to trade with the law-breaker or employ other measures. Enforcement is most effective when international rules specifically require countries to act together to penalize a country that breaks the law. As well, provisions are often made for the transfer of technology amongst nations to encourage compliance with these international agreements.
Besides treaties and conventions, there is another type of international law known as custom. Custom encompasses laws that evolve over time from commonly accepted practices. For example, it was once a customary law that countries could only control fishing in ocean waters within a cannon-shot from shore — a distance of about three nautical miles. Custom and treaties are both legally binding, but treaties are more specific and can be developed in much less time than customary laws.
A treaty becomes law after several steps. First, it's negotiated and signed by representatives of two or more countries. Next, the government of each signing country "ratifies", or approves, the new agreement. Each country then becomes a "party" to the treaty, and must follow its rules. Once a certain number of countries have ratified the treaty, it "comes into force," or becomes international law. The last step is for each country to implement, or incorporate, the treaty's rules into its own laws so that every citizen of that nation must follow the rules of the treaty.
While many international organizations also produce guidelines that aren't enforceable, these principles do contribute to national and international agreements. Several international laws and agreements are helping to prevent land-based pollution, overfishing, and the loss of habitat and biodiversity. Some examples appear in this section.
Minimizing Land-based Pollution
Both the Stockholm Declaration of 1972 and the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea of 1982 stated — albeit, in a general way — that all countries are responsible for preventing ocean pollution. Other programs are much more specific on this subject. The UN Regional Seas Programme, for example, was established in 1974, to control marine pollution in semi-enclosed seas, such as the Mediterranean and the Caribbean. The Programme involves 13 areas and over 140 countries.
The London Convention on the Prevention of Marine Pollution by Dumping of Wastes and Other Matter also came into force in 1975. Countries party to this agreement are prohibited from disposing of hazardous wastes at sea. They must also report anything they do dump to the International Maritime Organization. Each year, member countries meet to review this convention and discuss possible changes. For instance, they agreed to ban all disposal of industrial wastes at sea by 1995.
Since 1975, Canada has regulated ocean dumping through its own Ocean Disposal Program, which meets the rules set out by the London Convention (ratified by Canada in 1990).
In 1995, Canada and 100 other countries joined in the Global Programme of Action, which aims to reduce land-based ocean pollution. The programme guides countries in developing their own action plans to manage coastal zones, river basins, and land use throughout the country.
Several international agreements are concerned with overfishing. The UN Convention on the Law of the Sea was signed in 1982, but only came into force in 1994. This convention tells nations what parts of the ocean they can control. Coastal countries can have an "exclusive economic zone" of up to 200 nautical miles from the coast. Inside this zone, a country can regulate who fishes and how much is caught.
Most coastal countries have declared a 200-mile zone, including nations like Canada that haven't ratified the UN convention. The Law of the Sea doesn't clearly address fishing outside this zone. Fish, of course, don't care about borders (especially invisible ones) and often "straddle" or swim between exclusive economic zones and the high seas. So fish "belonging" to coastal countries can be scooped up by trawlers on the high seas. In 2001, the Straddling Fish Stocks Agreement came into force, giving coastal countries the power to enforce high seas fishing regulations if the country licensing the offending fishing vessel neglects to do so itself.
Preventing Habitat Loss and Degradation
In 1975, the Ramsar Convention on the Conservation of Wetlands of International Importance became international law. The convention defines wetlands as waters less than six metres deep at low tide. This definition includes rivers, coasts, estuaries, and even coral reefs.
Member nations establish protected wetlands and also cooperate in the management of important wetlands "shared" by two or more countries. The convention has drawn up "wise use" principles to encourage conservation policies and practices. Since Canada ratified the convention in 1981, it has designated 37 wetlands — almost 30 percent of all wetlands protected under the convention.
The Migratory Birds Convention of 1916 was one of the first international treaties formed to prevent the extinction of wildlife species. It generally forbids the hunting of migratory birds and the taking of nests and eggs in the United States and Canada.
The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) controls trade in wild plants and animals between countries. Negotiated in 1973, it has 10 ratifications and 175 Parties. Canada joined the convention in 1975. Under this agreement, it is forbidden to sell rare or endangered species. The convention also protects, to a lesser extent, species that could become threatened and those that, while not at risk, are protected by member nations.
Enhancing Biological Diversity
The UN Convention on Biological Diversity became international law in 1993. It requires countries to:
- conserve genetic, species, and ecosystem diversity;
- conserve living resources so they'll remain for future generations, - and
- share the benefits of genetic resource use.
Canada joined the convention in 1992 and released its own biodiversity strategy in 1995.
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