Permanent Mission of Australia
to the United Nations
New York

Oceans and the Law of the Sea

7 December 2021

Statement by H.E. The Hon. Mitch Fifield, Ambassador and Permanent Representative of Australia to the United Nations

Australia remains deeply committed to upholding the integrity of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, UNCLOS, both within our Indo-Pacific region and more broadly.

We are committed to promoting freedom of trade and safeguarding freedom of navigation.  

We want the sovereignty and the rights of all States to be respected.

We encourage the conservation and sustainable use of marine resources, including fisheries.

We place a strong emphasis on preserving ocean and marine ecosystem health, given the importance of the ocean for economic security and for livelihoods, in particular in our region. 

And we advocate strongly for the peaceful resolution of disputes, in accordance with international law. 

UNCLOS sets out clear, comprehensive and universal rules consistent with these objectives. 

As we reaffirm each year in the resolution on the oceans and the law of the sea, “the Convention sets out the legal framework within which all activities in the oceans and seas must be carried out”.

UNCLOS lives up to its moniker as the “constitution for the seas and oceans”.

It provides a comprehensive legal order governing States’ interaction and cooperation in the oceans – from navigation to conservation, to how States’ maritime entitlements may be established. 

UNCLOS provides a foundation for international peace, security and stability.  It supports all States to exercise their rights and freedoms, and comply with their obligations, in the oceans and seas. 

This is particularly vital in the South China Sea.

As reflected in the Note Verbale Australia lodged with the United Nations Secretary-General on 23 July 2020, we do not accept maritime claims that are inconsistent with UNCLOS.

The provisions of UNCLOS provide the comprehensive and exhaustive legal framework for establishing all maritime zones.

Any domestic legal regime that regulates activities in the maritime domain must be fully consistent with UNCLOS.  

It is also our longstanding and consistent position that the 2016 South China Sea Arbitral Award is final and binding on the parties and must be respected.

We remain concerned by destabilising actions in the South China Sea, including the militarisation of disputed features, actions to disrupt other countries’ resource exploitation activities, and the dangerous or coercive use of coast guard vessels and ‘maritime militias’.  

We urge all claimants to take meaningful steps to ease tensions, build trust, and cease actions that could undermine stability or lead to escalation. 

We welcome the recommencement of meetings of the International Seabed Authority Assembly and Council to progress the Authority’s important work, and hope that in-person meetings will be possible next year.

Australia encourages the Authority and all State Parties to advance efforts towards robust regulations for deep-sea mining exploitation of the Area that ensure the protection of the marine environment.

As a member of the Pacific Islands Forum, the PIF, Australia is committed to a secure, prosperous and sustainable Blue Pacific.

UNCLOS compels countries to cooperate to conserve the living resources of the oceans and to protect and preserve the marine environment.  

Australia strongly supports the development of an implementing agreement under UNCLOS to address the conservation and sustainable use of marine biological diversity in areas beyond national jurisdiction.

Australia is committed to securing a treaty that delivers real conservation benefits for our oceans—including new high seas marine protected areas—and sets strong environmental protection standards.

We encourage all States to continue working towards concluding an ambitious and comprehensive agreement when negotiations resume in 2022.  

We commend the continued close attention that this Assembly and its Sixth Committee continues to give to the issue of sea-level rise.

While the impacts of sea-level rise will most obviously affect coastal States, particularly low-lying States like many of those in our Pacific family, all States will be affected in one way or another.

We encourage other States to support the interpretation of UNCLOS set out in the PIF Declaration on Preserving Maritime Zones in the face of Climate Change-Related Sea-Level Rise.

We welcome the International Law Commission’s consideration of this issue.

The ongoing work of the Commission has already, through the Study Group’s First Issues Paper, recognised the significant development, economic and environmental challenges that sea-level rise will pose.  It has contributed to identifying the important and urgent questions of international law that require our close consideration. 

We urge all States to engage with the Commission as it undertakes this work, and to recognise that a key purpose of UNCLOS is to provide a stable, predictable and durable maritime order.