Permanent Mission of Australia
to the United Nations
New York

27-11-2001 - Oceans and the Law of the Sea


Plenary - Item 30: Oceans and the Law of the Sea

Statement by H.E. Mr David Stuart
Ambassador and Deputy Permanent Representative
of Australia to the United Nations

27 November 2001

Mr Chairman

Oceans and law of the sea issues are of critical importance to Australia, which is the world's largest island, has one of the world's longest coastlines, and amongst the world's largest maritime zones and continental shelves. Three of the world's great oceans break on our shores. Australian maritime zones range from tropical waters in the north to the cold waters of parts of the Southern Ocean. The world's largest coral reef system fringes the north eastern coast of Australia. The biodiversity of Australia's marine ecosystems is remarkable.

Protection of the marine environment is a key priority for Australia, within waters under national jurisdiction, in our region and globally. The challenges are many, and include pollution - from land based sources, vessel based sources and dumping; unsustainable exploitation of fisheries resources - and damage from navigation activities, such as the introduction of invasive species through the discharge of ballast water from ships (see the Secretary-General's report on Oceans and Law of the Sea of March 2001, A/56/58). Australia's national oceans policy, launched in 1998, embraces strategies to protect the marine environment which take an integrated or multiple use approach to ocean management. Australia's National Oceans Office, established last year, provides the institutional backing to oversee implementation of the oceans policy.

Australia is pleased that protection and preservation of the marine environment and integrated oceans management will be taken up by the next UN Informal Consultative Process relating to oceans and law of the sea. The informal consultative process has been a very positive step forward for the United Nations in its treatment of practical aspects of law of the sea and oceans issues. It has quickly become a forum for States to discuss, in a detailed and practical manner, a range of law of the sea and oceans issues, and to facilitate cooperation and coordination between the many UN programmes and institutions which have some responsibility for these issues. We welcome the fact that even those states which expressed some initial doubts about the value of the initiative have participated fully and constructively in the process.

The second meeting of the informal consultative process focused on piracy and marine science. Piracy is a real concern in waters to the north of Australia. The recommendations from the meeting will assist regional efforts to combat the recent rapid growth of piracy and armed robbery at sea. Participants in the process highlighted the contribution which marine science can make to sustainable development and effective conservation of the marine environment. Discussion identified the need for further capacity building, for more effective data exchange, and enhanced regional cooperation. The recommendations from the meeting will facilitate effective implementation of the novel regime for scientific cooperation found in Part XIII of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.

Mr Chairman

One theme which emerged from the focus on marine science was how much we still have to learn about the marine environment, especially in relation to marine biodiversity in high seas areas. We know more about the surface of the moon than we do about some deep ocean areas. Some high seas areas, such as oceanic ridges, contain a staggeringly rich biodiversity. Australia believes it is now time to consider how to conserve and manage these unique areas.

As a positive example of greater international cooperation in this area, Australia has supported the development of Global Ocean Observing System, developed through the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission of UNESCO, together with the World Meteorological Organization and the United Nations Environment Program. Australia has also played a leading role in the development of a joint technical commission for Oceanography and Marine Meteorology.

Mr Chairman

The obligation to assist persons in distress is a fundamental principle of the maritime community and it is one to which Australia is fully committed. As recent experiences around the world have indicated, however, it is not always as straightforward a task as one would wish, particularly where issues of sovereignty and illegal activities such as people trafficking are involved.

Additional complications have been introduced by large numbers of asylum seekers setting out in sub-standard ships, sometimes placing at risk their own lives, and possibly those of the rescuing crews, in order to force the rescuers to take them to a place of their choosing.

Mr Chairman

In this context, Norway made some assertions in its statement yesterday concerning the MV Tampa incident which require a response.

The rescue by the MV Tampa occurred outside the search and rescue region designated as being the responsibility of Australia. Beyond the issuing of a distress relay, Australia did not direct the rescue, responsibility for which was assumed by the Indonesian Rescue Coordination Centre. Australian Search and Rescue was advised by the Norwegian Rescue Coordination Centre that the rescue had been completed, that the vessel had resumed its voyage and was en route to Merak in Indonesia and that the Tampa had been in contact with Indonesian authorities. However we understand that, because of pressure from those rescued, the master turned the MV Tampa around and headed for Christmas Island.

Australia notes that the MV Tampa, which was carrying intended unauthorised arrivals, entered into Australian territorial waters surrounding Christmas Island despite an Australian direction that it not do so. It is relevant that Christmas Island has no port suitable for the landing of substantial numbers of people. Australian authorities were monitoring the situation on board the MV Tampa and, under the circumstances, decided that there was no requirement for the vessel to approach the Christmas Island port facility. Assistance was provided to those on board, including food and medical monitoring and attention.

Australia is fully aware of the obligations and traditions attaching to the rescue of those in distress at sea. Australia has abided by those obligations and traditions. Australia also is aware that circumstances such as those that arose in relation to the MV Tampa should not be able to be used as a means of entering the territory of a state unlawfully.

Mr Chairman

In this context Australia, like Norway, welcomes the IMO Secretary-General's initiative to establish a cooperative interagency working group within the UN framework to develop a coordinated international approach to such issues. Australia reaffirms its full commitment to the ideals and aims of enhancing safety of life at sea, for all persons regardless of their circumstances.

Mr Chairman

I now turn to the issue of fishing activities. Australia welcomes the news that the UN Fish Stocks Agreement will enter into force next month. This Agreement, which implements key provisions of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, provides a framework for sustainable conservation and management of highly migratory fish stocks and straddling stocks. The entry into force of the Agreement requires a fundamental change in the way fishing activity has been conducted in many parts of the world. No longer can vessels fish for stocks on the high seas until they collapse. No longer can fishing vessels take high levels of non-target species in the course of their fishing. No longer should short term gain be sought at the price of long term survival of a stock or a species.

It is crucial that all states engaged in fishing activities become parties to the Agreement. This will ensure the effective cooperation between coastal states and fishing states necessary to ensure the long term sustainable conservation and management of the world's fisheries resources.

Mr Chairman

In the same spirit, Australia strongly supports the new Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Convention which has the UN Fish Stocks Agreement as its basis. A preparatory conference process is now under way to establish the regional commission which will manage much of the western and central Pacific's tuna resources. We urge all distant water fishing states which participated in the negotiation of this convention to work constructively with members of the Pacific Island forum group and others in this preparatory conference process, so that we ensure that the resources of the Pacific are conserved and managed for the long-term benefit of all.

Mr Chairman

One of the great threats to the long term sustainability of the world's fisheries resources is the rise of illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing. Therefore Australia was pleased to play a leading role in the development of an International Plan of Action to Prevent, Deter and Eliminate Illegal Unreported and Unregulated Fishing. While the plan, adopted by the FAO in February, places some emphasis on the flag states to control fishing activities of its vessels, it also recognises that other States should also act to prevent illegal fishing -coastal states, port states, states of nationality, and market states. The Plan requires States to devise national plans of action to combat illegal fishing by 2004. Australia is well advanced in developing its national plan, and urges other states to take similar steps.

Mr Chairman

There have been a number of other recent developments involving Australia which demonstrate the breadth of issues under this item:

Firstly, the elaboration of the Convention for the Conservation of Albatrosses and Petrels, and its adoption in February. As many of these seabird species are endangered because of unsustainable fishing activity, including illegal fishing, this is an issue which we see as very relevant to the fisheries sub-item. We urge all range states to become parties to it as a matter of priority.

Secondly, the decision taken by the meeting of States parties to the UN Convention on the law of the sea in May to provide additional time for certain states to make a submission defining the outer limits of areas of extended continental shelf to the Commission on the limits of the Continental Shelf. Australia is well advanced in its work to define its areas of extended continental shelf, and is working to be in a position to make a submission to the Commission in the not too distant future.

Thirdly, the adoption last month of the Convention on the Protection of Underwater Cultural Heritage, which provides for an international regime to better protect and preserve underwater cultural heritage. The Convention appropriately reflects the primary role of the coastal State in bringing about the most effective protection of such heritage.

Mr Chairman

In closing, I wish to express Australia's support for the two resolutions which are before the General Assembly under this item. We thank the coordinators for their work, and the Secretariat for its assistance. These resolutions are identify the broad range of issues of relevance to oceans, law of the sea and fisheries, including the many threats to marine environment and sustainable fisheries. The resolutions call on states to take practical steps to address these threats. Australia is pleased to co-sponsor these texts.