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The International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea Gets Busier

The International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea Gets Busier

Last summer, I wrote a piece on this blog noting that the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea (ITLOS), which had been underutilised for some years, was finally getting some substative cases to decide. Although ITLOS had decided a number of cases dealing with provisional release of vessels, and had handled requests for provisional measures in cases where the merits had been submitted to an arbitral tribunal, ITLOS had only decided one case on the merits before 2010. But in a 6 month period before the summer of 2010, 2 cases were submitted to ITLOS: one a maritime delimitation case between Bangladesh and Myanmar  and the other a request for an advisory opinion. Not a lot of activity but nonethess signifcant. Nearly one year on, the Court has had two further cases submitted to it!! Last month, Panama and Guinea Bissau agreed to submit a dispute to ITLOS relating to the detention of a vessel (see press release). In November last year, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines initiated a case against Spain at ITLOS also relating to detention of a vessel. Neither of these cases are provisional release cases (see here). That means four new cases in just over 18 months!

It is worth taking a moment to reflect on this new found confidence in ITLOS. In two of the new cases (the Bangladesh/Myanmar and the Panama/Guinea Bissau cases), the parties have agreed to refer to ITLOS, disputes which ordinarily were within the jurisdiction of arbitral tribunals under the dispute settlement system of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. In other words, rather than going to an arbitral tribunal with compulsory jurisdiction over the dispute, the parties have instead agreed to go to ITLOS.  This raises questions as to whyStates might choose a standing court over an arbitral tribunal and why the new found confidence in ITLOS (since the ICJ would also have been an option for these States). One might argue that there are a number of advantages of arbitration over judicial proceedings. For example, the parties have more influence over the composition of the tribunal, the tribunal will be much smaller – usually 5 arbitrators – than ITLOS which has 21 judges. Both these points perhaps make ITLOS’ decisions less predictable for parties. But are there advantages to resorting to ITLOS (or other standing judicial bodies) over arbitration? Clearly these four State think so.  I can think of two possible advantages. Decisions of judicial bodies may be regarded as carrying greater (political rather than legal) authority than that of arbitral tribunals. While this may be true of the ICJ, I wonder about ITLOS. Also, developing countries may get financial assistance for using ITLOS. Are there other advantages?  Also, are there advantages of using ITLOS over the ICJ? I would be interested in readers’ comments on these issues.

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