Student blog: How Can a State Control Pollution around its Landmass?

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Author: Adrianna Nowak

This post (edited for publication) is contributed to our blog as part of a series of work produced by students for assessment within the module ‘Public International Law’. We offer this module in the second year of Bristol Law School’s LLB programme. It is led by Associate Professor Dr Noelle Quenivet. Learning and teaching on the module includes the use of online portfolios within a partly student led curriculum. The posts in this series show the outstanding research and analytical abilities of students on our programmes. Views expressed in this blog post are those of the author only who consents to the publication.

For many years states marginalised the problem of pollution caused by shipping. The International Maritime Organization in the beginning of its work dealt mainly with maritime safety. In the 1950s, States started recognizing the issue of oil spills. The result was the International Convention for the Prevention of the Pollution of the Sea by Oil. The Convention established prohibited zones with limits of discharge. Still, pollution was a minor concern of the International Maritime Organization. Torrey Canyon, the biggest oil spill up to that time, raised the question about the necessity of further regulations. Accordingly, after the IMO’s extraordinary session, in 1973 the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships  (MARPOL) was adopted. My post aims to discuss how a State can control pollution caused by shipping using MARPOL and the United Nations Convention of the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), the main focus being on pollution caused by oil (see video on the extent of the problem). The adoption of these two conventions was indeed the start of States properly addressing the issue of pollution. However because of the lack of cooperation between well developed countries with developing ones, full effective control of pollution still remains difficult (see eg the issue of the flag of convenience).

The Issue of Enforcement

Oil spills, which are less frequent than other causes of sea pollution, have nevertheless devastating effects. The consequences of this kind of incident are twofold: irreversible damage to marine life and very high costs of cleaning up the polluted area (see eg Exxon Case before the US Supreme Court). Annex I of MARPOL deals with the prevention of pollution by oil. This part of the Convention incorporates the oil discharge criteria, the requirements of the equipment and the mandatory obligation of the Oil Record Book for every cargo vessel. Each State is responsible individually for the implementation of domestic regulations which comply with the rules of the Convention. As the International Maritime Organization has however no power to enforce its rules (Szepes, ‘MARPOL 73/78: The Challenges of Regulating Vessel-Source Oil Pollution’ (2013) 2 Manchester Student Law Review 73, 87), it is very important for States to control pollution around their landmass by monitoring foreign flagged vessels around their territory. Even if there is no legal body to enforce MARPOL’s rules, it is yet necessary for the International Maritime Organization to be aware which vessels are the main causes of the pollution as this can lead to consultations with States which violate the Convention.

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Office of Response Restoration, 25 Years Later: Timeline of Recovery from the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill

Jurisdiction of a Coastal State and its Need for Cooperation

Ships are able to be a subject of more than one system of law, which can be national, regional and/or international. The example set by Torrey Canyon showed that the application of domestic law by an injured State over its territorial waters alone is not enough to control the emission of pollution by foreign flagged vessels. As a matter of fact, the disaster revealed an issue regarding the operation of the law around a coastal state. Initially, the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea gave a coastal state the power to enforce its national legislation only within its territorial waters (Article 2 UNCLOS). As a result of the French and British reactions to the Torrey Canyon disaster, a coastal state can now enforce domestic law within its exclusive economic zone (Article 56 UNCLOS). UNCLOS extended the jurisdiction of a coastal state over its exclusive economic zone but only when a vessel which violated law in the Exclusive Economic Zone, entered that State’s port (Article 220(1) UNCLOS). Coastal state is also empowered in special situations to arrest and detain a vessel which violated its law (Article 220(6) UNCLOS). The degree of a coastal state’s power seems to be high but without the cooperation of flag states, being successful in controlling pollution is not possible. The jurisdiction of a coastal state within its exclusive economic zone is limited and applies only when the violation is serious. In all scenarios where an infringement is not significant a coastal state depends on the flag states’ jurisdiction (Szepes, ‘MARPOL 73/78: The Challenges of Regulating Vessel-Source Oil Pollution’ (2013) 2 Manchester Student Law Review 73, 94-96)On the high sea, jurisdiction always shifts to the flag state and it is rather alarming that only a small percentage of investigations result in convictions and fines (Szepes, ‘MARPOL 73/78: The Challenges of Regulating Vessel-Source Oil Pollution’ (2013) 2 Manchester Student Law Review 73, 91).

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Garry Taylor, ‘The Law of the Sea and “Creeping Jurisdiction” of Coastal States’, 21 July 2015

MARPOL and UNCLOS are the most important treaties that define the legal framework governing States’ ability to control pollution. When properly implemented by their parties, they can be successful instruments of control of pollution. The problem is that because of economic convenience, owners of world’s merchant tonnage do not register their vessels in States where environmental protection is an important matter. A high percentage of representatives of the world’s trade industry argues that the costs related to the registration of vessels in developed countries are too high and thus reduce their ability to make profits. For many States, applying high standards of environmental protection is still difficult and the only way to be successful in this area is to cooperate and support developing countries. Small steps, like increasing environmental awareness in developing countries, can help with the improvement of the control of pollution; without it, the world might be in the near future be faced with the problem of the mass extinction of certain marine species.

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