Settlement of Disputes

Last updated 20 July 2010

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The Charter of the United Nations requires all Members of the Organization to settle their international disputes by peaceful means in such a manner that international peace and security are not endangered. The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea builds on this commitment by providing a compulsory and binding framework for the peaceful settlement of all related disputes.

The Convention and the Settlement of Disputes

    Part XV of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea requires that States Parties to the Convention settle any dispute between them concerning the interpretation or application of the Convention by peaceful means in accordance with article 2, para. 3, of the Charter of the United Nations and shall seek a solution by the means indicated in article 33, para. 1, of the Charter. Where, however, no settlement has been reached, article 286 of the Convention stipulates that the dispute be submitted at the request of any party to the dispute to a court or tribunal having jurisdiction in this regard. Article 287 of the Convention defines those courts or tribunals as:
      (a) The International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea (established in accordance with Annex VI of the Convention) including the Seabed Disputes Chamber;
      (b) The International Court of Justice;
      (c) An arbitral tribunal constituted in accordance with Annex VII of the Convention;
      (d) A special arbitral tribunal constituted in accordance with Annex VIII for one or more of the categories of disputes specified therein.

    International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea

    The International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea is the central forum established by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea for the peaceful settlement of disputes. Its seat is at the Free and Hanseatic City of Hamburg, Germany. The Tribunal may sit and exercise its functions elsewhere whenever it considers this desirable.

    Link to the web site of the Tribunal - www.itlos.org

      Jurisdiction

    The jurisdiction of the Tribunal comprises all disputes and all applications submitted to it in accordance with the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea and all matters specifically provided for in any other agreement which confers jurisdiction on the Tribunal.
    The Tribunal has exclusive jurisdiction, through its Seabed Disputes Chamber, with respect to disputes relating to activities in the international seabed Area. These matters include disputes between States Parties concerning the interpretation or application of the provisions of the Convention, along with those of the Agreement relating to the Implementation of the Part XI of the Convention, concerning the deep seabed Area; as well as other categories of disputes as mentioned in article 187, Section 5, Part XI.
    The Tribunal, through its Seabed Disputes Chamber, has jurisdiction to provide advisory opinions at the request of the Assembly or the Council of the International Seabed Authority on legal questions arising within the scope of their activities.
    The Tribunal has special jurisdiction in matters calling for provisional measures. Pending the constitution of an arbitral tribunal to which a dispute is being sumitted under this section, any court or tribunal agreed upon by the parties or, failing agreement between parties to a dispute within two weeks of the request by either party for provisional measures, the Tribunal, or with respect to activities in the Area, the Seabed Disputes Chamber, may prescribe, modify or revoke provisional measures.
    Where the authorities of a State Party have detained a vessel flying the flag of another State Party and it is alleged that the detaining State has not complied with the provisions of the Convention for the prompt release of the vessel or its crew upon the posting of a reasonable bond or other financial security, the question of release from detention may be submitted to the any court or tribunal agreed upon by the parties or, failing such agreement within 10 days from the time of detention, to a court or tribunal accepted by the detaining state or to the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea, unless the parties otherwise agree.


    Composition

    The Tribunal is composed of 21 independent members elected by States Parties to the Convention on the Law of the Sea from among persons with recognized competence in the field of the law of the sea and representing the principal legal systems of the world. The first election was held in August 1996.
    Upon their election, the members of the Tribunal will elect a President and a Vice-President whose term of office shall be three years. The Tribunal also appoints its Registrar and other officers of the Registry as may be necessary. The President of the Tribunal, as well as the Registrar, reside at the seat of the Tribunal.
    In hearing a dispute, all available members of the Tribunal may sit, although a quorum of 11 members is required to constitute the Tribunal. All disputes and applications submitted to the Tribunal shall be heard and determined by it, unless the dispute is to be submitted to the Seabed Disputes Chamber or the parties request that it be submitted to a special chamber.
    The Seabed Disputes Chamber is to be composed of 11 members selected by a majority of the members of the Tribunal from among them. Members of the Chamber will serve for three years, and are eligible for re-election. A quorum of seven members is required to constitute the Chamber.
    In addition to the Seabed Disputes Chamber, the Tribunal will form annually a chamber composed of five of its members which may hear and determine disputes by summary procedure. The Tribunal will also form special chambers for dealing with a particular dispute submitted to it if the parties so request. The composition of those chambers will be determined by the Tribunal with the approval of the parties. Finally, the Tribunal may form such other chambers, composed of three or more its members, as it considers necessary for dealing with particular categories of disputes.
    Members of the Tribunal may not exercise any political or administrative function, or associate actively with or be financially interested in any of the operations of any enterprise concerned with the exploration for or exploitation of the resources of the sea or the seabed or other commercial use of the sea or the seabed.
    Members of the Tribunal may not participate in the decision of any case in which they have previously taken part as agent, counsel or advocate for one of the parties, or as a member of a national or international court or tribunal, or in any other capacity.
    Members of the Tribunal of the nationality of any of the parties to a dispute shall retain their right to participate as members. If the Tribunal, when hearing a dispute, includes upon its bench a member of the nationality of one of the parties, any other party may choose a person to participate as a member of the Tribunal. In cases where the Tribunal does not include a member of the nationality of the parties, each of the parties may choose a person to participate as a member.

     

    Membership of the Tribunal, Nationality, Regional Group and Term of Office

    The first members of the Tribunal were elected at the meeting of States Parties held on 1 August 1996. They were sworn in by the Secretary-General of the United Nations at a ceremonial inauguration on 18 October 1996 in Hamburg, Germany.
     
    For the Tribunal election procedure as well as a table of the membership, their nationality and their term of office please visit the Tribunal's web site.

     

    Applicable Law

    The Tribunal will apply the provisions of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea and other rules of international law not incompatible with the Convention in deciding disputes submitted to it. It does, however, have to the power to decide a case ex aequo et bono, if the parties so agree.

    Procedure

    Disputes are to be submitted to the Tribunal, depending on the case, either by notification of a special agreement, or by written application, addressed to the Registrar.
    The Tribunal and its Seabed Disputes Chamber have the power to prescribe provisional measures. If the Tribunal is not in session or a sufficient number of its members is not available to constitute a quorum, the provisional measures can be prescribed by the chamber of summary procedure. Such measures are subject to review and revision by the Tribunal.
    All hearings before the Tribunal are under the control of its President, and are to be public, unless the Tribunal decides otherwise or unless the parties demand that the public not be admitted.
    States Parties not party to a dispute but which consider that they have an interest of a legal nature which may be affected by the decision in any dispute may submit a request to the Tribunal to be permitted to intervene. Whenever the interpretation or application of the Convention or any other agreement is in question, the Registrar will notify all States Parties to the Convention or to such agreements. Those parties have the right to intervene in the proceedings.
    Decisions of the Tribunal are final and shall be complied with by all the parties to the dispute. However, decisions will not have a binding force except between the parties in respect of the particular dispute.
    Unless otherwise decided by the Tribunal, each party shall bear its own costs.

    International Court of Justice - general information and selected cases

    The International Court of Justice is one of the courts or tribunals that may be chosen under the dispute settlement mechanisms of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. For more information about the Court and current cases, please consult the web site of the Court: http://www.icj-cij.org/
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Prepared by the Division for Ocean Affairs and the Law of the Sea, Office of Legal Affairs, United Nations.

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