Google Earth Map for the Timor Sea Maritime Boundary Dispute

Google Earth is an amazing thing, and it’s hard to understand what’s truly going on in the Timor Sea simply by looking at pictures, so I’ve created a Google Earth collection that shows the coordinates provided in the major treaties affecting the region: the 1972 Indonesian-Australian Seabed Boundary Agreement [PDF], the 1981 Provisional Fisheries Surveillance and Enforcement Arrangement [PDF], the 1989 Timor Gap Treaty, the 1997 Water Column Boundary Agreement, the 2002 Timor Sea Treaty, and the 2006 Sunrise IUA/CMATS.

The Google Earth collection for the Maritime Boundaries in the Timor Sea can be downloaded here.

Map Explosion

if you display all of the treaties at once, it kind of looks like a rainbow threw up in the Timor Sea

If you’re interested in figuring out how all these treaties work together, it is probably more useful to just go ahead and play around with it on Google Earth, but I’ve provided a visual summary below using screencaps from the collection.

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The Historical Context of Australia’s Political and Legal Strategy in the Timor Sea

In 1974, with the prospect of an Indonesian annexation of Timor on the horizon, Australia faced an important question: would Australia receive more favorable access to the gas and oil fields in the Timor Sea if Timor had an (a) Portuguese government, (b) Indonesian government, or (c) independent government?

At the time, Australia believed the answer was (b): an Indonesian Timor would give Australia the best outcome when it came to negotiating a seabed boundary in the Timor Sea. In a 1974 Policy Planning Paper, the Australian government reasoned that, since Indonesia had already given Australia such a favorable result in a similar seabed boundary negotiation, Indonesia would likely give Australia a similarly favorable deal for the seabed territory offshore from Timor. As a result, Australia was cautious about entering into any final seabed boundary delineations with Portugal. The political situation was likely to change, and there would be advantages in waiting for a more favorable government to gain control of the island territory:

We should press ahead with negotiations with Portugal on the Portuguese Timor seabed boundary, but bear in mind that the Indonesians would probably be prepared to accept the same compromise as they did in the negotiations already completed on the seabed boundary between our two countries. Such a compromise would be more acceptable to us than the present Portuguese position. For precisely this reason however, we should be careful not to be seen as pushing for self-government or independence for Portuguese Timor or for it to become part of Indonesia, as this would probably be interpreted as evidence of our self-interest in the seabed boundary dispute rather than a genuine concern for the future of Portuguese Timor. We should continue to keep a careful check on the activities of Australian commercial firms in Portuguese Timor.

(Policy Planning Paper, Canberra, May 3, 1974).

In other words, Australia should continue to engage in negotiations with Portugal to avoid the appearance of any impropriety, but it should take care that the negotiations did not actually culminate in an agreement.

Although Australia’s economic and foreign interests were best served by an Indonesian Timor, it was for precisely that reason that Australia wanted to avoid any appearance that it had any stake in Timor’s outcome. If seen to support Indonesia’s annexation of Timor, it would likely be viewed as doing so for self-serving commercial reasons. At the same time, neither did Australia wish to be seen as supporting a Portuguese Timor or an independent Timor, because doing so might have the effect of promoting either of those outcomes. Taking such a position (or appearing to take such a position) would also pose a risk of complicating its relationship with Indonesia.

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The Senkaku Islands, Pt. I: UNCLOS, the EEZ, and the Conflict Between Land- and Sea-Based Sovereignty Regimes

In the East China Sea, north off the coast of Taiwan and south off the coast of Okinawa, there exists an island chain consisting of five small islets, and three smaller rocks. These islands — known as the Senkaku Islands in Japan, the Diaoyu Islands in China, and the Diaoyutai Islands by Taiwan — are the subject of a longstanding territorial dispute between those three states, and in recent months the dispute has become heated once again. military and diplomatic sparring over the islands has resumed once again.

China claims the islands are part of its sovereign territory, having been wrongfully stolen by Japanese military expansions in the late 19th century. Japan, in turn, claims that it is the rightful sovereign of the Senkakus, alleging that the islands were terra nullius until 1895, when Japan incorporated the islets by cabinet decision. Japan further asserts sovereign title to the islands owing to China’s failure to object to Japan’s claims of sovereignty for over seventy years, until China first raised a competing claim to the islands in 1970.

Not coincidentally, China’s first assertions of sovereignty over the Senkakus were made just one year after seismic surveys of the sea floor surrounding the islands had discovered the existence of significant oil and gas reserves. But while the discovery of natural resources in the East China Sea precipitated the ongoing territorial dispute between China and Japan, during this same time period there was another event occurring that would prove equally responsible: the development of modern international law of the sea. As result, the Senkaku Islands became a massively valuable commodity, and a previously dormant territorial dispute has become a flashpoint. Both Japan and China argue that, under international law, they are the rightful owners of the land.

The problem is, despite all the diplomatic strife and threats of military action, no one actually wants the Senkaku Islands.

And why would they? Seriously, look at these things:

Hardly anything there to speak of — and these are the three of the four biggest islets in the Senkaku Islands. In all, the island chain is nothing more than a barren 1,700 acres of sand, scrub, and rock. A few endangered moles live there, along with some feral goats, but the Senkakus are not suitable for human habitation. It is debatable whether any fresh water sources even exist on the islands, and previous attempts at establishing industry on Uotsuri, the largest islet, have all ended in failure.

The above-water portions of the Senkaku Islands are of negligible value. But the islands’ worthlessness is irrelevant to the intensity of the dispute over their ownership. China and Japan do not seek possession of the Senkakus because they wish to possess the islands, but because possession of the Senkakus is a mechanism for obtaining possession over the surrounding sea. In other words: possession of the Senkakus is a means, not an end.

In previous eras, when competing claims of sovereignty over a territory could not be determined by reference to either treaties or to customary international law, there did remain one additional mechanism that states could resort to for conclusively resolving the question of ownership. That particular mechanism, however, has now been expressly prohibited by Article 2 of the UN charter. With sovereignty-by-conquest no longer a sanctioned means of dispute resolution, and when the states involved in the dispute have no interest in submitting the matter to an adjudicative body, the result is an effective stalemate. In a fruitless attempt to resolve the conflict by reference to international law, Japan and China have now been reduced to squabbling over ancient maps and conflicting historical accounts.

This is the current status of the Senkaku Islands, and of numerous other disputed island territories off the coast of China and Japan. Japan and China can each point to various 19th century maps or little-noticed governmental decrees to bolster their claims of sovereignty. But based on the existing historical record concerning the occupation and use of the Senkaku Islands, neither China nor Japan can convincingly demonstrate a superior claim.

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Susan’s Theory of the Secret Fifth Amendment in Kiobel, as explained via gchat

Michael:
I had a thought
The entire United States argument against extraterritorial application in this case is built around something like act-of-state doctrine.
Why don’t we just apply act-of-state doctrine?

Susan:
You could, and it should be part of it. But even Nigeria didn’t actually make a law saying human rights abuses is totes okay.
And also “but the country said it was okay” is not a get out of jail free card once you start with the genocide stuff.

Michael:
Well, wait.
Act of state is just the judgment of the legality of another nation’s conduct, right?

Susan:
Yes, but we’re not (necessarily) judging another nation’s conduct, for one — it’s a Kirkpatrick situation. And second, I don’t think the purposes of the act of state doctrine are supported if it’s interpreted to require a court to go “whelp, it’s not my place to say that another country shouldn’t commit genocide.”

Michael:
No

Susan:
Act of State = choice of law.

Michael:
Pause
I’m saying that the United States’ argument is built around an idea that seems roughly equivalent to act-of-state.

“HERE, ALTHOUGH PETITIONERS’
SUIT IS AGAINST PRIVATE CORPORATIONS ALLEGED TO
HAVE AIDED AND ABETTED HUMAN RIGHTS ABUSES BY THE GOVERNMENT
OF NIGERIA, ADJUDICATION OF THE SUIT WOULD NECESSARILY
ENTAIL A DETERMINATION ABOUT WHETHER THE NIGERIAN
GOVERNMENT OR ITS AGENTS HAVE TRANSGRESSED LIMITS IMPOSED
BY INTERNATIONAL LAW”

Susan:
Ohhh, no I’d disagree with you. I have a half-written post on it, but I’d argue the U.S.’s position incorporates the international component of the 5th amendment.

Susan:
Yeah, but that’s foreign affairs stuff. Act of State requires a court to select the foreign sovereign’s law for the court’s rules of decision.

Michael:
?!

Susan:
So it’s kinda where jus cogens comes into play. Nigeria can’t make a law saying “lol genocide is okay.”

Michael:
This is the definition I’m familiar with:
“This doctrine says that a nation is sovereign within its own borders, and its domestic actions may not be questioned in the courts of another nation.”
Wait
I understand now

Susan:
That’s the one sentence version, but it doesn’t mean that U.S. courts are categorically forbidden from questioning foreign countries’ acts.

Michael:
We’re talking about two conceptions of the act-of-state doctrine.
Mine was the broader one.
Yours is the more limited Supreme Court version.
Fair.

Susan:
“As we said in Ricaud, “the act within its own boundaries of one sovereign State …
becomes … a rule of decision for the courts of this country.” 246 U.S. at 310. Act of state
issues only arise when a court must decide–that is, when the outcome of the case turns upon–
the effect of official action by a foreign sovereign. When that question is not in the case,
neither is the act of state doctrine.”
I agree with you, I think, as far as aiding and abetting cases go.
Maybe for different reasons, though.

Michael:
I’m not saying that I think Kiobel actually implicates act of state.
I’m just saying that the U.S. position sounds much like act of state, such that there is no need to make new law if the U.S. is correct.

Susan:
Yeah, agreed.
I think the U.S. is 100% right.

Michael:
But…
Ugh
The U.S. thinks that there IS a need to make new law DESPITE the fact that we have act of state doctrine to solve the very problem that the U.S. uses to support the supposed need for new law.

Susan:
Okay wait I’m misunderstanding, then. What new law does the US think is needed?

Michael:
1) The U.S. believes that the Court should hold that the ATS does not apply extraterritorially in cases involving corporations.
2) It substantiates that position at least in part by invoking a notion that sounds just like act of state doctrine.

Michael:
See the United States’ distinction between “individual foreign perpetrators” and corporations

Susan:
When found residing in the United States.
An individual foreigner abroad (that somehow still had sufficient US contacts) would be in the same place.

Michael:
Maybe it would be more accurate to say that the U.S. is against ATS liability for the extraterritorial acts of corporations that do not have their principal place of business or headquarters here

Susan:
Yeah, part of the equation is subsidy-to-parent jurisdictional veil piercing.

Michael:
Maybe I was over-emphasizing the U.S.’s use of the word “individual.”

Susan:
This is why it’s all a 5th Amendment Due Process issue. The reasonableness of the US’s adjudicative jurisdiction here is both unconstitutional and in violation of international law.

My take was that individual humans can usually only really “be” in one spot at one time. Corporations are in many places at once. So a corporation’s existence in the US is not dispositive, like a human’s is.

Michael:
I see.
An interesting argument, but the U.S. is making that argument as a matter of international law and foreign policy, not from a Fifth Amendment perspective, no?

Susan:
Okay so maybe they don’t specifically say it, but it’s in there if you squint hard enough.

Michael:
Hahaha.
The “secret” Fifth Amendment argument?

Susan:
The Fifth Amendment in Exile.
Basically, the ATS is open ended, and hands out causes of action for int’l law violations like candy (pretend all of this is true)
But the court, before exercising jurisdiction, still has to consider: Personal jurisdiction, exhaustion of remedies, forum non conveniens,
Act of State, international comity, choice of law, political question doctrine, foreign affairs/case-specific judicial deference, and in corporate cases, corporate/subsidy-parent veil piercing issues.
All of these doctrines have some Due Process consideration behind them. (Separation of powers for a lot of them, too, but due process is a biggie.)
Even if the text of the ATS creates an opening for these suits, it’s just a grant of subject matter jurisdiction. All of the Due Process jurisdictional questions must be considered separately.
Like they would in any foreign-defendant case, but because of the subject matter, the judicial due process doctrines are firing on all cylinders.
So when you have a pirate residing in the U.S. being sued for torture and genocide he did abroad, and his home country says “fuck that bastard, you can sue him,” and the U.S. political branches are going, “fuck that bastard, you can sue him,” then the due process concerns evaporate.

Michael:
Interesting.
I still don’t think the United States is making that argument
But ok.

Susan:
I think in section C they are getting at it,
even if they don’t invoke the magic words of Due Process. But everything the US is counseling the court to consider is a doctrine that was invented either to serve due process, separation of powers, or both.

Michael:
You should write a post
A quick post.

Susan:
Maybe at lunch I’ll play around with getting my other post to work in WP.
Or maybe I’ll be uber-lazy and just copy and paste the chat.

Michael:
There you go.

Entity Liability Under the TVPA and the ATS: Why the Supreme Court’s Decision in Mohamad Is Probably Irrelevant to Kiobel

Last week, the Supreme Court issued its opinion in Mohamad v. Palestinian Authority, et al., the TVPA case that was argued on the same day as Kiobel. The majority opinion, written by Justice Sotomayor, is a rather prosaic summary of Statutory Interpretation 101, and the opinion as a whole deftly avoids grappling with any of deeper questions of law that the TVPA could potentially implicate.

This is not entirely surprising, as the question before the court in Mohamad was relatively straightforward: does the TVPA’s authorization of suit against “[a]n individual” extended liability only to natural persons? The Court unanimously answered yes, citing the dictionary as its predominant authority for its conclusion. The Court also relies heavily on the perceived “ordinary usage” of the word ‘individual,’ noting that “no one, we hazard to guess, refers in normal parlance to an organization as an ‘individual.'”

Although Mohamad may be a heavily formalistic opinion, it is a hard to disagree with its conclusions. Given then TVPA’s structure, there just isn’t much need, or room, for nuance. Justice Breyer, in the decision’s only concurring opinion, did make a mild qualification of his decision, noting that the TVPA’s use of the specific word “individual” is insufficiently determinative by itself to justify a limitation on liability to natural persons. Breyer quickly moves to conclude, however, that the legislative history of the TVPA erases any doubt, and fully supports the Court’s ultimate decision.

In all likelihood, then, the decision in Mohamad will not give us much insight into how the Court will handle the question of corporate liability under the Alien Tort Statute. Although Mohamad v. Palestinian Authority, et al. and Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Petroleum have strong superficial similarities — a similarity plainly acknowledged by the Court through its decision to hear arguments for both on the same day — it seems likely that the Court’s ultimate decisions in those cases will have little relevance to one another. Sotomayor’s opinion in fact openly acknowledges the two cases’ dissimilar postures, noting that the ATS “offers no comparative value here regardless of whether corporate entities can be held liable[.]”

This is because entity liability under the TVPA, as addressed in Mohamad, involves a straightforward question of statutory interpretation. Entity liability under the ATS, in contrast, involves an extremely convoluted question of statutory interpretation coupled with an equally convoluted interpretation of  the law of nations. It doesn’t matter which side of the argument you take in Kiobel — for that, you’re never going to find the answer to prove your case in the pages of a dictionary.

And the statutory interpretation element is the less important prong, in examining the question of entity liability under the ATS. As the class of defendants is not defined by the ATS, the issue of corporate liability is not determined by reference to the legislator’s choice of language, but rather by reference to either Federal common law or to international law, or, more likely still, to some admixture of both.

Ultimately, the TVPA, unlike the ATS, is an almost purely domestic instrument. Although the TVPA indirectly incorporates international law in its definition of extrajudicial killing, and, in its preamble, specifically cites that the statute’s purpose is to carry out the U.S.’s obligations under international treaties, the TVPA is simply not a creature of the law of nations.

The TVPA was specifically designed by the U.S. Congress to accomplish certain specified domestic goals. If instead the TVPA had been drawn directly from international instruments, however, it seems very likely that a different conclusion would have been reached in Mohamad. In particular, Article 14 of the UN Convention Against Torture (“the CAT”) would seem to lobby in favor of vicarious liability in civil claims brought by torture victims:

 “Each State Party shall ensure in its legal system that the victim of an act of torture obtains redress and has an enforceable right to fair and adequate compensation, including the means for as full rehabilitation as possible.”

The CAT’s specification that states are to implement civil claims that provide for “an enforceable right to fair and adequate compensation” suggests that the CAT is concerned not simply with imposing punitive, quasi-criminal measures against torturers, but rather with implementation of an effective means for torture victims to be compensated for their injuries. A system of vicarious liability for torture is therefore more consistent with goals of the CAT as expressed in Article 14, as this would increase the likelihood of full reparations being made to torture victims. This is because vicarious liability is specifically geared towards making tort victims whole, whereas a system of pure individual liability emphasizes concern at seeing a wrong-doer punished.

Instead of incorporating this broad goal of repairing torture victims to the fullest extent possible, as articulated by the CAT, the U.S. Congress made plain its desire to see that only morally culpable wrong-doers were to be held financially culpable under the TVPA. This same legislative background is nonexistent when it comes to the ATS, however, making the Court’s analysis in Mohamad irrelevant to their ultimate determination of the similar question posed by Kiobel.

-Susan

Ecopiracy in the Contiguous Zone

It’s been a relatively exciting week for international law of the sea. Not only has Iran been demonstrating the importance of territorial seas, why straight baseline measurements matter and when they are appropriate, and the differences between transit and innocent passage, but now three Australians are helping to illustrate the concept of contiguous zones, thanks to their unauthorized boarding of a Japanese whaling support ship:

The so-called “Sea Shepherd” activists — Geoffrey Tuxworth, Simon Peterffy and Glen Pendlebury — boarded the Japanese whaling vessel Shonan Maru II early Sunday morning off the southwest coast of western Australia.

….

The three men are members of an Australian environmental organization called Forest Rescue Australia and their mission was designed to prevent the Japanese whaler from tailing an anti-whaling flagship belonging to the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society.

Because this all took place about 16 miles off of the Australian coast, the men boarded the ship and were apprehended by the Japanese vessel within Australia’s contiguous zone. There now seems to be a dispute between the Sea Shepherd organization and the Australian government over the significance of this fact — with the Sea Shepherds believing, while the Australian government is stuck in the position of awkwardly noting that the three men who boarded the vessel are subject only to Japanese laws.

Although the Australian government did eventually work through diplomatic channels to arrange for the release of the three activists, its position was that Australia had no particular claims to jurisdiction over the incident, beyond the fact it involved Australian citizens:

[Federal Attorney-General Nicola Roxon] said consular officials were attempting to contact the men, and the Government’s priority was to ensure their safety and well-being, and return to Australia.
“It is a difficult situation. This incident happened outside our territorial waters, in our exclusive economic zone,” she said.
“But that doesn’t give us rights for Australian law to automatically apply.
“In fact, our advice is that Japanese law will apply because a Japanese boat is the one that’s been boarded.”

The Sea Shepherds do not agree with the Gillard Government’s view:

Capt [Paul] Watson said he had not expected the men to be taken to Japan and charged.

“Considering it was within the 24 miles contiguous zone, which is where the Australian immigration and Customs has absolute authority, we didn’t think the Australian government would allow the Japanese to take Australian citizens out of that area.”

He accused Attorney-General Nicola Roxon of “not doing her homework”, adding the vessel was only 16 miles off the beach.

“This is not some ordinary boat that was boarded, this is a criminal boat supporting a criminal operation.”

Unfortunately for the Sea Shepherds, however, their interpretation of international law is a bit misguided. The contiguous zone’s actual significance is pretty negligible in most contexts, and completely negligible here. The contiguous zone is the band of ocean territory just beyond a nation’s territorial waters, and overlapping with its EEZ. States are permitted to extend this zone up to 24 miles from their coast; this means, in the typical circumstance, a nation’s contiguous zone is a 12 mile band that begins 12 miles out at sea, where the state’s territorial sea ends.

Under Article 33 of UNCLOS,

1. In a zone contiguous to its territorial sea, described as the contiguous zone, the coastal State may exercise the control necessary to:

(a) prevent infringement of its customs, fiscal, immigration or sanitary laws and regulations within its territory or territorial sea;

(b) punish infringement of the above laws and regulations committed within its territory or territorial sea.

2. The contiguous zone may not extend beyond 24 nautical miles from the baselines from which the breadth of the territorial sea is measured.

And that is pretty much the extent of the contiguous zone’s importance, when it comes to a coastal state’s jurisdiction over foreign ships. Moreover, as the Shonan Maru II is not itself a whaling ship or a research ship — it’s basically a bodyguard for the whaling ships, engaged in counter-harassment measures against the Sea Shepherds — it was not even taking any actions which could have subjected it to Australian regulations at the time the Forest Rescue men boarded it. As for Australian criminal laws (even presuming that the Japanese could possibly have committed any violations), such laws are only enforceable in the contiguous zone to the extent that the enforcement was related to violations that occurred or were about to occur within Australia’s territorial sea. Here, all of the events concerned took place outside of territorial waters, and so Australia’s extended enforcement jurisdiction is inapplicable.

As such, if any criminal acts occurred with regard to the boarding of the Shonan Maru, the crimes were probably committed by the Forest Rescue activists rather than the Japanese whalers. In fact, an argument can even be made that, by forcibly boarding a Japanese vessel outside of Australian territorial waters with the intent of detaining it, or at least of diverting its course, the activists were engaging in an act of piracy, pursuant to UNCLOS Article 101. Although the Japanese whalers are hardly innocent when it comes to breaches of international law, in this case, it is the Sea Shepherds that are in the wrong.

-Susan

Is the Strait of Hormuz Governed by Treaty or by Customary International Law?

The Strait of Hormuz, as news articles in recent weeks have repeatedly stressed, is kind of a big deal when it comes to the global oil trade. The Strait, which is a mere 20 miles across at its narrowest point, connects the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman — and also connects the rest of the world with 40% of its daily oil tanker traffic.

Which is why Iran’s recently renewed threats to close down trade through the Strait of Hormuz are risky for all concerned. Risky for the rest of the world, because any disruption would contain a severe economic toll. And risky for Iran, because if it ever actually did attempt to shut down the Strait, it would intensely piss off literally the entire world. So, while Iran periodically makes noises about taking such a move, the odds of it actually carrying out on its threats are minimal. Nevertheless, given the costs involved, the risk, however small, is taken extremely seriously by the rest of the world.

But ignoring the reality of the situation for a moment, and pretending as if international law actually possessed the power to effect state’s actions in the Gulf, would Iran actually have the legal right to carry out any of its threats?

For once, international law has a straightforward answer: no. Any attempt by Iran to close the Strait of Hormuz would be unambiguously illegal; the shipping lanes through the Strait of Hormuz, as laid out by the International Maritime Organization, lay within the territorial sea of Oman. Although the 12-mile territorial seas of Iran and Oman overlap at the narrowest points of the Strait, the deepest waters — and thus the shipping channels — lay to the south, within Oman’s territorial waters. As such, any military action by Iran to shut down shipping through Hormuz would inevitably impinge on Oman’s sovereign rights.

But Iran’s legal rights over the Strait of Hormuz vis-à-vis the rest of the world, and ignoring Oman’s sovereignty concerns, are a slightly more complicated question, although even there Iran’s claims are tenuous. The precise extent of Iran’s legal authority, however, differs based upon whether one applies the doctrine of innocent passage or transit passage to the Strait.

Both doctrines concern the passage of ships (as well as planes) through a nation’s territorial sea, which extends up to 12 miles from a state’s coast. The doctrine of innocent passage, which bears a greater claim to customary international law status, applies throughout all the territorial seas of the world. The concept of transit passage, in contrast, applies solely to those sections of territorial seas provide an exclusive link between two larger bodies of waters — i.e., straits.

The right of innocent passage, laid out in Articles 17 – 26 of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (“UNCLOS”), protects the right of ships in transit to pass through another nation’s territorial sea, subject to certain regulations that may be imposed by the sovereign. Passage is considered innocent “so long as it is not prejudicial to the peace, good order or security of the coastal State.” Innocent passage, however, can be subject to certain conditions imposed by the sovereign state, and may in fact be suspended temporarily in times of emergency.

In contrast, transit passage, which is regulated by Articles 37 – 44 of UNCLOS, is nonsuspendable, and not limited to innocent passage. The conditions that may be imposed by sovereign states are limited, and not subject to any real teeth. So long as a ship is not engaged in any nontransit activities and complying with certain traffic and safety measures, coastal States must permit ships to pass through their territorial seas.

So if the Strait of Hormuz is governed by transit passage, Iran’s legal ability to take any action to impede transport through the strait, even against an unfriendly foreign nation’s warships, is more or less nil. If, on the other hand, the regime of innocent passage applies, Iran has a fair bit more wiggle room to work with. Particularly in a situation where hostilities are shading towards war and the use of force, where a coastal state’s territorial waters governed by a regime of innocent passage, that state has a non-negligible claim to a right to enforce extensive regulatory control over the area, up to and including an ongoing suspension of all transit rights.

The question then is whether the Strait of Hormuz is subject to transit passage or not. Textually, it would seem clear that the Strait of Hormuz falls with Article 37’s scope, as it is a “strait[] which [is] used for international navigation between one part of the high seas or an exclusive economic zone and another part of the high seas or an exclusive economic zone.” Thus, under UNCLOS’s text, a strait like the Strait of Hormuz — which connects the Persian Gulf’s EEZ to the Strait of Oman’s EEZ, as well as the high seas beyond — is subject to transit passage. So why doesn’t that settle the question for good as to what transit regime applies here?

Well, for one, neither the U.S. nor Iran have ever actually gotten around to ratifying UNCLOS. Since neither state has ever entered the treaty, its terms can only apply if the terms are also obligatory under customary international law. And there, opinions differ, with no few authorities holding that the general right of transit passage has yet to be established outside of treaty-conferred obligations.

On the other side of that argument is the United States, which, despite its somewhat contentious and complicated relationship with UNCLOS, has long held that the bulk of UNCLOS’s provisions are merely a codification of customary international law. This includes UNCLOS’s provisions regarding transit passage, as U.S. authorities have repeatedly asserted these norms to be a component of CIL:

…the United States…particularly rejects the assertions that the…right of transit passage through straits used for international navigation, as articulated in the [LOS] Convention, are contractual rights and not codification of existing customs or established usage. The regimes of…transit passage, as reflected in the Convention, are clearly based on customary practice of long standing and reflects the balance of rights and interests among all States, regardless of whether they have signed or ratified the Convention… (Diplomatic Note of August 17, 1987, to the Democratic and Popular Republic of Algeria (intermediary for Iran)).

And,

…the regime [of transit passage] applies not only in or over the waters overlapped by territorial seas but also throughout the strait and in its approaches, including areas of the territorial sea that are overlapped. The Strait of Hormuz provides a case in point: although the area of overlap of the territorial seas of Iran and Oman is relatively small, the regime of transit passage applies throughout the strait as well as in its approaches including areas of the Omani and Iranian territorial seas not overlapped by the other. (Navy JAG, telegram 061630Z June 1998).

In contrast, Iran has consistently maintained the opposite view, holding that transit passage only exists among states that have agreed to submit to that regime via ratification of an international agreement. Although Iran has not ratified UNCLOS, it has signed the convention, and with its signature it submitted the following declaration:

Notwithstanding the intended character of the Convention being one of general application and of law making nature, certain of its provisions are merely product of quid pro quo which do not necessarily purport to codify the existing customs or established usage (practice) regarded as having an obligatory character. Therefore, it seems natural and in harmony with article 34 of the 1969 Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties, that only states parties to the Law of the Sea Convention shall be entitled to benefit from the contractual rights created therein.

In other words, Iran viewed Article 38 of UNCLOS, concerning the right of transit passage through straits used for international navigation, to be an exclusively treaty-based obligation, and not one of customary international law. As Iran never got around to ratifying UNCLOS, the implication would be that Iran does not in fact believe itself to have acceded to any such treaty obligation. This position has been confirmed by numerous assertions by Iranian officials in the decades prior to and since UNCLOS’s entry into force.

Iran is not alone in this belief about transit passage’s status under international law, either. Oman, motivated by a similar interest in the Strait of Hormuz, also filed a declaration along with both its signature to and ratification of UNCLOS, which questioned the CIL status of transit passage, and also suggested that Oman did not intend to adopt the obligations of transit passage conferred by treaty, either. Its ratification statement indicated that it only recognized and agreed to compliance with provisions concerning the regime of innocent passage — and not that of transit passage. As such, Oman’s ratification was subject to the condition that “innocent passage is guaranteed to warships through Omani territorial waters, subject to prior permission.”

Although these declarations have never actually been enforced or acted upon by either Oman or Iran, making the bulk of state practice with regards to the Strait of Hormuz to be in conformity with the existence of transit passage through the Strait, it does not appear that either coastal state believes itself to be legally bound by a customary international law of transit passage, either. Moreover, state practice and opinio juris elsewhere in the world likewise fails to unambiguously confirm the existence of a customary international law of transit passage. As such, it cannot be automatically assumed that Iran does not possess a right to limit transit through the Strait of Hormuz, at least to the extent permitted by the regime of innocent passage.

While the practical effect of transit passage’s precise status under international law will likely (definitely) be minimal in shaping events in the Persian Gulf in the days and weeks to come, parties on both sides of the dispute will be likely to invoke the application of international law in their rhetoric, as they seek to imbue their military actions with the color of law. Still, as the Strait of Hormuz does not belong to Iran alone, and Iran’s sovereign claims over the Strait are limited by Oman’s own claims to its territorial seas, any action taken by Iran to close the entirety of the Strait will necessarily be an act of force prohibited by the UN Charter, and unquestionably a violation of international law.

-Susan