Most representatives of other UN states raise their eyebrows when landlocked countries show an interest in oceans.
Despite being a proud citizen of Nepal, the land of Mt. Everest, the highest peak in the world, spectacular mountains, flora and fauna and other natural resources, sometimes I secretly wish I were born in a country with seas, oceans or coastlines. Surrounded by India on the south, east and west and China on the north and situated 1,689 km away from Bay of Bengal, as a least developed mountainous landlocked country Nepal is fated to face trade and development challenges arising from lack of territorial access to the seas and geographical remoteness from international markets. This leads to high dependence on neighboring countries for trade and transport.
Nepali economy is heavily dependent on India (for around 70 percent of its foreign trade) and forced to pay excessive custom duties on trade. Having oceans and seas provides countries comparatively more opportunities to prosper economically. However, as Atal Bihari Vajpayee, former prime minister of India rightly said, “We can change our friends but not neighbors”. So the landlocked states must develop appropriate strategic policies with their neighboring countries to turn the geographical land-lockedness into land-linkedness. They also need to be vocal on the issues related to the Law of the Sea.
Nonetheless, most representatives of other states, and in particular those attending meetings at the UN headquarters here in New York, raise their eyebrows as to why landlocked states have an interest in oceans. One example I still remember is when Liesbeth Linjzaad, a member in the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea from the Netherlands, once appreciated my patience for attending all meetings on oceans even though I come from a land-locked developing country (LLDC). She was stressing the uselessness of me being present in that meeting.
These moments are common and highlight a stark need of awareness, not only among the public but also among the educated people. They must internalize that oceans are common wealth of both coastal and landlocked states, and the dream of creating a prosperous world will only be realized through holistic and integrated development of coastal and landlocked states. In the words of Antonio Guterres, Secretary-General of the United Nations: “Oceans provide food, energy, water, jobs and economic benefits for people in every country—even to those that are landlocked”. Oceans are indeed critical even for landlocked states. It is not just about transit rights but also a matter of other principles including common heritage of mankind, freedom of high seas, capacity building and transfer of marine technology, among others.
Meanwhile, it is the responsibility of both coastal and landlocked states to jointly preserve the oceans for the future generations.
The historical ties between oceans and landlocked states can be traced back to early consultations on the creation of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). Both LLDCs and coastal states were active in its creation. In fact, Shailendra Kumar Upadhyay, then-Permanent Representative of Nepal to the UN, had been a key negotiator representing the group of the LLDCs that eventually led to the signing of the Convention in 1982 and entry into force in 1994.
Today, the UNCLOS, as the constitution of the oceans, provides an overarching legal framework for all activities carried out in oceans and seas. It is the only fundamental document providing rights of transit and granting access to and from seas for the landlocked states; confirming their rights over the resources and possibilities of the high seas; as well as asserting the need of capacity building and transfer of marine technology to the developing countries. Of the 44 landlocked states, 28 have ratified or acceded to the UNCLOS, of which 22 are LLDCs. Nepal ratified it on November 2, 1998.
Passage to the world
As per the UNCLOS, Nepal’s transit right allows passage to Calcutta, Haldia, Vishakapatnam or traversing India to Bangladeshi ports of Mongla and Chittagong, given the proximity of the Bay of Bengal. It is the only Convention that Nepal can invoke when neighboring countries create obstacles in imports of essential goods, as happened during the blockade of 2015-16, and earlier in 1989-90, even though the Law of the Sea was mostly ignored back then.
So much is happening across the globe to protect the oceans these days. While adopting the 2030 Agenda of Sustainable Development Goals in September 2015, Goal 14—the stand-alone goal of conservation and sustainable use of marine resources to end life-threatening decline in the health of oceans—was also adopted. To implement the Goal 14 globally, a historic High-level Ocean Conference was convened from June 5-9 this year. More than 1,300 voluntary commitments were registered and Nepal also contributed in the outcome document, Call for Action; as well as in the registration of three voluntary commitments focusing on capacity-building, awareness raising and implementation of the UNCLOS.
Meanwhile, legal experts and scientists on oceans today are busy developing an international legally binding instrument under the UNCLOS, a process known as “BBNJ.” An intergovernmental conference or a treaty process on oceans will be convened in 2018. Nepal’s participation is essential for the implementation of ecosystem-based approach that highlights the need for recognition of the well-established organic linkage between the mountains and oceans. It elaborates that the melting of glaciers in the Himalayas causes rise in sea-level and ultimately affects the livelihood of people in Himalayas and coastal countries like India, Bangladesh and the Maldives through extreme weather patterns and water-induced disasters including landslide, floods and desertification. Likewise, the importance of oceans as common heritage of mankind, principle of freedom of high-seas, equitable sharing of benefits and capacity-building must be addressed.
Similarly, several forums on oceans such as Regular Process, Informal Consultative Process, States Parties to the Convention on the Law of the Sea and Omnibus resolution on Oceans and Seas discuss capacity-building of developing countries like Nepal.
Nepal has been in harmony with the UNCLOS which safeguards rights, sovereignty and territorial integrity of landlocked states. We should continue to maintain this harmony by playing our role in conservation and sustainability of marine resources on the way to the creation of a developed and prosperous world.
The author is First Secretary at the Permanent Mission of Nepal to the United Nations at New York.