Law of the Sea: a chat with Dr David Leary

by | 30 Aug, 2017 | 0 comments

David Leary takes us through the basics of his subject, Law of the Sea.

First up, for a landlubber like me, is there a difference between the law of the sea and maritime law?

Definitely – the law of the sea is more about international law. It’s about the rights of coastal states to control parts of the ocean for things like fisheries or military defense, as well as the rights of other countries to use those oceans to sail ships through, for fishing etc. It’s laid out in the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), Customary International Law and a range of ‘Soft Law’ instruments. Maritime law has more of a trade focus – what happens in relation to trading and commercial activities involving the ocean – e.g. if a ship sinks in transit carrying a load of fertilizer, who bears the loss of the ship, who has rights in terms of insurance, salvage etc.?

Law of the Sea definitely has the cooler name. It’s so evocative. What expectations do students have when they begin the course, and how do you respond to them?

One of our unique features is that the course is open up to two cohorts, both law students and global studies students, and they tend to come with very separate interests. Global studies students are typically drawn to the geopolitical elements, like the events in the South China Sea, or the opening of the Arctic to shipping, as well as environmental issues such as fishing and whaling. Law students tend to focus on the legal issues that arise. The challenge is to try and pitch the conversation at a level that suits them both.

How do you approach that challenge?

It’s difficult, but we start by contextualising the law with a historical discussion about where it came from, and as we go through we look at specific issues like territorial disputes, and fishing. Conceptually, the subject is actually very visual, with jurisdictional zones governing things like mining and drilling based on geography and geomorphography. We use a lot of images – maps, diagrams and other graphics, as well as videos and short clips. From that real world visual and spatial basis, we then work through the principles developed by the United Nations, by the international court of justice and by individual states. The mix of students turns out to be a real strength of the course. We get lots of great, open discussion coming from a range of different positions, including a strong presence from international students, who often provide very different perspectives. We’re teaching on an intensive basis, and have interactive seminars instead of lectures. Discussion and collaboration is a big part of the assessment design, and we have a many steps along the way to draw out the collaborative element and provide feedback. We’ve been fortunate in that quality of both cohorts is very good, and since they’ve all studied the introductory Public International Law and law in general, they’re at least starting out with a shared understanding of the basics.

What’s something surprising about the Law of the Sea, that we may not have considered?*

(*interviewer’s note – I was hoping ‘please say pirates, please say pirates, please say pirates’*)

I’ve just been looking at something very surprising relating to piracy (*yassssss!*), which is an issue that the Law of the Sea has been dealing with for many years. It seems hackers are now assisting pirates in Somalia and other places, hacking into shipping line computers to get information about what they’re carrying and what to steal. The pirates are then boarding ships, taking crew hostage and looking for specific cargo containers and boxes that have barcodes, based on information provided by hackers. It’s interesting how the crime of piracy – plundering and stealing – that’s been there for hundreds of years, has evolved and adapted with new technologies. The challenges the Law of the Sea deals with may be old, but the world in which they operate is always changing.

Feature image credit: Chris Karidis

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