Last week, the U.S. Navy announced publicly that a group of warships had entered the Arctic waters of the Barents Sea to “conduct maritime security operations.” The ships participating in these combined operations included three U.S. Navy Arleigh Burke-class destroyers and one Royal Navy Duke-class frigate, all of which were accompanied by a U.S. Naval Ship to provide them with logistical support during their operations. This group of surface ships also received air supportduring these operations from a U.S. Navy P-8A maritime patrol and reconnaissance aircraft and a U.S. Air Force RC-135 reconnaissance aircraft. Given that these operationswere conducted within a body of water located among the coastlines and island groups of twoEuropean coastal states(i.e., Norway and Russia), the U.S. ships were under the operational command of Commander, U.S. Naval Forces Europe/Africa, headquartered in Naples, Italy. Of significance, the U.S. Navy’s press release highlighted that these were the first “surface” operations conducted by the U.S. Navy in the Barents Sea since the mid-1980s. Additionally, the press release declared that these combined naval operations had two intended purposes: (1) to “demonstrate seamless integration among allies” and (2) to “assert freedom of navigation.”About this second purpose, the commander of the destroyer squadron stated, “It was great to be operating in the Barents Sea again. This is what it means to be a global Navy, sailing wherever international law allows.”
When it comes to “sailing wherever international law allows,” the concept of maritime freedom has received significant international attention over the past few years –but primarily for waters elsewhere in the world that are distant from European shores. In general, there is a minority of coastal states around the world that attempt to restrict the transits and activities of other states’ vessels and aircraft, particularly their military vessels and aircraft, in excess of what international law permits them to restrict. While not the only culpable state, China has received much scrutiny for its efforts to control how ships and aircraft may operate on and over the waters of East Asia, particularly within its infamous 9-dash line in the South China Sea. If other states acquiesce to illegal restrictions imposed by this minority of coastal states, then the maritime freedom guaranteed to all states globally could be jeopardized.
To counter efforts by this minority of coastal states to restrict maritime freedom, the U.S. government has executed a presidentially-directed, multi-agency “Freedom of Navigation Program” over the past four decades. In conjunction with formal diplomatic protests by the U.S. Department of State, ships and aircraft of the U.S. military conduct routine transits and peaceful activities, known technically as “freedom of navigation operations” (FONOPs) or “operational assertions.”Of note, the U.S. Freedom of Navigation Program also includes what is described as “other FON-related activities” — that is, operations that have “some other primary purpose, but have a secondary effect of challenging excessive maritime claims.”The purpose of these FONOPs and other FON-related activities is to ensure that unlawful, unilateral restrictions imposed by coastal states are not accepted internationally. For the Arctic region specifically, the U.S. Department of Defense Arctic Strategy (June 2019) described the importance maritime freedom in the Arctic region as follows:“Maintaining freedoms of navigation and overflight are critical to ensuring that the Arctic remains a free and open domain and that U.S. forces retain the global mobility guaranteed under international law. DoD will continue to fly, sail, and operate wherever international law allows.” At a fundamental level, that same U.S. strategy recognized that preserving maritime freedom in the Arctic, as it is other regions of the world, is about “strengthening the rules-based order.”
On previous occasions, this author has sought to provide insights into the importance of maritime freedom and the deliberate role of the U.S. military in helping to preserve this freedom. These commentaries have included examinations of the legality and legitimacy of such military operations, explanations about why are they are conducted in the South China Sea, and efforts to quash legal disinformation and dispel factual myths propagated by critics who are opposed to these operations. Critics of the U.S. Freedom of Navigation Program, including voices in China, often allege inaccurately that these operations are intended to be provocative and that they seek to single out nations that the United States does not like. At the same time, some European legal observers might be unfamiliar with the FON program and question whether FONOPs are warranted. For these reasons, the recent U.S./U.K. naval operations in the Barents Sea provide an opportunity to reflect upon the importance of preserving maritime freedom – not only in that body of water, but in oceans world-wide.
Restrictions on Maritime Freedom in the Barents Sea
Military doctrine explains, “Understanding the operational environment is fundamental to joint operations.” This operational environment includes “the conditions, circumstances, and influences that affect employment of capabilities and bear on the decisions of the commander.” In terms of law, what are the “influences” or “conditions” that could affect the operational environment of the Barents Sea? As mentioned previously, there are two states with territory surrounding the Barents Sea: Norway and Russia. Norway has not attempted to restrict the maritime freedom enjoyed by other states, but Russia has asserted excessive maritime claims that could affect maritime freedom within portions of the Barents Sea.In particular, Russia has two maritime claims that might have potentially been challenged during the recent U.S./U.K. naval operations.
First, Russia has drawn baselines along its entire coastline, which close off an excessive amount of waters as internal waters and improperly push out the starting point for measuring its maritime entitlements (i.e., territorial sea, contiguous zone, and exclusive economic zone). As reflected in applicable international law, the normal rule for drawing baselines along a state’s coastline is to use the low-water mark. The International Court of Justice has ruled that the method of straight baselines is “an exception to the normal rules for the determination of baselines” and “may only be applied if a number of conditions are met.” For example, a straight baseline drawn across a body of water shall not exceed 24 nautical miles. Notwithstanding these legal limitations, Russia has literally implemented the exception to be its universal rule. In 1984 and 1985, the then-Soviet Union declared a comprehensive regime of straight baselines along its entire coastline. For purposes of this discussion, the 1985 declaration including straight baselines on Russia’s coastline adjacent to the Barents Sea. Of note, one of those baselines is drawn from Cape Svyatoy Nos and Cape Kanin Nos, measures approximately 220 nautical miles in length, closes off the mouth of the White Sea, and thereby seeks to make it entirely internal waters. Consequently, the U.S. government views Russia’s regime of straight baselines to be an excessive maritime claim, and challenged these baselines diplomatically and operationally in the 1980s.
Second, Russia has imposed navigational restrictions along the Northern Sea Route (NSR), which appear to apply to military and non-governmental vessels alike. In 2012, Russia enacted its Federal Law of Shipping on the Water Area of the Northern Sea Route. This law mandates that foreign vessels intending to transit the NSR shall, among other requirements, provide advance notification of transits, use Russian ice pilotage, pay pilotage fees, and be escorted by Russian icebreakers. In May 2015, the U.S. Department of State delivered a diplomatic note to the government of Russia, which identified a number of ways in which its NSR law exceeded the authority of a coastal state under international law. The diplomatic note highlighted that the Russian legal regime “does not seem to provide an express exemption for sovereign immune vessels.” Similarly, the DoD Arctic Strategy assessed there strictions of Russia’s NSR law to be “in excess of the authority permitted under international law.”Notwithstanding these U.S. concerns, the Russian government did not eliminate or loosen these restrictions, but rather started the process of furthering tightening them. In March 2019, Russia announced draft legislation that would expressly apply these transit requirements on foreign warships, which would clearly violate the sovereign immune status of such warships.
For these two excessive maritime claims asserted by Russia, the question remains: could the U.S./U.K. warships have challenged either or both these claims during their Barents Sea operations? In all likelihood, they could have challenged the first one, but maybe not the second one. Given that Russia’s straight baselines include its entire coastline in the Barents Sea, these foreign warships could have conducted one or more FONOPs to challenge that claim. But it is somewhat unclear whether it would have been feasible for the foreign warships to challenge the second claim in the Barents Sea. By the actual language of Russia’s 2012 NSR law, these requirements apply to vessels navigating in the “area of the Northern Sea Route.” Article 5.1. of that law defines that “area” to include “a water area adjoining the northern coast of the Russian Federation, including internal waters, territorial sea, contiguous zone and exclusive economic zone of the Russian Federation.” It further defines that area to span from the Bering Strait at its most western point to the “east coast line” of the Novaya Zemlya archipelago. In other words, the Barents Sea is not within what defines as the “area of the Northern Sea Route.”However, Commander, U.S. Naval Forces Europe/Africa published an opinion-editorial in July 2019, in which he expressed concern about Russia’s increased restrictions on the NSR. Of note, his description of the NSR implied that the Barents Sea was impacted by Russia’s law, given that he described the NSR as one that “connect the Kola Peninsula and the Bering Strait.” If that the U.S. understanding of the situation, then these naval operations might have additionally or alternatively sought to challenge this second excessive claim.
As an aside, it would also be helpful to understand what is not the purpose of FONOPs. In particular, these operational activities are directed at excessive maritime claims, not competing maritime claims. For competing claims, the U.S. government generally does not take a side in maritime disputes to which the United States is not a party, but calls upon the claimant-states to resolve their disputes by peaceful means in accordance with international law. This policy nuance is sometimes misunderstood by some government officials and outside observers, particularly in complex situations such as the South China Sea, where competing claims and excessive claims exist simultaneously. But fortunately, this is not an issue in the Barents Sea. That is, the “operational environment” of the Barents Sea is not complicated by competing maritime claims, given that Norway and Russia have an agreed maritime boundary delimitation, based upon their 2011 bilateral treaty.
Returning to the matter of maritime freedom, some observers might wonder: what exactly did the U.S./U.K. Navy do during these recent operations in the Barents Sea to protect maritime freedom? The U.S. Navy’s press release for the Barents Sea operations stated generally that one of the purposes of these operations was to “assert freedom of navigation,” without specifying whether any element of these ongoing operations would actually include ship transits or activities designed to directly challenge one or more of these excessive maritime claims asserted by these surrounding states. Hopefully, given that the public records of U.S. Freedom of Navigation operations reflect that the most recent diplomatic and operational challenges to these excessive maritime claims in the Barents Sea were in the 1980s and early 1990s, the U.S. and U.K. navies seized this opportunity to renew the operational challenges to some or all of these excessive claims.For reasons of operational security, the public will not know for certain whether specific operational challenges were conducted during these Barents Sea operations until the U.S. Department of Defense issues its annual Freedom of Navigation report for fiscal year 2020, which would be published sometime in early 2021.However, in light of recent U.S. practice elsewhere in the world, the U.S. government might alternatively decide to publicize any freedom of navigation operations in the Barents Sea, soon after they were conducted.
Finally, it should be noted that these recent U.S./U.K. naval operations might have intended to preserve maritime freedom more generally, without actually including a FONOP or other FON-related activities that directly challenge a particular excessive maritime claim. The U.S. Navy sometimes publicly characterizes these as a “persistent presence” or “routine presence operations.” Such presence operations can be intended to effectuate several national security policies or interests simultaneously, to include preserving maritime freedom, reassuring allies and partners, deterring transnational crimes such as piracy, and dissuading competitors and potential adversaries. Of course, there would be nothing wrong if these recent naval operations did not include activities to directly challenge one or both of these excessive maritime claims asserted by Russia. However, given the logistical challenges, expended resources, expansive area of operations, and relatively infrequency for this group of warships to transit to and operate within Arctic waters, it would have been a lost opportunity if the U.S. Navy did not conduct at least one FONOP as an element of these Barents Sea operations.
The Significance of Providing Notification
Given the geopolitical status of Russia in the European theater, perhaps some additional thoughts on maritime freedom through the lens of U.S.-Russia relations are warranted. The current U.S. National Security Strategy recognizes that the United States, Russia, and China are not “at peace” or “at war,” but rather are operating in “an arena of continuous competition.” The strategy also identifies that a “risk of conflict due to Russian miscalculation is growing.” In response, the U.S. strategy declares, “We will raise our competitive game to meet that challenge, to protect American interests, and to advance our values.” Additionally, the United States seeks to “deepen collaboration with [its] European allies and partners to confront forces threatening to undermine our common values, security interests, and shared vision.” These allies would include the United Kingdom, and these common values would include preserving maritime freedom. Yet a question arises: how can the United States protect a value or interest like maritime freedom without increasing the risk of miscalculation by a competitor like Russia? Once again, consider the Barents Sea naval operations as an illustrative example.
An important preparatory step taken with respect to these naval operations was that Russia was notified that they were occurring. As a matter of practical details, when and how was this notification provided? The U.S. Navy’s press release addresses when it was provided: “The Russian Ministry of Defense was notified of the visit to the Barents Sea, May 1.”But it does not specify the manner in which the notification was provided. In all likelihood, the U.S. government provided this notification through defense attaché channelsor a direct communications link with the Russian government.
Another logical question worth asking is why was this notification provided? The U.S. Navy’s press release clarifies, “The notification was made in an effort to avoid misperceptions, reduce risk, and prevent inadvertent escalation.” Some observers might wonder whether providing this advance notification of these operations sets a “bad precedent.” International law can be formed by either conventional law or customary law, but both forms of law create legal obligations for the state-parties involved. In terms of customary law, a concern might be that a practice of providing notifications to a coastal state before conducting transits or commencing routine operations could eventually form an obligation to provide such notifications in the future. Paradoxically, legal experts might question whether providing this type of notification for naval operations – especially ones that are specifically intended, in part, to protect maritime freedom — might risk undercutting that very freedom by providing that notification.
In this particular instance, however, this notification arguably does not jeopardize the maritime freedom guaranteed to all states under international law. As the International Court of Justice has explained, customary international law is formed through state practice accompanied by “a belief that is practice is rendered by the existence of a rule of law requiring it.” This necessary element is captured by the Latin phrase opinion juris sive necessitatis, or “opinio juris” for short. This raises the question: what was the intended purpose of this notification for these naval operations? In other words, this notification was not provided out of some sense of obligation or requirement of the international law of the sea. Instead, the decision to provide this information to Russia was made as a matter of U.S. policy.
Moreover, the U.S. Navy’s press release does not indicate that notification was provided for a particular freedom of navigation operation to challenge a specific maritime claim asserted by Russia as a coastal state. Instead, the notification might have been more generally about the combined U.S./U.K. naval operations within the high seas of Barents Sea. This would be consistent with specific obligations under a bilateral agreement that is separate and apart from the international law of the sea. In fact, the United States and Russia have several bilateral agreements that include notification provisions designed to reduce risk of unsafe incidents or escalation between their respect military forces. Under the 1972 Prevention of Incidents On and Over the High Seas Agreement (INCSEA), both the United States and Russia agreed to “provide through the established system of radio broadcasts of information and warning to mariners, not less than 3 to 5 days in advance as a rule, notification of actions on the high seas which represent a danger to navigation or to aircraft in flight.” Additionally, the two governments concluded a legally-binding, bilateral agreement in 1989 with the stated purpose of “prevent[ing] dangerous military activities, and thereby [reducing] the possibility of incidents arising between their armed forces.” Article II of that agreement obligates each party to “take necessary measures directed toward preventing dangerous activities,” without specifying what types of measures are necessary and whether those measures might include prior notification of conducting activities. At the same time, however, Article VIII of that same agreement states, “This Agreement shall not affect…the rights…of navigation and overflight, in accordance with international law.” In short, the U.S. advance notification to Russia about these naval operations did not otherwise undermine the maritime freedom to operate in the Barents Sea.
The Importance of “Maintaining” Maritime Freedom Against “All Hazards”
In closing, a brief lesson in maritime history and law might be appropriate. The Barents Sea was named after Willem Barentsz. Living in latter half of the sixteenth century, Barentz was a Dutch navigator, cartographer, and explorer. During his seafaring career, he famously explored all of the oceans and islands surrounding the European continent, to include the Mediterranean Sea but more notably waters within the Arctic Circle. Hoping to find the “northeast passage,” Barentz and his crews impressively braved extreme weather conditions and undertook three historic voyages through these icy waters. For these accomplishments, one of the bodies of water that he was a pioneer to explore was eventually named in his honor. Coincidentally, the final years of Barentsz’s life overlapped with the first years of another famous Dutchman: Hugo Grotius. Grotius was aware of his fellow countryman’s contribution to international maritime exploration, as he purportedly observed that Baretnsz was “worthy to be ranked with” the Italian Amerigo Vespucci and Christopher Columbus. Eventually, Grotius left his own mark on world history, being described now by many legal experts as the “father” of international law.
Only a decade after Barentz’s death, Grotius published his pamphlet Mare Liberum, which translates from Latin as The Freedom of the Sea. About the universality of maritime freedom, Grotius famously observed, “[T]he sea is common to all, because it is so limitless that it cannot become a possession of any one, and because it is adapted for the use of all, whether we consider it from the point of view of navigation or of fisheries.” At that time, Grotius was countering Portugal’s mare clausum (closed sea) policy. What happens if one state seeks to control other states’ free access to the world’s oceans: should those others states capitulate or acquiesce? Grotius legal defense of maritime freedom argued otherwise:
Wherefore since both law and equity demand that trade with the East Indies be as freeto us as to any one else, it follows that we are to maintain at all hazards that freedom which is ours by nature, either by coming to a peace agreement with the Spaniards, or by concluding a treaty, or by continuing the war.
Four centuries later, we see that two truths endure: the cold weather conditions of the Barent Sea still pose a “hazard” to mariners who brave those Arctic waters; so, too, do the efforts by some states around the world that seek to restrict the maritime freedom of other states, including in the waters of the Barents Sea. In the contemporary era, however, the ways for states to “maintain” their maritime freedom has been refined, beyond “a treaty” or “a war.” In between those extremes rests another option: routine, peacetime naval operations, like those recently undertaken by two allied navies.
Submarine Cables: The Global Data Infrastructure and International Law of the Sea
As a lay person, it is a common perception that data and communication signals travel through multiple satellite systems orbiting around the earth. However, this is a grave misconception. As one writer puts it, “but that the communication signals themselves are then broken into bits of data, which then ply the ocean depths at the speed of light via unseen cables, is hard to imagine.” The reality is that 99% of the world’s communication data is currently moving through hidden undersea cables. These are now befittingly called as the “Out-of-Sight Arteries of Globalization”. These submarine cables are functioning as a global infrastructure for the movement of inter alia big data, communication signals, phone traffic and even financial capital around the world. During the past decade, the weaknesses and gaps in the protection of these underwater fiber-optic cables under International law has come to the fore. This article is aimed at critically analyzing the vulnerability in International law to protect these global underwater data highways.
History & Background
In the year 1858, the first transatlantic subsea cable was laid down between Ireland and Newfoundland which snapped 26 days later. In the year 1864, another transatlantic cable was placed between the same territories and this time it proved to be successful. Following this success, there was no looking back and submarine cables were placed between various territories along the seabed of the Pacific Ocean. Interestingly, the transmission speeds for these first telegraph cables were 12 words per minute which increased exponentially to 200 words per minute by the 1920’s. The invention of the telephone expanded the reliance on these transcontinental cables. From the beginning of the 1950’s until the late 1960’s underwater coaxial cables dominated intercontinental voice communications.
It was the invention of satellite systems during the 1970’s which greatly reduced the reliance on subsea cables for use in communication technologies. Although the satellite systems dominated the telecommunications world for more than a decade, they were soon replaced by the invention of fiber-optic cables. Fiber-optic cables were more capacious in carrying vast amounts of data and signals as compared to coaxial cables of the bygone days. The first fiber-optic cable was laid down in the year 1986. As of 2019, there are 241 active and distinct fiber-optic subsea cables which are mapping a length of 1.1 million kilometers (km) of the seabed. One writer points out the dominance of undersea cables over satellites by the fact that if they were to stop transmitting then “only 7% of the total United States data traffic volume could be carried by satellite”.
Global Significance & Issue of “Materiality”
Subsea cables are a crucial part of the digital economy, making flows and exchanges of data possible. Astonishingly, they are considered to be intangible, immaterial and un-territorial under the international legal framework. It is understandable that an average person using the internet is unaware about the physical aspect of data transmission. However, International law and its supremacy is founded upon physical objects and materiality. International law experts are now increasingly engaging in such a method of analysis as compared to archetypical theoretical frameworks. Hohmann and Joyce explain that “in revealing the deep entanglements of international law and the material things around us, we can begin to understand how international law structures and disciplines its subjects—and sets the contours for the possibilities and limits of our lives—through objects.”
It is absolutely imperative that International law recognizes the physicality of undersea cables which are now deeply intertwined with the social, economic, legal and technological orders of a digital age. International law and its dominance is moulded by the physical infrastructures which are an important factor in the growth of modern digital economies. Undersea cables are now the subject of competition and struggle between both state and non-state actors (e.g developers and corporations). These struggles include title, control, access and territorial sovereignty. All these fall within the ambit of International law, and efforts must be made to enable a fair regulation.
International Legal Framework and Challenges
The protection and security of subsea cables has been the subject matter of at least seven different international conventions between late 19th century and the beginning of 20th century. It all started with “The Convention for the Protection of Submarine Telegraph Cables (1884)” which was inked in Paris. The 1884 convention was applicable in the territorial waters of the signatory states, making the damage of such cables a punishable offense. The primary purpose of this treaty was to encourage the stakeholder States to promulgate domestic legislation protecting these cables.
The World moved on from the Telegraph to the Telephone, but these undersea cables remained of cardinal importance in communication technology. These cables were an agenda topic in the United Nations International Law Commission (ILC) on the law of the sea. In the International Law Conference of the Sea (1958), three articles relevant to the protection of subsea cables were incorporated into the Geneva Convention of the Law of the Sea (1958). It was also agreed that the provisions of the 1958 conventions will not affect any previous treaties (which included the 1884 convention).
In the year 1973, the UN held a third conference to debate upon the law of the seas and this subsequently resulted in the “United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, 1982 (UNCLOS)”. This time again, three provisions (Articles 113 to 115) specifically addressed the protection of undersea cables. Unfortunately, neither the 1982 UNCLOS nor its predecessor treaties could correctly envisage the importance of submarine cables to a digital age.
Pursuant to Art. 21 and 113 of the UNCLOS, littoral states have the authority to enact domestic legislation to protect the subsea cables or any other conduit that lay beneath their territorial waters. States are under no obligation to enact such legislation, and for this reason, most of the littoral states have abstained from doing so. Many studies and reviews have found that there exists little or no domestic legislation which criminalizes any damage caused to such cables.
In addition to this, there does not exist a legal regime which could potentially prosecute offenders who damage undersea cables which are located in the high seas. The UNCLOS limits the jurisdictional protection to flag-bearer vessels. This implies that littoral states could prosecute foreign vessels for damaging fiber-optic cables within its territorial waters, but not otherwise. As a result, there exist significant lacunae in the prosecutions of intentional or negligent damage of such important infrastructure. It is clear that the undersea cables are more prone to nefarious designs to disrupt communications by the foreign vessels of adversary states in the high seas. In terms of technological advancements, the data transmission network has moved forward by leaps and bounds. Legally, the International framework has failed to keep up.
In a modern digital world, these hidden subsea cables are a site of politics, power, communication and most importantly contestation. These cables may prima facie be an invisibility. But the real importance of an invisibility lies in the phenomenon it enshrouds. It is about time that International law recognizes that global digital economies are functioning and prospering through a hidden network of key infrastructure which needs better and impenetrable protection.
 Douglas R. Burnett & Lionel Carter, International Submarine Cables and Biodiversity of Areas Beyond National Jurisdiction: The Cloud Beneath the Sea, BRILL RESEARCH PERSPECTIVES IN THE LAW OF THE SEA, 3 (2017).
 Surabhi Ranganathan, The Out-of-Sight Arteries of Globalization, Visualizing Climate and Loss, http://histecon.fas.harvard.edu/climate-loss/lawofthesea/arteries.html
 Lionel Carter & Douglas R. Burnett, Subsea Telecommunications, in ROUTLEDGE HANDBOOK OF OCEAN RESOURCES AND MANAGEMENT, 349, 350 (Hance D. Smith, et al. eds., 2015)
 Stewart Ash, The Development of Submarine Cables, in SUBMARINE CABLES: THE HANDBOOK OF LAW AND POLICY
 Lionel Carter & Douglas R. Burnett, Subsea Telecommunications, in ROUTLEDGE HANDBOOK OF OCEAN RESOURCES AND MANAGEMENT, 349, 350 (Hance D. Smith, et al. eds., 2015)
 Working Group 8 Submarine Cable Routing & Landing, Final Report – Protection of Submarine Cables Through Spatial Separation, THE COMMUNICATIONS SECURITY, RELIABILITY & INTEROPERABILITY COUNCIL IV, 1
 Stephen C. Drew & Alan G. Hopper, Fishing and Submarine Cables: Working Together, International Cable Protection Committee (February 23, 2009) at 8, available at https://www.iscpc.org/publications/
 Territoriality and Intangibility: Transborder Data Flows and National Sovereignty, in Beyond National Sovereignty: International Communication in the 1990s 259 (Kaarle Noerdenstreng & Herbert I. Schiller eds., 1993)
 International Law’s Objects, 2 (Jessie Hohmann & Daniel Joyce eds., 2019).
 Jeremy Page, Kate O’Keeffe & Rob Taylor, America’s Undersea Battle With China for Control of the Global Internet Grid, Wall Street J. (Mar. 12, 2019)
 George Grafton Wilson, The Law of Territorial Waters, 23 AM. J. INT’L. L. 2, 241-380 (Apr 1929)
 Eric Wagner, Submarine cables and protections provided by the law of the sea, 19 MARINE POLICY 2, 127, 135 (Mar. 1995)
 Convention of the High Sea, Apr. 29 1958, 450 U.N.T.S. 11 (codifying this provision at Article 30, excerpted here: “The provisions of this Convention shall not affect conventions or other international agreements already in force, as between States Parties to them.”)
 Robert Beckman, Protecting Submarine Cables from Intentional Damage, in SUBMARINE CABLES: THE
HANDBOOK OF LAW AND POLICY
 UNCLOS (1982), Art. 27
Locating Sustainable Migration Framework in a Globalized World beyond the UNCSR
The traditional understanding of refugee protection and safeguards enshrined in the 1951 UN Convention relating to the Status of Refugees (UNCSR) with its 1967 Additional Protocol has come to a tipping point. The current scenarios of mixed human migration have given a new term that defines the “new refugee” as “migrant” due to the imprecise distinction between refugee and migrant in the wake of enlarging protections and expanded challenges to the refugee interpretation under UNCSR. Today, mixed human migration has become the determinant factor to critically appreciate the experiences, familiar routes, and intentions of refugees and migrants and threats to the protection system in the wake of emerging populist radicalism in the Global North and Global South with equal intensity. Such radical trends are generally backed by the majoritarian political discourse in constitutional democracies. But such revanchist patterns could only be contained by the re-mainstreaming of liberalism in our geopolitical identities.
New Categories in a Globalized World
Thus, the mixed human migration has necessitated the creation of new categories beyond the traditional understanding provided in UNCSR. Historically, the remarkable distinction between “refugee” and “migrant” is based on the institutional recognition of the notion that the refugee enjoys an elevated status in the framework of international law. However, the nation-states and inter-governmental mechanisms attend refugees based on the thresholds of gravity of refugee situations on a particular occasion. Consequently, such arrangements recognize the “refugees” and derecognize the “economic migrant.” However, in reality, it has now become a well-established understanding that such divisions between these categories are difficult to make in a globalized world. Alexander Betts has written about people who flee hostile circumstances and called such flight “survival migration,” especially from unstable nation-states, situations of socioeconomic violations, and climate change-driven displacement that have not yet been recognized as refugees under UNCSR. Unfortunately, there is no political understanding among the UN member states to broaden the limits of the UNCSR definition of a refugee by creating the new protection categories. Therefore, it is imperative in the present scenario to defend the existing “refugee” category, and nation-states strive to extend protection under international human rights treaties to other groups of vulnerable migrants fleeing persecution beyond UNCSR.
Global Compacts on Refugees & Migration
The origin of the Global Compact on Refugees (GCR) and Global Compact on Migration (GCM) is knotty as a global political project. Primarily, in late 2015, the strategy was to conclude and adopt a comprehensive plan of action for Syrian refugees and Mediterranean routes of refugees who have created a refugee crisis in Europe. Therefore, global institutional politics and other multiple reasons paved the way to adopt such a plan of action in January 2016 for organizing an international conference in New York in September 2016 with the mandate to have GCR. Simultaneously, other world institutions also hard-pressed for a similar arrangement called GCM to create equilibrium for proportionate protection. Such segregation was required due to the organizational distribution of business within the UN system. Therefore, the UNHCR (UN High Commissioner for Refugees) was mandated to act upon and implement GCR.
In contrast, Switzerland and Mexico have co-supervised the parallel GCM programme and its modalities for implementation. Though these Global Compacts have common characteristics, gaps, and intersections mainly, there is small space for internally displaced persons (IDPs) and transnational displacement that has not been recognized in the refugee definition. But UNHCR has proposed specific plans for implementing GCM that incorporate significant steps for migrants in vulnerable conditions. As a result, these Global Compacts have been playing relatively different roles as GCR attempts to address the gaps in the UNCSR by ensuring fundamental principles of humanity and international solidarity and strives to implement the principles of burden-and-responsibility-sharing (BARS) for refugee protection, assisting the refugees and supporting the refugee-hosting countries and communities. On the other hand, GCM provides a nascent global migration governance system as a first step. GCM is an intergovernmental agreement brokered by the UN that addresses all dimensions of global migration holistically and comprehensively and confronts the challenges relating to the worldwide movement by strengthening the contribution and engagement of migrants to sustainable development.
The Role of UNHCR & Shifting Global Debate
The position of UNHCR has become challenging as it confronts a multitude of constraints such as cuts in the humanitarian budget by the US, widespread non-compliance with the UNCSR and its Additional Protocol, and the emergence of institutional rivalry with the entry of IOM in the UN system. However, UNHCR has taken a restrained approach and deliberately excluded many parts from the current global debate on GCR, particularly Lego-institutional reforms. The GCR’s Comprehensive Refugee Response Framework (CRRF), Global Refugee Forum (GRF), and a string of Solitary Platforms provide the foundation for the philosophy of change and emplace global arrangement for international cooperation and addressing particular refugee crises. These institutional arrangements in the GCR framework, like CRRF and GRF, stipulate a new development-based and market-driven model of operation with a lot of pragmatism. GCR is an itinerary of actions and actors entrusted to implement the BARS and the entire ambit of modes of contribution on the part of stakeholders. The GCR is a remarkable achievement in its normative and substantive significance and commitments, provided it is executed on the ground. The CRRF has been showing positive results in Ethiopia and Kenya. However, it is the political leadership that has to determine new commitments and promises.
In the present scenario, international institutions require the exceptional and unprecedented capacity to lead collective action based on moral yet pragmatic parleys and diplomacies. World history is a testimony that non-binding intangible and universal commitments of the nation-states incommensurate with the international refugee regime do not serve a significant purpose. At least five to eight years must be demarcated to assess the impact of the Global Compacts on the ground. To do an impact assessment of GCR and GCM along with durable solutions, there are numerous refugee situations like Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh and India, Afghan refugees in Pakistan and Iran, Syrian refugees in Europe, Lebanon and Jordan, Mexican refugees in the US, Somali refugees, Venezuelan refugees in Colombia and Brazil, Afro-Asian refugees in Canada and Tibetan refugees in India. Though the GCM stipulates principles only, it has to evolve its intellectual contours in its initial stages to establish a global migration governance system, and its institutionalization will consume years ahead. However, the GCM is a remarkable achievement that has made migration a head-on agenda item for the UN system.
Global Refugee System: A Critique
Off late, UNHCR has not been innovative and inventive for an expansion of alternatives for refugee protection. It has adopted a guarded approach under which several issues have been put on hold. For long, UNHCR has been avoiding institutional reforms and keeping the refugee definition out of its re-consideration and re-formulation in tune with the current objections by the Global South countries. UNCSR refugee definition is the most significant contention of the Global South countries. It is a Eurocentric formulation and does not cater to the needs of the refugee people from the Global South nation-states. As a whole, the UNCSR regime is regarded as a Global North project imposed on Global South countries. Presently, many UNHCR personnel acquiesce in institutional politics, and the threat has been looming upon them that might jeopardize refugee protection. In such a pessimistic atmosphere, the GCR and CRRF provide a ray of hope for refugee protection. But there would be numerous geostrategic and geopolitical challenges such as the metamorphosis in the thresholds of global world order in terms of the recalibration and transformation of goal-posts of international power politics, the impact of socioeconomic praxis, the emergence of the artificial intelligence in RSD, and immigration procedures, and resurgence of far-right and nihilistic nationalism for minorities, and LGBTQI groups worldwide. Therefore, UNHCR has to continue to adapt to the changing circumstances, particularly by developing and re-crafting its capability for political leadership along with the existing humanitarian leadership in the context of global restrictionism.
Mixed Migration: A Divide between Principles and Pragmatics
The normative understanding of refugee protection and their human rights must not be sandwiched between principles and pragmatics of the regulatory approach. It is the cause of refugee protection that must alone prevail in global institutional priorities, intergovernmental primacies, and political urgencies in any given situation. But the divide between principles and pragmatics of refugee protection has been increasingly widening at an unprecedented scale that has made the UNCSR partially irrelevant, and several governments do not feel embarrassed with their public apathy towards refugees. Even though, immigration has squarely benefited and enriched the host countries of the Global North by building societies based on multiculturalism, pluralism, and cosmopolitanism. However, the political advocacy of right-wing nationalism in Australia, Canada, Europe, the US, South Asia, South-East Asia, and elsewhere conveys that the Global North has been incriminating immigration in the name of pragmatism by undermining the principles of migration.
The far-right nationalism breeds backlash and xenophobia. There is a need to repulse the anti-immigration surge. Global migration is, prima facie, not an immigration narrative alone; instead, it is, predominantly, impregnated with refugee dimensions that have to be dealt with under UNCSR and GCR instead of restrictive immigration laws. Because when immigration law stops, refugee law begins. Immigration law is based on nationalism, and refugee law is based on globalism. The global principles of the rule of law must comport with secular democracy, inclusive human rights, and liberal pluralism. These principles must get the support of the electorates in all geopolitical entities across the world. Such steps will guard these principles from far-right-wing politicians who are hell-bent on eroding universal liberal values. Therefore, the international community must reconcile the idea of liberal internationalism with the notion of secular democracy; otherwise, humanity would not be able to defeat the resurgent Frankenstein of international politics.
Global Public Perception & Sustainable Migration Framework
The global public perception suffers from the fear and impact of the increasing population of refugees and migrants, and Global North countries are reluctant to host them. There are 84 million displaced people worldwide, and out of them, 26.6 million are refugees (as of mid-2021). However, the challenge is greater geographical concentration as 85% of refugees live in low and middle-income countries, and 60% are present in just ten countries. Meanwhile, global migration trends have been mostly steady in terms of proportion to the global population since the 1970s, although the statistics of the people have increased from 70 million to 240 million. However, the refugee crisis has never been a crisis of statistical data; rather, it is the crisis of international politics and trust deficit among the comity of nations. The people of Global North countries are skeptical and fearful of socio-cultural transformation due to the triggering of structural changes with the arrival of refugees. Such changes cause the loss of low-skilled manufacturing jobs, starting of the politics of austerity, and politics-driven campaigns by the far-right-wing politicians in the host countries. In such a situation, the global community must develop a sustainable migration framework based on migrants-oriented policies that address both host and transit countries in equal measures.
One of the biggest challenges in the current world order is reconciling democracy with globalization in the wake of anti-migrant populism in Global North and Global South countries with equal far-right ferocity? It is, indeed, a significant challenge to preserve the optimism in the present world where electoral choices are expressed with technology, and sovereign citizens demand the re- endorsement and re-statement of national sovereignty in all its manifestations. Therefore, such integration of democracy and globalization needs a substantial amount of creativity that includes a new perception about normal human mobility and forced migration. Such optimism needs farsighted global governance supported by institutions and subsidiary organizations of the UNO, regional and other inter-governmental organizations. However, such a possibility right now is absent due to the international orders increasingly becoming more and more obstructive and deterring human mobility. There is a need to have collective measures to address the problem of the exodus of hybrid migration resulting in a backlash in the destination countries. It further jeopardizes the lives of people taking strenuous and frantic travels in search of safer refuge. Such reckless journeys become the cause of mushrooming of criminal syndicates indulging in human trafficking and criminalizing migration networks that mount a massive burden upon the capabilities of refugee-hosting countries while chipping away the thresholds of refugee safety.
On the basis of our cumulative experiences, there is a need to re-imagine the innovative and inventive refugee protection proscenium to respond to grisly human migration in all continents and countries. But it must not be devoid of the principles of Global Human Rights Constitutionalism, and it must discard the discourse of popular nationalism that is anarchist, narcissist, nihilist, and exclusionary in its treatment of RAMS (refugees, asylum-seekers, migrants, stateless). The current Globalized World needs the re-validation and re-assertion of diversity, dignity, multiculturalism and liberal values of the yore. It is an age requiring arrangements for integrating the contesting and opposing interests across the political spectrum in all geopolitical enties. Such measures demand audacious actions, quixotic visions and re-embracing of human rights liberalism beyond the rubrics of UNCSR.
UNCTAD Report: Revisiting Old Issues in Managing Cross-Border Data Flows
Today, information space has become a field of confrontation involving major digital platforms, governments, societies and individual users. Stories featuring latest cyberattacks or state-sponsored attempts to limit the influence of social networks and regulate the digital sphere, where there is no governance at the international level, are those that grab the headlines of many online media outlets.
Given the current climate, it is then no surprise that the United Nations is paying close attention to the issues related to the digital domain. On September 29, United Nations Conference on Trade and Development released its Digital Economy Report 2021, which focuses on the issue of managing cross-border data flows. The piece is rather comprehensive in terms of the issues covered, seeking to analyze the inhibiting factors that prevent us from working out an exhaustive definition of what “data” is, while exploring the specific approaches of states to regulating cross-border data flows. The report’s authors pay particular attention to the digital divide that has emerged between developed and developing nations. That said, we would argue that the report is more of a descriptive paper rather than a real step towards erecting a system of global governance.
The first section of the report addresses the lack of clarity on the definition of “data”, whether in research or among practitioners. With no unified terminology, communication between stakeholders appears to be complicated, much as the process of designing public policy as regards the digital sphere. A generally accepted and unified terminology would no doubt make it easier to foster closer cooperation, although this is certainly not a defining prerequisite. International efforts to fight against terrorism can be a case in point here, as there is no conventional definition of “terrorism,” while this does not hinder inter-state cooperation, both regionally and globally. While this cooperation may not always proceed smoothly, any problems encountered tend to be the upshot of political squabbles rather than the implications of the fact that no single definition of “terrorism” is to be found.
The UNCTAD report brings up another underlying premise, which is that data should be treated as a global public good. This will allow citizens, acting as “producers” of raw data, to claim the benefits of it being used by digital platforms. This issue has already been discussed at the EU, with the approach tested in a number of cities. Transferring some control over the flow of data from corporations to users is an important step towards ensuring that human rights are upheld in the digital environment.
The UNCTAD report also explores the technological and digital divide, whose dimensions span developed and developing countries as well as urban and rural areas within a particular country. This problem is nothing new: it was only last year when UN Secretary-General António Guterres referred to the need to bridge the gap, arguing that it was instead widening amid the COVID-19 pandemic. At the same time, he proposed a Roadmap for Digital Cooperation.
Besides, the report notes the massive impact of digital platforms. These, the authors believe, “are no longer just digital platforms” but “global digital corporations” that have the necessary capabilities for processing information, which puts them in a privileged position. Further, digital platforms are able to influence policymaking through lobbying their interests. In terms of spending, Facebook and Amazon are the most active lobbyists in the United States, while Google, Facebook and Microsoft are the biggest spenders in Europe. The report suggests that the privileged position of digital corporations—such as their ability to process massive bulks of data and derive profit from raw information—leads to something of an imbalance between the private and the public sectors when it comes to recruiting talent. Accordingly, the gap is widening, which means that the tech giants are moving even further out in front.
Finally, fragmentation of the digital space into competing models of managing cross-border data flows is another challenge to the digital domain and its prospects. Should such fragmentation occur, this may create new obstacles to communication and economic development, as the existing models (those of the U.S., the EU, Russia, China and India) offer different regulatory practices that have their own flaws and inefficiencies. The report identifies the broad shortcomings of these practices, making note of poor coordination between government agencies; ambiguous formulations deliberately used to denote key concepts (such as “critical infrastructure” or “digital sovereignty”); and setting unrealistically high technical requirements, including the requirement to store personal data locally—something that entails greater costs for smaller businesses and is detrimental to end consumers of digital products and services.
The Digital Economy Report implies the solution lies in establishing a new institutional framework to meet the challenge of global governance in the digital domain. This new institution should contain the “appropriate mix of multilateral, multi-stakeholder and multidisciplinary engagement.” At the same time, the report argues for ad hoc interaction between stakeholders given the inherent complexity of the framework. The new organization should become a coordinating body for digital governance with a sound mandate.
Indeed, the main stumbling block for global governance to emerge in the digital sphere has to do with the model of interaction to be chosen. The epitome of the intergovernmental approach is the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), while the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) is illustrative of the multi-stakeholder approach.
Since neither is perfect, this naturally leads us to the conclusion that a combined approach is what is needed. This approach can possibly provide states with a much-needed platform for broader involvement in issues of digital governance, while ensuring that non-state actors and expert community retain their positions. The UNCTAD report refers to the United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) as a perfect example of such a “hybrid” international organization. At ECOSOC, interaction with NGOs takes place through the Conference of Non-Governmental Organizations in Consultative Relationship with the United Nations. Expert bodies made up of representatives of individual countries as well as of independent experts also operate within the framework of ECOSOC.
Indeed, ECOSOC is a good example of how international institutions can interact with NGOs. However, it will not do to simply copy its mechanism, and it is so for several reasons. First, final recommendations within ECOSOC are adopted by representatives of member states. This harms its usefulness as a model to be replicated, since there will always be the risk that issues are politicized—this will be the case even if the new institution is designed with the combined approach in mind. Besides, should this body take on the role of the principal coordinator in the digital space, issues will become more politicized and disagreements will be more heated, thus slowing down decision-making. Second, the question remains as to how the new institution will interact with the existing organizations, namely the Internet Architecture Board and the Internet Engineering Task Force. The ad hoc mechanism to engage NGOs in other areas, which works perfectly fine for ECOSOC, may not be enough when it comes to technical standards that need to be constantly updated. Third, the General Assembly elects ECOSOC members every three years. However, this would not be feasible for the new coordinating body as the digital domain has its own leaders, and leaving them overboard would be incredibly detrimental to its effectiveness. In such a case, there remains the above-mentioned risk of discussions between the U.S./EU and Russia/China becoming politicized.
Moreover, the choice of decision-making mechanism presents certain difficulties given the dominant position of the four, both on the international stage and in terms of data processing. Operating on the basis of consensus may hinder negotiations or become an instrument to block unwanted decisions, while a simple majority will likely result in these nations establishing ad hoc coalitions to try and swing votes in their favour. Therefore, it seems prudent to design a complex voting mechanism based on qualified majority, possibly drawing on the system used in the Council of the European Union. Still, this mechanism will not rule out struggles unfolding behind the scenes.
Finally, the fact that the two sides have fundamental disagreements as to the concept of sovereignty in the digital space should be accounted for, as this could put an end to the new coordinating institution before it has even been established. The only way to move forward with a truly effective platform for cooperation in the digital space is to temporarily improve, if not to normalize, the relations between the leading states in this area.
No global governance in the digital domain is better than a poorly regulated system spinning its wheels. Our modern world is too dependent on technological advances that ensure that all regions and facets of life are complementary. Any failure of the mechanism can be extremely costly. However, increasing fragmentation of the digital space may be even more costly—for developing and developed countries alike. One possible way forward amid the international environment mired in uncertainty is to search for common ground on the most basic of issues. While the differences in national regulations persist, there are a number of issues that are common to all: these include cyberterrorism, cybercrime, illegal access to data or threats to critical infrastructure.
Multilateral agreements that do not address the fundamental differences in the stances taken by states may lay the foundation for global governance to emerge in the future. It is in this context that the joint U.S.–Russia draft resolution on the responsible behaviour of states in cyberspace, if legally unbinding, bears utter significance for cooperation between nations who espouse two different models as well as for overcoming the negative background of broader political disagreements.
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