The freedom to lay submarine cables and pipelines, one of the most venerated high seas freedoms under the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), faces an uncertain future under the new international legally binding instrument (ILBI) being negotiated in the United Nations. UN General Assembly Resolution 72/249, authorizing the intergovernmental conference for the new ILBI, does not expressly mention submarine cables or pipelines but states that “the work and results of the conference should be fully consistent with the provisions of” UNCLOS. The issues in a new ILBI that are likely to have an impact on the freedom to lay submarine cables and pipelines in areas beyond national jurisdiction are (1) area-based management tools, and (2) environmental impact assessments (EIAs), which are mechanisms used to protect and preserve the marine environment and biodiversity. The challenge for high seas governance (and indeed, the perennial challenge for the law of the sea) is how to balance these two ostensibly competing, but equally valuable, interests: the protection of the marine environment and biodiversity and the high seas freedom to lay submarine cables in areas beyond national jurisdiction.
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