Sea Dispute: Sovereignty vs Sovereign Rights

Sea Dispute: Sovereignty vs. Sovereign Rights

Countries often argue about who owns parts of the ocean and the resources there. These issues are complex and have been one of the focal points of discussions pertaining to geopolitics and international relations, and even the creation of foreign policies. International agreements like the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea or UNCLOS have provided a framework for settling these disputes. But even the interpretation of this agreement can lead to further complications and confusion. Consider the concept of sovereign rights as an example and its relation with the concept of sovereignty and further association with other concepts like internal and territorial waters, contiguous zones, and exclusive economic zones, among others.

What is the Difference Between Sovereignty and Sovereign Rights?

Background and Overview

The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea or UNCLOS is an international agreement that basically sets the rules for oceans and seas. It serves as a legal framework that establishes a foundation of laws for all activities at sea and promotes peaceful use of the oceans.

It also defines the rights of countries or coastal states bordering oceans and the responsibilities of all countries regarding the use of marine resources and environmental protection. The framework also defines how countries can explore and use resources from the ocean like fish and minerals and promotes the conservation of marine life and habitats.

An important purpose of the international agreement is the delimitation or definition of different zones off the coast of a country. These zones include the territorial sea. UNCLOS noted that a country has full sovereignty over this zone.

Other zones defined by the agreement are the contiguous zone and the exclusive economic zone. The contiguous zone is part of the sea where a country can enforce customs, immigration, and pollution control laws. The exclusive economic zone grants a country exclusive rights to explore and manage resources 200 nautical miles from its coast. This zone also grants other countries freedom of navigation and overflight.

Furthermore, beyond the exclusive economic zone, the continent shelf is defined as an area in which countries may have rights to seabed resources, and the high seas, which are international waters open to all for activities like navigation, fishing, and scientific research.

Definition of Terms

Understanding the difference between sovereignty and sovereign rights first requires defining the former as a concept. One generic and well-cited definition is that sovereignty is the full right and power of a country or state actor over itself that frees it from interference and restriction from other countries and even other non-state actors. The concept describes and defines the internal authority and external independence of a particular country.

Furthermore, when specifically applied to countries, sovereignty contains four aspects. These are rights and power over a territory, responsibility and accountability over a population, general and specific authorities, and recognition by other sovereign states.

The law of the sea based on UNCLOS implies that sovereignty pertains to the exclusive legal authority of a country over its waters. These include internal waters and territorial seas. The country essentially has territorial sovereignty over these waters.

Stating that a country has sovereignty over a territory essentially means that there are no other existing superior rights and powers. Ownership of that territory is absolute. No authority can be higher than the country.

The term sovereign rights, on the other hand, is considered as specific entitlements or privileges of a country. These are either inherent or granted. Hence, when it comes to maritime zones, Article 56 of UNCLOS mentions that a country has sovereign rights over its exclusive economic zone for the purpose of exploring, exploring, conserving, and managing resources in the waters superjacent to the seabed and in the seabed and its subsoil.

The same international agreement allows a recognized country to produce renewable energy within its exclusive economic zone from water, currents, and winds while also granting other countries freedom of navigation and overflight.

Hence, based on the agreement, the term is used to represent the entitlements or privileges of a country to a defined zone of a sea called the exclusive economic zone. UNCLOS uses this term to refer to the limited rights of a country over this zone.

Granting sovereign rights over a particular area, such as an exclusive economic zone, does not confer sovereignty. This also means that an exclusive economic zone is not a sovereign territory according to UNCLOS.

In a Nutshell: Difference Between Sovereignty and Sovereign Rights

Sovereign rights should not be confused with sovereignty or territorial sovereignty based on the discussions and definitions above. Having sovereign rights over a particular body of water does not correspond to having sovereignty over that same area. Sovereignty simply means supreme and absolute authority while sovereign rights is a legal term used in UNCLOS to refer to the collective limited set of rights and responsibilities

It is easy to confuse sovereign rights with sovereignty simply because of lexical, phonemic, and typographical similarities. The confusion simply stems from the seeming resemblance of these two terms. It is still important to maintain the difference between sovereignty and sovereign rights to promote conciseness in interpreting critical documents and disseminating official state and legal pronouncements and academic papers.