Disputes between two or more countries over seas and the corresponding natural resources are always complicated. Nonetheless, international agreements such as the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea or UNCLOS have provided a framework for settling these disputes.
However, even the interpretation of UNCLOS can lead to further complications and confusions. Take note of the concept of “sovereign rights” as an example, especially when compared with the concept of “sovereignty” and associated further with other concepts such as internal and territorial waters, contiguous zone, and exclusive economic zone, among others.
What is the difference between sovereignty and sovereign rights?
To understand the difference between sovereignty and sovereign rights, it is first important to define “sovereignty” as a concept. One generic and well-cited definition is that sovereignty is a full right and power of a governing body or political actor, such as a state, over itself, without any interference and restriction from outside bodies or sources.
When specifically applied to states, sovereignty contains four aspects. These are rights and power over a territory, responsibly 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 state over its waters, particularly its internal waters and territorial seas. The state essentially has territorial sovereignty over these waters.
In consideration of the aforementioned definition, stating that a state has sovereignty over a territory essentially means that there are no other existing superior rights and power. Ownership of that territory is absolute and thus, no authority can be higher than the state.
On the other hand, “sovereign rights” is a term used in UNCLOS to pertain to the entitlements or privileges of a state to a defined area of a sea called the exclusive economic zone. In other words, UNCLOS merely used this term to collectively represent the limited rights of a state over its exclusive economic zone.
Article 56 of UNCLOS mentioned that in this exclusive economic zone, a state has sovereign rights for the purpose of “exploring and exploiting, conserving and managing the natural resources…of the waters superjacent to the seabed and of the seabed and its subsoil, and with regard to other activities for the economic exploitation and exploration of the zone, such as the production of energy from the water, currents and winds.”
Having a sovereign rights over a particular area, such as an exclusive economic zone, does not confer sovereignty. This also means that based on UNCLOS, an exclusive economic zone is not a sovereign territory.
In a nutshell: Sovereignty vs. sovereign rights
Based from the discussion above, sovereign rights should not be confused with sovereignty or more appropriately, territorial sovereignty. Having sovereign rights over a particular body of water does not correspond to having sovereignty over that same area. Sovereignty simply means supreme authority while sovereign rights is a term used for a collective but limited set of rights and power.
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 words. However, it is important to maintain the difference between sovereignty and sovereign rights to promote conciseness, especially in interpreting critical documents such as the UNCLOS, or in disseminating official state pronouncements and legal or scholarly publications.