Beyond National Jurisdiction: The Regulation of Human Activities in the Oceans, Polar Regions, Cyberspace and Outer Space


The oceans, polar regions, cyberspace and outer space are no longer empty places, they are places where international law is evolving and innovating to regulate in areas beyond national jurisdiction.

Evolving technological capabilities and burgeoning human population are pushing the reach of human activities beyond land and near-coastal areas to the oceans, polar regions, cyberspace and outer space. The impact is felt even beyond the farthest reaches of our planet and requires innovations in many legal fields, including environmental, national security, communications, navigation, economic, intellectual property, criminal and trade law.

Areas “beyond national jurisdiction” present unique challenges and opportunities for international law. National law and domestic institutions are necessary but not sufficient to govern these common spaces. International law, transnational law and global institutions must be brought to the fore and require rapid development or complete rethinking in light of the unique legal issues raised by these activities.

The importance of the world’s oceans for human development was recognized in the 2015 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), in particular SDG 14. The high seas include some of the most biologically important, least-protected, and most critically threatened ecosystems in the world. In 2018, new treaty negotiations have begun to ensure the sustainable use and conservation of biodiversity in marine areas beyond national jurisdiction (BBNJ).

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Climate change has thrust the Arctic and Antarctic to the top of the foreign policy agenda, raising new questions of sovereignty, security, exploitation of continental shelf resources, and environmental protection. Maritime boundary disputes are being negotiated and resolved, and innovative institutions, such as the Arctic Council, are mediating deep-rooted tensions among the circumpolar States and indigenous peoples.

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Activities in cyberspace, i.e., the space in which computer transactions occur, particularly communications between different computers, have grown exponentially. Cyberspace raises novel jurisdictional issues because, for example, of the nature of the Internet and the global dispersion of businesses operating in it. Transnational transactions through cyberspace may bypass domestic regulatory regimes such as those controlling the use of chemicals in manufacturing, and they may facilitate economic or political interference in national affairs.

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Fifty years ago, the first artificial satellite, Sputnik 1, was launched; today, our daily lives are highly dependent on outer space. In 2016, the value of the “space economy” was $329 billion. Satellites are critical today, and mining asteroids may be feasible in the next ten years. At the same time, however, the large quantity of debris orbiting the earth poses risks to future activities in space.

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