UNCLOS and Environmental Protection in the East Sea

On June 23, 1994, the Vietnamese National Assembly ratified the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea of (the 1982 UNCLOS), demonstrating the nation’s will to join the international community in building a just legal order, and fostering marine development and cooperation.

Offshore fishing fleet of Quang Nam province__Photo: Doan Huu Trung/VNA


Vietnam’s law on marine environment protection

On June 23, 1994, the Vietnamese National Assembly ratified the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea of (the 1982 UNCLOS), demonstrating the nation’s will to join the international community in building a just legal order, and fostering marine development and cooperation. The National Assembly then requested its Standing Committee and the Government to study necessary amendments to the domestic laws in accordance with the 1982 UNCLOS, safeguarding Vietnam’s interests. It also instructed the Government to take effective measures to promote the protection and management of maritime zones and the continental shelf of Vietnam.

The 1982 UNCLOS boosted the development of Vietnam’s laws on the sea. The Law on the Sea was promulgated in 2012 and took effect on January 1, 2013, becoming the most comprehensive document on matters related to Vietnam’s seas. It provides a clear definition and legal status of Vietnam’s maritime zones, the enforcement of jurisdiction on the sea, the development of the marine economy, etc. The Law’s provisions have been basically compatible with those of the 1982 UNCLOS.

On the basis of the 1982 UNCLOS and its 2012 Law on the Sea, Vietnam has promulgated and revised a raft of specialized laws, including the 1990 Maritime Code, revised in 2005 and 2015; the 1993 Petroleum Law, revised in 2000, 2008, and 2014; the 2020 Law on Environmental Protection; the 2015 Penal Code, revised in 2017; the 2015 Law on Sea and Island Resources and Environment; the 2003 Law on Fishery, revised in 2017; the 2018 Law on Vietnam Coast Guard; the 2009 Law on Militia and Self-Defense Forces, among others.

In terms of marine environmental protection, Vietnam's first Environmental Protection Law, enacted in 1993, mandated the prevention, cessation, and mitigation of negative environmental impacts caused by human activities or natural disasters. Despite the lack of provisions for marine environmental protection, the Law mandated the implementation of environmental protection strategies and policies, as well as plans to prevent, combat, and address environmental degeneration and pollution, as well as environmental incidents. It also required the construction and management of environmental protection facilities, the construction and management of monitoring systems, the regular assessment of the environmental status, the forecasting of environmental changes, and other similar activities.

In order to ward off and control activities likely to cause environmental pollution, a number of legal documents were promulgated, such as the 2014 Environmental Protection Law and Government Decree 18/2015/ND-CP and Decree 19/2015/ND-CP, which were amended by Decree 40/2019/ND-CP. These documents defined the obligations to make reports on environmental impacts, plans on environmental protection, and strategic environmental assessment with regard to projects and activities likely to cause environmental pollution with a view to forecasting and ensuring necessary conditions and measures to efficiently manage and dispose of generated wastes. These regulations were overhauled in the 2020 Law on Environmental Protection to better suit the reality with the assessment of environmental impacts as a specific tool to manage the cycle of projects and as a foundation for investment licensing, thus preventing those prone to negatively affect the environment. 

Environmental technical standards and norms were issued for the control and management of sources of solid wastes and wastewater as well as marine environmental quality, such as QCVN 10-MT:2015/BTNMT on national technical regulations on seawater quality. In addition, on June 20, 2021, the Ministry of Resources and Environment issued Circular 10, regulating the environment monitoring techniques as well as the management of monitoring information and data on environmental quality, including seawater.

Besides, some laws also dwell on the handling and redress of environment-polluting activities. The 2014 Law on Environmental Protection established a general framework for responding to environmental incidents. Then, the 2020 Law on Environmental Protection provided more adequate prevention of and response to environmental incidents as well as compensation for causing environmental damage. More specifically, Government Decree 19/2015/ND-CP provided the handling of agencies causing serious environmental pollution, whereas Decree 03/2015/ND-CP, dated January 6, 2015, prescribed the assessment of environmental damage, specifying bodies in charge of assessing environmental damage and claiming compensation.

Based on the review of ten years of implementing the Vietnam Sea Strategy through 2020, the 12th Party Central Committee promulgated Resolution 36-NQ/TW on October 22, 2018, on the Strategy for sustainable development of Vietnam’s marine economy through 2030 with a vision toward 2045 (Resolution 36-NQ/TW). This Resolution outlined various sustainable development perspectives in Agenda 21 and Agenda 2030, including:

+ To sustainably develop the marine economy on the basis of green growth, conservation of biodiversity, and marine ecological system;

+ To enhance the comprehensive and unified management of marine resources and the marine environment protection, the conservation of marine biodiversity and natural eco-systems;

+ To protect the integrity of marine ecosystems from the inland to the sea.

One of the targets related to the control of polluting sources was clarified in Resolution 36-NQ/TW:

“To ward off, control, and substantially reduce the marine environment pollution, starting from the minimization of ocean plastic waste. In coastal provinces and cities, all hazardous wastes and household solid wastes will be collected and treated up to the environmental standards; all coastal economic zones, industrial parks, and urban centers will be planned and constructed to be sustainable, ecological, smart, and resilient to climate change and sea level rise, with concentrated wastewater treatment systems up to the environmental standards and norms.”

So, the Party and the State have clearly stated their ideas and orientations on environmental protection in general and marine environment protection in particular in order to ensure economic development on one hand and to protect the environment on the other hand, meeting the practical requirements of national socio-economic development and international integration. The successful realization of such ideas and orientations will lay the foundation for marine environment protection and effective enforcement of the 1982 UNCLOS.

Besides, the 1982 UNCLOS has acquainted Vietnam with marine management issues of international concern such as illegal, unreported, and unregulated exploitation of marine sources (IUU), biodiversity in sea areas beyond national jurisdiction (BBNJ), or the establishment of marine conservation zones, and the combat against plastic waste. The 1982 UNCLOS expanded Vietnam’s interests beyond the East Sea. Vietnam has the opportunity to actively participate in the formulation of the Convention on Conservation and Sustainable Use of Marine Biodiversity beyond National Jurisdiction. Vietnam should also be prepared for registration and participation in the seabed exploitation group. Vietnam has worked out plans to build 15 marine conservation zones and should actively step up the establishment of others. As Vietnam ranks among the countries which generate the most plastic waste and are most affected by sea level rise, it should strongly cooperate with countries in the region and the world to minimize these risks.

The 1982 UNCLOS has provided a comprehensive legal framework for cooperation in the peaceful and sustainable use of seas and oceans as well as marine resources. The Convention has affirmed that all problems of the seas and oceans are closely interrelated and need to be addressed as a whole. It serves as an inevitable legal tool for developing countries, including Vietnam, in the struggle for a just legal order on the sea and for sustainable development. 

Proposed measures 

In furtherance of the commitments in the 1982 UNCLOS on marine environment protection, Vietnam has promulgated various policies to direct marine environment protection as well as laws to prevent, stop and control sea-polluting dangers. However, the provisions of the environmental protection orientations and policies remain vague and have not been fully enforced in practice. So, Vietnam should apply measures to enforce more effectively its commitment to marine environment protection.

First, importance should be attached to the creation and improvement of laws for the enforcement of the 1982 UNCLOS regarding the protection of the marine environment. Under the 1982 UNCLOS, the Member States must adopt laws and regulations to prevent, restrict and control marine environment pollution.

Second, the State should increase resources for marine environment protection. Moreover, the Government should establish a mechanism for coordination and cooperation among various sectors, and agencies for effective enforcement of international commitments on marine environment protection, with the Ministry of Resource and Environment playing the core role in the implementation of provisions on the control of marine environment pollution.

Third, state agencies should step up inspections, examinations, and handling of violations with adequate penal, civil, and administrative measures to handle violations in the field of marine environment protection.

Fourth, international cooperation on marine environment protection under the 1982 UNCLOS should be intensified. As an East Sea nation, Vietnam should also intensify regional cooperation to effectively control land-based sources of marine pollution. To cooperate in the formulation of treaties and agreements in the region to address marine pollution is also the obligation of the 1982 UNCLOS member countries.

Up to now, the East Sea nations have not yet achieved any specific agreement on marine environment protection. A number of agreements have been adopted by ASEAN countries, but they are mostly non-binding. International cooperation at present mainly takes the form of statements or regional projects sponsored by regional or international organizations.

To protect the marine environment in its seas, Vietnam should step up the formulation and implementation of international commitments in the region and efficiently implement the regional agreements, showing its goodwill in marine environmental protection.

In short, marine environment pollution is always a difficult and complex issue for all countries, particularly developing coastal nations. Fully aware of this, Vietnam has formulated clear orientations in the protection of the marine environment for sustainable development of the marine economy, especially in the Strategy for Sustainable Development of Marine Economy through 2030 with a vision toward 2045.


Nguyen Le Tuan, Ph.D, Vu Dinh Hieu, LL.D, Nguyen Thuc Anh, LL.M
Vietnam Institute of Seas and Islands (VISI),
Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment

  • 4/17/2023 3:06:15 AM