Stellar Legal Scholar Professor Bernard H. Oxman Navigates the Law of the Sea

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Professor Bernard Oxman

Professor Bernard H. Oxman (photo by Joshua Prezant)

Professor Bernard H. Oxman has decades of experience in helping students, attorneys, and policymakers navigate the law of the sea and resolve international disputes. He played a leading role in the pivotal Third U.N. Conference on the Law of the Sea in the 1970s and served as a judge ad hoc at both the International Court of Justice and the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea.

Since 1977, Oxman has taught at Miami Law as the Richard A. Hausler Professor of Law and director of the Maritime Law LL.M. Program. “It is an enormous privilege for me to teach at Miami Law,” he said. “I enjoy being in the classroom and interacting with students and helping them think for themselves.”

Oxman’s students reflect that enthusiasm. For instance, Boca Raton attorney Keith Wold, LL.M. ‘17 in Maritime Law, recently established the Keith C. Wold Maritime Law LL.M. Program Teaching Fund, which supports visiting faculty appointments as well as talks by renowned experts in the field. “Keith Wold’s generous gift permits us to better prepare our students for a rewarding career in domestic and international admiralty and maritime practice," said Oxman.

Through the years, Oxman has published widely on international law subjects and served as co-editor-in-chief of the American Journal of International Law. He was elected a titular member of the Institut de Droit International, considered the most authoritative world academy of international law. He received the Distinguished Faculty Scholar Award and the Provost’s Award for Scholarly Activity from the University of Miami and is a member of the U.S. Department of State Advisory Committee on International Law.

In March, the American Society of International Law recognized Oxman with its highest honor, the Manley O. Hudson Medal, for his global leadership in forging, strengthening, and teaching the international law of the sea and its application in the peaceful settlement of disputes. Introducing Oxman at the medal ceremony, Paul Reichler, partner at Foley Hoag LLP in Washington, said, “As a preeminent scholar and outstanding educator, Bernie is truly a superstar in international law. He is also one of the kindest and most decent human beings I have known.”

Understanding the Law of the Sea

If you want to understand how the freedom of the high seas works in practice, Oxman suggests going to the beach in the morning to see how singles, couples, and families lay out their blankets and adjust their activities in this shared space. For instance, young volleyball players may move their game away from quiet beachgoers relaxing under their umbrellas. Parents teach their children to observe customary rules that one will not find in any statute.

“The sea is a large common area used for many purposes by nations that have to get along with each other,” he said. “It is not a matter of anarchy – simply a different system than the territorial principle on land.”

In a seminal 2006 article in the American Journal of International Law, “Territorial Temptation: A Siren Song at Sea,” Oxman reflected on a century of practice on the law of the sea. “While the international law of the land can be characterized by the progressive triumph of the territorial temptation, the law of the sea reflects the nature of open waters and a prohibition on claims of territorial sovereignty,” he explained. “However, from 1945 on, nations have been quick to claim the rights to coastal waters, leading to a continuing series of conflicts of overfishing, oil and gas fields, and heavily traveled straits.”

As an ad hoc judge, Oxman has played an active role in resolving disputes regarding claims to coastal waters in different areas, including the Black Sea, Bay of Bengal, and the Indian Ocean. He had also advised the U.S. government in the Gulf of Maine case with Canada before the ICJ and was a counsel for Suriname in a maritime boundary arbitration with Guyana and for the Philippines in the South China Sea arbitration with China.

As for global issues, Oxman noted that the recent blockage of the Suez Canal highlights the importance of free movement for ships at sea. “If you interfere with trade flows, there is a severe economic ripple effect,” he added.

Other difficult maritime legal challenges include addressing ocean pollution, protecting threatened species, and mitigating the impact of climate change. “Because some nations do a better job than others protecting marine resources, we need a consensus, like the worldwide ban on harmful refrigerant gases in the 1990s.”

A Stellar Legal Career

Oxman grew up in Brooklyn, where he cheered for the Dodgers in the 1950s before the Major League Baseball team moved to Los Angeles. After graduating from high school at age 16, he attended Columbia College on a Pulitzer scholarship, majoring in English literature, and cultivating an interest in science. By his senior year, he decided on a career in law and earned his juris doctor with honors at Columbia Law School in 1965.

“At that time, while it was common for students to have summer jobs at law firms between the second and third years of law school, one of my professors suggested using this ‘last’ long summer break to travel abroad instead,” Oxman said. “It was great advice. I spent four months traveling in Europe, with direct exposure to foreign customs. And I was able to practice my French. I believe cultural awareness is essential in international practice – perhaps especially for students who plan to practice in Miami.”

Following law school, with the Vietnam War heating up, Oxman applied to and was accepted by the Navy’s Judge Advocate General Corps. Following training in Newport, he was invited to teach at the Naval Justice School but chose instead to join the JAG’s international law division at the Pentagon.

“Shortly afterward, the Soviet Union delivered a diplomatic note inquiring whether the U.S. was interested in convening a new international conference on the law of the sea with a view to agreement on expanding the historical three-mile territorial sea limit to 12 nautical miles,” Oxman said. “It became my job to organize a Pentagon study that led to further discussions with the Soviets, including the condition that freedom of transit for all ships and aircraft would be guaranteed through international straits overlapped by such territorial waters.”

Third UN Conference on Law of the Sea

In 1968, Oxman transferred to the U.S. State Department to continue this work. He was appointed its first assistant legal adviser for Oceans, Environ­ment and Scientific Af­fairs and later was named vice-chair of the National Secu­rity Council Task Force on Law of the Sea. He began working with governments from around the world and served as U.S. representative and vice-chair of the U.S. delega­tion to the Third United Nations Conference on the Law of the Sea from 1973 to 1982.

“There were many challenges in coordinating the many interests in the large U.S. delegation, as well as with foreign representatives,” he said. Oxman also chaired the English Language Group of the conference drafting committee, giving him a deeper understanding of issues involving both the United Kingdom and its many former colonies around the world.

Reflecting on the outcome of the conference, Oxman said the negotiations resulted in the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, opened for signature December 10, 1982, a treaty to which the overwhelming majority of countries from all regions are now party.

“Thanks to the convention, there is global agreement on the basic rules of the law of the sea, including two of its most important principles: use of the sea requires due regard for the rights of others to use the sea, and states have a duty to protect and preserve the marine environment,” he said. “Most disputes between parties to the convention regarding its interpretation or application may be submitted to arbitration or adjudication by either country. This is a big change from the past. It has had a lasting positive impact on the law of the sea and all of international law.”

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