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September 28, 2009

United States signs U.N. Convention that UT Professor Michael Sturley played a key role in negotiating and drafting

Photo of the signing of the Rotterdam Rules

Ambassador Fay Hartog Levin formally signs the Rotterdam Rules on behalf of the United States. State Department lawyer Mary Helen Carlson and University of Texas law professor Michael Sturley stand behind Ambassador Levin while Arancha Hinojal, the deputy director of the U.N. Treaty Section in New York, looks on.

On September 23, 2009, the United States and fifteen other governments signed a new U.N. convention to govern international shipping that University of Texas law professor Michael Sturley played a key role in negotiating and drafting. Although formally titled the “United Nations Convention on Contracts for the International Carriage of Goods Wholly or Partly by Sea,” it will be widely known as the “Rotterdam Rules” because the signing ceremony was held in the Dutch port city of Rotterdam.

It will not only update international regimes written decades ago but also unify aspects of transport law that international agreements never addressed. In the United States, it will supersede a 1936 federal statute known as the Carriage of Goods by Sea Act and impact the operation of three even older federal statutes.

For more than seventeen years, Sturley has worked to update the legal regimes that govern international shipping. For the last eight years, he has been the senior advisor on the U.S. delegation to the U.N. Commission on International Trade Law (UNCITRAL) Working Group that negotiated and drafted the Rotterdam Rules. He was also tapped by the UNCITRAL Secretariat to serve on a small “expert group” that assisted and advised the Secretariat during that process. And during the four years before that, he was the “rapporteur” and common-law draftsman for the committee established by the Comité Maritime International (CMI) to prepare a preliminary draft of the instrument for UNCITRAL.

During the UNCITRAL negotiations, Sturley generally served as the U.S. spokesperson on substantive maritime law issues. “Everyone I asked said that Michael Sturley was the leading U.S. (and perhaps the world) expert in this area, and that he would be a key member of the delegation. They were right,” said Mary Helen Carlson, a State Department attorney who assembled and led the U.S. delegation.

“This is a highly complex, technical subject with a long history. Many countries’ delegates did not have much background in this area. Everyone came to rely on Michael,” Carlson explained. Carlson added that she often called Sturley the “intellectual spark plug” of the convention.

Sturley’s efforts on this project took him to meetings around the world. Formal UNCITRAL sessions were held at U.N. headquarters in New York and UNCITRAL’s home base in Vienna, while the CMI’s preliminary work took Sturley to such diverse places as London, Singapore, Madrid, Vancouver, Antwerp, Bordeaux, and Margarita Island, Venezuela. Finally, all of that hard work culminated at the formal ceremony in Rotterdam, Europe’s largest port and one of the largest ports in the world.

Sixteen countries signed the convention at the formal ceremony, as soon as the General Assembly declared it “open for signature.” Ambassador Fay Hartog Levin, the U.S. ambassador to the Netherlands, signed on behalf of the United States. The convention now remains open for signature at U.N. headquarters in New York. Indeed, a seventeenth country signed in New York on September 25, two more countries have already announced their intention to sign there during the coming days, and several others have signaled that they will sign as soon as they complete their domestic review process. The new convention will enter into force after twenty countries have ratified it.

A number of academic events were held in conjunction with the formal signing of the Rotterdam Rules. During the week immediately before the signing, Sturley spoke at a colloquium in Madrid at Carlos III University on freedom of contract under the new regime. He delivered the keynote address on the convention’s general principles at a symposium sponsored by Erasmus University in Rotterdam immediately after the ceremony. Between the two, he addressed jurisdiction issues at the CMI’s conference that constituted the opening day of the formal event.

An English reporter covering the event asked Sturley if he plans to take a long vacation now that so many years of work are finally completed. Sturley smiled and replied, “Today’s signatures represent a significant achievement and I am very pleased that we have come so far. But the work is not yet complete. This is a significant milestone on the road to bringing the Rotterdam Rules into force throughout the maritime and commercial world. We still have much to do before this convention will be a success.”

Indeed, Sturley is already hard at work with coauthors from Japan and the Netherlands to write a treatise that will serve as a guide to the convention. And he is juggling invitations to speak at conferences around the world that will address the meaning and impact of the new regime.

Related links:

Michael F. Sturley

Professor at the Helm: Michael Sturley charts a new course for international maritime law and steers successful Supreme Court Clinic


Kirston Fortune, Assistant Dean for Communications, (512) 471.7330 or

Professor Michael Sturley, UT School of Law, 512-232-1350,