United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea

Template:Treatybox The term United Nations Convention on Law of the Sea (UNCLOS, also called simply the Law of the Sea or LOS) refers to several United Nations events and one international treaty. The events the term refers to are the (First) United Nations Convention on Law of the Sea, the Second United Nations Convention on Law of the Sea, and the Third United Nations Convention on Law of the Sea. The treaty resulting from the Third United Nations Convention on Law of the Sea also bears the name United Nations Convention on Law of the Sea and is the most recent major development in international law governing the oceans. The treaty provided new universal legal controls for the management of marine resources and the control of pollution. Its Secretariat resides within the United Nations Division for Ocean Affairs and the Law of the Sea.


Historical background

The LOS was needed due to the weakness of the older 'freedom of the seas' concept, dating from the 17th century: national rights were limited to a specified belt of water extending from a nation's coastlines, usually three nautical miles (5.6 km), from the 'cannon shot' rule. All water beyond national boundaries was considered international waters- free to all nations but belonging to none of them.

Into the 20th century many nations expressed a need to extend national claims: to include mineral resources, to protect fish stocks and to have the means to enforce pollution controls. This was recognized by the League of Nations and a conference was held in 1930 at The Hague, but did not result in any agreements. The first nation to undermine the 'freedom of the seas' was the United States, when in 1945 President Truman unilaterally extended his nation's control to cover all the natural resources of their continental shelf. Other nations were quick to emulate the USA, in 1946-1950 Argentina, Chile, Peru and Ecuador all extended their sovereign rights to a 200 nautical mile (370 km) distance - so as to cover their Humboldt Current fishing grounds. Other nations extended their territorial seas to 12 nautical miles (22 km). By 1967 only twenty-five nations still used the old three nautical mile limit, sixty-six nations had set a twelve nautical mile territorial limit, and eight had set a two-hundred nautical mile limit.

The (First) United Nations Conference on Law of the Sea (UNCLOS I)

In 1956, the United Nations held its first Conference on the Law of the Sea (“UNCLOS I”) at Geneva, Switzerland. UNCLOS I resulted in four treaties concluded in 1958:

  • The Convention on the Territorial Sea and Contiguous Zone
  • The Convention on the Continental Shelf
  • The Convention on the High Seas
  • The Convention on Fishing and Conservation of Living Resources of the High Seas

Although UNCLOS I was considered a success, it left open the important issue of breadth of territorial waters.

The Second United Nations Conference on Law of the Sea (UNCLOS II)

The United Nations followed this in 1960 with its second Convention on the Law of the Sea (“UNCLOS II”). UNCLOS II did not result in any international agreements.

The Third United Nations Conference on Law of the Sea (UNCLOS III)

The issue of varying claims of territorial waters was raised in the UN in 1967 by Arvid Pardo and in 1973 the Third United Nations Conference on the Law of the Sea was convened in New York to write a new treaty covering the oceans. The convention lasted until 1982 and over 160 nations participated. The convention was conducted under a process of consensus rather than majority vote in an attempt to reduce the possibility of groups of nation-states dominating the negotiations. The convention came into force on November 14, 1994, one year after the sixtieth state, Guyana, signed it.

The convention introduced a number of provisions. The most significant issues covered were setting limits, navigation, archipelagic status and transit regimes, exclusive economic zones (EEZ), continental shelf jurisdiction, deep seabed mining, the exploitation regime, protection of the marine environment, scientific research, and settlement of disputes.

The convention set the limit of territorial waters to 12 nautical miles (22.224 km), in which area the coastal state is free to set laws, regulate any use, and use any resource. Vessels were given the right of "innocent passage" through any territorial waters, with strategic straits allowing the passage of military craft as "transit passage", in that naval vessels are allowed to maintain postures that would be illegal in territorial waters. Beyond the 12 nautical mile (22.224 km) limit there was a further 12 nautical mile (or 24 nautical miles from the territorial sea baselines) limit, the "contiguous zone", in which area a state could continue to enforce laws regarding activities such as smuggling or illegal immigration.

The exclusive economic zones (EEZ) extended the exploitation rights of coastal nations to 200 nautical miles (370.4 km) from shore, covering all natural resources. The EEZ were introduced to halt the increasingly heated clashes over fishing rights, although oil was also becoming important. The success of an offshore oil platform in the Gulf of Mexico in 1947 was soon repeated elsewhere in the world, by 1970 it was technically feasible to operate in waters 4000 metres deep.

The convention set the definition of Archipelagic States in Part IV, which also define how the state can draw its teritorial borders. A baseline is drawn between the outermost points of the outermost islands. All waters inside this baseline is described as Archipelagic Waters and are included as art of the state's territory. This baseline is also used to chart its territorial waters (12 nautical miles from the baseline) and EEZ (200 nautical miles from the baseline).

Aside from its provisions defining ocean boundaries, the convention establishes general obligations for safeguarding the marine environment and protecting freedom of scientific research on the high seas, and also creates an innovative legal regime for controlling mineral resource exploitation in deep seabed areas beyond national jurisdiction, through an International Seabed Authority.

Landlocked states are given a right of access to and from the sea, without taxation of traffic through transit states.


Libertarians criticize the treaty for creating a tragedy of the commons by designating oceanic resources as the "common heritage of mankind" – essentially public property – instead of privatizing the seabed. According to economic theories promoted by the Property and Environment Research Center and other free market environmentalists, privatization would create incentives for preservation by giving owners an economic interest in protecting the long-term value of their property. If long-term tuna fishing rights were auctioned off, for instance, the owner would have an incentive not to overfish, since depleting the population would lessen returns in future years.

Signature and ratification

Opened for signature - December 10, 1982

Entered into force - November 16, 1994

Parties - (146) Albania, Algeria, Angola, Antigua and Barbuda, Argentina, Armenia, Australia, Austria, The Bahamas, Bahrain, Bangladesh, Barbados, Belgium, Belize, Benin, Bolivia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Botswana, Brazil, Brunei, Bulgaria, Burma, Cameroon, Canada, Cape Verde, Chile, People's Republic of China, Comoros, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Cook Islands, Costa Rica, Cte d'Ivoire, Croatia, Cuba, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Denmark, Djibouti, Dominica, Egypt, Equatorial Guinea, European Union, Fiji, Finland, France, Gabon, The Gambia, Georgia, Germany, Ghana, Greece, Grenada, Guatemala, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Guyana, Haiti, Honduras, Hungary, Iceland, India, Indonesia, Iraq, Ireland, Italy, Jamaica, Japan, Jordan, Kenya, Kiribati, South Korea, Kuwait, Laos, Lebanon, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Macedonia, Madagascar, Malaysia, Maldives, Mali, Malta, Marshall Islands, Mauritania, Mauritius, Mexico, Federated States of Micronesia, Monaco, Mongolia, Mozambique, Namibia, Nauru, Nepal, Netherlands, New Zealand, Nicaragua, Nigeria, Norway, Oman, Pakistan, Palau, Panama, Papua New Guinea, Paraguay, Philippines, Poland, Portugal, Qatar, Romania, Russia, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Saint Lucia, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Samoa, So Tom and Prncipe, Saudi Arabia, Senegal, Serbia and Montenegro, Seychelles, Sierra Leone, Singapore, Slovakia, Slovenia, Solomon Islands, Somalia, South Africa, Spain, Sri Lanka, Sudan, Suriname, Sweden, Tanzania, Togo, Tonga, Trinidad and Tobago, Tunisia, Tuvalu, Uganda, Ukraine, United Kingdom, Uruguay, Vanuatu, Vietnam, Yemen, Zambia, Zimbabwe

Countries that have signed, but not yet ratified - (28) Afghanistan, Belarus, Bhutan, Burkina Faso, Burundi, Cambodia, Central African Republic, Chad, Colombia, Republic of the Congo, Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Ethiopia, Iran, North Korea, Lesotho, Liberia, Libya, Liechtenstein, Malawi, Morocco, Niger, Niue, Rwanda, Swaziland, Switzerland, Thailand, United Arab Emirates

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