United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea

The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), also called the Law of the Sea Convention or the Law of the Sea Treaty, is an international agreement that establishes a legal framework for all marine and maritime activities. As of June 2016, 167 countries and the European Union are parties.

United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea
Logo of the Convention
Signed10 December 1982
LocationMontego Bay, Jamaica
Effective16 November 1994[1]
Condition60 ratifications
DepositarySecretary-General of the United Nations
LanguagesArabic, Chinese, English, French, Russian, and Spanish
Full text
United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea at Wikisource

The convention resulted from the third United Nations Conference on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS III), which took place between 1973 and 1982. UNCLOS replaced the four treaties of the 1958 Convention on the High Seas. UNCLOS came into force in 1994, a year after Guyana became the 60th nation to ratify the treaty.[1] It is uncertain as to what extent the convention codifies customary international law.

While the secretary-general of the United Nations receives instruments of ratification and accession and the UN provides support for meetings of states party to the convention, the United Nations Secretariat has no direct operational role in the implementation of the convention. A UN specialized agency, the International Maritime Organization, does play a role, however, as well as other bodies such as the International Whaling Commission and the International Seabed Authority (ISA), which was established by the convention itself.


UNCLOS replaces the older 'freedom of the seas' concept, dating from the 17th century. According to this concept, national rights were limited to a specified belt of water extending from a nation's coastlines, usually 3 nautical miles (5.6 km; 3.5 mi) (three-mile limit), according to the 'cannon shot' rule developed by the Dutch jurist Cornelius van Bynkershoek.[4] All waters beyond national boundaries were considered international waters: free to all nations, but belonging to none of them (the mare liberum principle propounded by Hugo Grotius).[5]

In the early 20th century, some nations expressed their desire to extend national claims: to include mineral resources, to protect fish stocks, and to provide the means to enforce pollution controls. (The League of Nations called a 1930 conference at The Hague, but no agreements resulted.[6]) Using the customary international law principle of a nation's right to protect its natural resources, President Harry S. Truman in 1945 extended United States control to all the natural resources of its continental shelf. Other nations were quick to follow suit. Between 1946 and 1950, Chile, Peru, and Ecuador extended their rights to a distance of 200 nautical miles (370 km; 230 mi) to cover their Humboldt Current fishing grounds. Other nations extended their territorial seas to 12 nautical miles (22 km; 14 mi).[7]

By 1967, only 25 nations still used the old three nautical mile limit,[8] while 66 nations had set a 12-nautical-mile (22 km) territorial limit [9] and eight had set a 200-nautical-mile (370 km) limit. As of 15 July 2011, only Jordan still uses the 3-mile (4.8 km) limit.[10] That limit is also used in certain Australian islands, an area of Belize, some Japanese straits, certain areas of Papua New Guinea, and a few British Overseas Territories, such as Gibraltar.[11]

UNCLOS does not deal with matters of territorial disputes or to resolve issues of sovereignty, as that field is governed by rules of customary international law on the acquisition and loss of territory.[12][13]

The United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 14 has a target regarding conservative and sustainable use of oceans and their resources in line with UNCLOS legal framework.[14]


Territorial waters claims by coastal states in 1960[15]
Breadth claimNumber of states
3-mile limit26
4-mile limit3
5-mile limit1
6-mile limit16
9-mile limit1
10-mile limit2
12-mile limit34
More than 12-miles9

In 1956, the United Nations held its first Conference on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS I) at Geneva, Switzerland. UNCLOS I[16] resulted in four treaties concluded in 1958:

Although UNCLOS I was considered a success, it left open the important issue of breadth of territorial waters.[15]


In 1960, the United Nations held the second Conference on the Law of the Sea ("UNCLOS II"); however, the six-week Geneva conference did not result in any new agreements.[15] Generally speaking, developing nations and third world countries participated only as clients, allies, or dependents of the United States or the Soviet Union, with no significant voice of their own.[17]


Sea areas in international rights (Top view)

The issue of varying claims of territorial waters was raised in the UN in 1967 by Arvid Pardo of Malta, and in 1973 the Third United Nations Conference on the Law of the Sea convened in New York. In an attempt to reduce the possibility of groups of nation-states dominating the negotiations, the conference used a consensus process rather than majority vote. With more than 160 nations participating, the conference lasted until 1982. The resulting convention came into force on 16 November 1994, one year after the 60th state, Guyana, ratified the treaty.

The convention introduced a number of provisions. The most significant issues covered were setting limits, navigation, archipelagic status and transit regimes, exclusive economic zones (EEZs), 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 various areas, measured from a carefully defined baseline. (Normally, a sea baseline follows the low-water line, but when the coastline is deeply indented, has fringing islands or is highly unstable, straight baselines may be used.) The areas are as follows:

Internal waters
Covers all water and waterways on the landward side of the baseline. The coastal state is free to set laws, regulate use, and use any resource. Foreign vessels have no right of passage within internal waters. A vessel in the high seas assumes jurisdiction under the internal laws of its flag state.
Territorial waters
Out to 12 nautical miles (22 kilometres; 14 miles) from the baseline, the coastal state is free to set laws, regulate 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. "Innocent passage" is defined by the convention as passing through waters in an expeditious and continuous manner, which is not "prejudicial to the peace, good order or the security" of the coastal state. Fishing, polluting, weapons practice, and spying are not "innocent", and submarines and other underwater vehicles are required to navigate on the surface and to show their flag. Nations can also temporarily suspend innocent passage in specific areas of their territorial seas, if doing so is essential for the protection of their security.
Archipelagic waters
The convention set the definition of "Archipelagic States" in Part IV, which also defines how the state can draw its territorial borders. A baseline is drawn between the outermost points of the outermost islands, subject to these points being sufficiently close to one another. All waters inside this baseline are designated "Archipelagic Waters". The state has sovereignty over these waters mostly to the extent it has over internal waters, but subject to existing rights including traditional fishing rights of immediately adjacent states.[18] Foreign vessels have right of innocent passage through archipelagic waters, but archipelagic states may limit innocent passage to designated sea lanes.
Contiguous zone
Beyond the 12-nautical-mile (22 km) limit, there is a further 12 nautical miles (22 km) from the territorial sea baseline limit, the contiguous zone. Here a state can continue to enforce laws in four specific areas (customs, taxation, immigration, and pollution) if the infringement started or is about to occur within the state's territory or territorial waters.[19] This makes the contiguous zone a hot pursuit area.
Exclusive economic zones (EEZs)
These extend 200 nmi (370 km; 230 mi) from the baseline. Within this area, the coastal nation has sole exploitation rights over all natural resources. In casual use, the term may include the territorial sea and even the continental shelf. The EEZs 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, and by 1970 it was technically feasible to operate in waters 4,000 metres (13,000 ft) deep. Foreign nations have the freedom of navigation and overflight, subject to the regulation of the coastal states. Foreign states may also lay submarine pipes and cables.
Continental shelf
The continental shelf is defined as the natural prolongation of the land territory to the continental margin's outer edge, or 200 nautical miles (370 km) from the coastal state's baseline, whichever is greater. A state's continental shelf may exceed 200 nautical miles (370 km) until the natural prolongation ends. However, it may never exceed 350 nmi (650 km; 400 mi) from the baseline; nor may it exceed 100 nmi (190 km; 120 mi) beyond the 2,500 metres (8,200 ft) isobath (the line connecting the depth of 2 500 m). Coastal states have the right to harvest mineral and non-living material in the subsoil of its continental shelf, to the exclusion of others. Coastal states also have exclusive control over living resources "attached" to the continental shelf, but not to creatures living in the water column beyond the exclusive economic zone.

The area outside these areas is referred to as the "high seas" or simply "the Area".[20][21]

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 and the common heritage of mankind principle.[22]

Landlocked states are given a right of access to and from the sea, without taxation of traffic through transit states.[23]

Part XI and the 1994 Agreement

Part XI of the convention provides for a regime relating to minerals on the seabed outside any state's territorial waters or exclusive economic zones (EEZ). It establishes an International Seabed Authority (ISA) to authorize seabed exploration and mining and collect and distribute the seabed mining royalty.

The United States objected to the provisions of Part XI of the convention on several grounds, arguing that the treaty was unfavorable to American economic and security interests. Due to Part XI, the United States refused to ratify the UNCLOS, although it expressed agreement with the remaining provisions of the convention.

From 1982 to 1990, the United States accepted all but Part XI as customary international law, while attempting to establish an alternative regime for exploitation of the minerals of the deep seabed. An agreement was made with other seabed mining nations and licenses were granted to four international consortia. Concurrently, the Preparatory Commission was established to prepare for the eventual coming into force of the convention-recognized claims by applicants, sponsored by signatories of the convention. Overlaps between the two groups were resolved, but a decline in the demand for minerals from the seabed made the seabed regime significantly less relevant. In addition, the decline of communism in the late 1980s removed much of the support for some of the more contentious Part XI provisions.

In 1990, consultations began between signatories and non-signatories (including the United States) over the possibility of modifying the convention to allow the industrialized countries to join the convention. The resulting 1994 Agreement on Implementation was adopted as a binding international convention. It mandated that key articles, including those on limitation of seabed production and mandatory technology transfer, would not be applied, that the United States, if it became a member, would be guaranteed a seat on the Council of the International Seabed Authority, and finally, that voting would be done in groups, with each group able to block decisions on substantive matters. The 1994 Agreement also established a Finance Committee that would originate the financial decisions of the Authority, to which the largest donors would automatically be members and in which decisions would be made by consensus.

On 1 February 2011, the Seabed Disputes Chamber of the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea (ITLOS) issued an advisory opinion concerning the legal responsibilities and obligations of states parties to the convention with respect to the sponsorship of activities in the area in accordance with Part XI of the convention and the 1994 agreement.[24] The advisory opinion was issued in response to a formal request made by the International Seabed Authority following two prior applications the authority's Legal and Technical Commission had received from the Republic of Nauru and the Kingdom of Tonga regarding proposed activities (a plan of work to explore for polymetallic nodules) to be undertaken in the area by two state-sponsored contractors – Nauru Ocean Resources Inc. (sponsored by the Republic of Nauru) and Tonga Offshore Mining Ltd. (sponsored by the Kingdom of Tonga). The advisory opinion set forth the international legal responsibilities and obligations of sponsoring states and the authority to ensure that sponsored activities do not harm the marine environment, consistent with the applicable provisions of UNCLOS Part XI, Authority regulations, ITLOS case law, other international environmental treaties, and Principle 15 of the UN Rio Declaration.[25]

Part XII – Protecting the marine environment

Part XII of UNCLOS contains special provisions for the protection of the marine environment, obligating all states to collaborate in this matter, as well as placing special obligations on flag states to ensure that ships under their flags adhere to international environmental regulations, often adopted by the IMO. The MARPOL convention is an example of such regulation. Part XII also bestows coastal and port states with broadened jurisdictional rights for enforcing international environmental regulation within their territory and on the high seas.[26]

Biodiversity beyond national jurisdiction

In 2017, the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) voted to convene an intergovernmental conference (IGC) to consider establishing an international legally binding instrument (ILBI) on the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity beyond national jurisdiction (BBNJ). This is considered necessary because UNCLOS does not currently provide a framework for areas beyond national jurisdiction.[27] There is a particular concern for marine biodiversity and the impact of overfishing on global fish stocks and ecosystem stability.[27] The IGC convened a total of four sessions in 2018, 2019, and 2022 to negotiate the text for the BBNJ legal instrument.[28] Progress was made in the four main elements: marine genetic resources (MGRs), benefit sharing using area-based management tools (ABMTs) including marine protected areas (MPAs), environmental impact assessments (EIAs) and capacity building and the transfer of marine technology (CB&TT).[29] A fifth round of talks in August 2022 failed to produce an agreement, due in part to significant disagreements over how to share benefits derived from marine genetic resources and digital sequence information.[30]


  Parties, dually represented by the European Union

The convention was opened for signature on 10 December 1982 and entered into force on 16 November 1994 upon deposition of the 60th instrument of ratification.[1] The convention has been ratified by 168 parties, which includes 164 UN member states, 1 UN Observer state (Palestine) and two associated countries (the Cook Islands and Niue) plus the European Union.[2]


The significance of UNCLOS stems from the fact that it systemizes and codifies the standards and principles of international maritime law, which are based on centuries of maritime experience and are expressed to a great extent in the United Nations Charter and current international maritime law norms, such as the Geneva Conventions of 1958. A large portion of these requirements were further strengthened and expanded.[31]

See also

Further reading


  1. "The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (A historical perspective)". United Nations Division for Ocean Affairs and the Law of the Sea. Retrieved 30 April 2009.
  2. "United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea". United Nations Treaty Series. Retrieved 1 December 2013.
  3. "Chronological lists of ratifications of, accessions and successions to the Convention and the related Agreements". United Nations Division for Ocean Affairs and the Law of the Sea. 8 January 2010. Retrieved 24 February 2010.
  4. Akashi, Kinji (2 October 1998). Cornelius Van Bynkershoek: His Role in the History of International Law. Martinus Nijhoff Publishers. p. 150. ISBN 978-9041105998. Retrieved 12 July 2016.
  5. "The Freedom of the Seas (Latin and English version, Magoffin trans.) – Online Library of Liberty". oll.libertyfund.org. Retrieved 27 January 2017.
  6. "Chapter 1: International Law, Adoption of the Law of the Sea Convention – Law of the Sea". Law of the Sea: A Policy Primer. The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.
  7. Marley, David, 1950- (2011). Modern piracy : a reference handbook. Santa Barbara, Calif.: ABC-CLIO. ISBN 978-1-59884-434-4. OCLC 699488885.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  8. "Three Mile Limit". www.offshoreradiomuseum.co.uk. Archived from the original on 4 November 2020. Retrieved 30 May 2020.
  9. "Three mile limit".
  10. IILSS (25 April 2021). "Table of claims to maritime jurisdiction (as at 15 July 2011)/maritime spaces of countries". IILSS-International institute for Law of the Sea Studies. Retrieved 21 April 2022.
  11. Alexander, Lewis M. (2017). "transit regions of the world". Navigational Restrictions within the New LOS Context. pp. 143–173. doi:10.1163/9789004327115_006. ISBN 9789004327108.
  12. "Chagos: A boundary dispute tips over a sovereignty ruling". www.lowyinstitute.org. Retrieved 10 October 2021.
  13. "Professor Robert Beckman on the Role of UNCLOS in Maritime Disputes". Georgetown Journal of International Affairs. 6 May 2021. Retrieved 10 October 2021.
  14. "Goal 14 targets". UNDP. Archived from the original on 30 September 2020. Retrieved 24 September 2020.
  15. Major Thomas E. Behuniak (Fall 1978). "The Seizure and Recovery of the S.S. Mayaguez: Legal Analysis of United States Claims, Part 1" (PDF). Military Law Review. Department of the Army. 82: 114–121. ISSN 0026-4040. Archived from the original (PDF) on 28 December 2016. Retrieved 21 July 2014.
  16. UNCLOS I
  17. "Three Mile Limit". www.offshoreradiomuseum.co.uk. Archived from the original on 4 November 2020. Retrieved 30 May 2020.
  18. "UNCLOS 3 Article 51". United Nations Division for Ocean Affairs and Law of the Sea. Retrieved 29 March 2016.
  19. "SECTION 4. CONTIGUOUS ZONE, Article 33". UNCLOS PART II – TERRITORIAL SEA AND CONTIGUOUS ZONE. United Nations. Retrieved 19 January 2012.
  20. "Documents and Publications". International Seabed Authority. Archived from the original on 13 May 2008.
  21. Jon Copley (7 November 2020). "Deep-sea mining is making the seabed the hottest real estate on Earth". New Scientist.
  22. Jennifer Frakes, The Common Heritage of Mankind Principle and the Deep Seabed, Outer Space, and Antarctica: Will Developed and Developing Nations Reach a Compromise? Wisconsin International Law Journal. 2003; 21:409
  23. This principle was developed in the Convention on Transit Trade of Land-locked States.
  24. Case No. 17 – Responsibilities and Obligations of States Sponsoring Persons and Entities With Respect to Activities in the Area – Advisory Opinion Archived 27 September 2011 at the Wayback Machine, Seabed Disputes Chamber of the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea (1 February 2011)
  25. International Tribunal on the Law of the Sea Finally Renders Advisory Opinion Establishing that the Precautionary Principle is Incorporated Within UNCLOS Law, ITSSD Journal on the UN Law of the Sea Convention (22 March 2011)
  26. Jesper Jarl Fanø (2019). Enforcing International Maritime Legislation on Air Pollution through UNCLOS. Hart Publishing.
  27. "Governing areas beyond national jurisdiction". IUCN. 29 March 2019. Retrieved 2 June 2022.
  28. "|". www.un.org. Retrieved 11 July 2022.
  29. "Summary report 7–18 March 2022".
  30. Heffernan, Olive. "Who Owns the Ocean's Genes? Tension on the High Seas". Scientific American. Retrieved 24 September 2022.
  31. capt. Enchev, V. (2012), Fundamentals of Maritime Law ISBN 978-954-8991-69-8
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