Law of the Sea

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Related to Law of the Sea: maritime law, UNCLOS

Law of the Sea

The part of public International Law that deals with maritime issues.

The term law of the sea appears similar to the term maritime law, but it has a significantly different meaning. Maritime law deals with Jurisprudence that governs ships and shipping, and is concerned with contracts, torts, and other issues involving private shipping, whereas the law of the sea refers to matters of public international law.

Many topics are contained within the law of-the-sea concept. These include the definition of a state's Territorial Waters, the right of states to fish the oceans and to mine underneath the oceans, and the rights of states to control navigation.

The area outside a state's territorial waters, commonly known as the high seas, was traditionally governed by the principle of freedom of the seas. On the one hand, this meant freedom for fishing, commercial navigation, travel, and migration by both ships and aircraft; freedom for improvement in communication and supply by the laying of submarine cables and pipelines; and freedom for oceanographic research. On the other hand, it meant freedom for naval and aerial warfare, including interference with neutral commerce; freedom for military installations; and freedom to use the oceans as a place to dump wastes. Until World War II, these freedoms continued to be applied to the oceans and airspace outside the states' three-mile territorial limit, with little regulation of abuses other than what could be found in the customary regulations of warfare and neutrality.

Since the 1950s the United Nations has attempted to convince the nations of the world to agree to a set of rules that will govern the law of the sea. The First U.N. Conference on the Law of the Sea, which was held in Geneva in 1958, led to the Codification of four treaties that dealt with some areas of the law of the sea. In the 1970s the Third U.N. Conference on the Law of the Sea began its work. The conference labored for more than ten years on a comprehensive treaty that would codify international law concerning territorial waters, sea lanes, and ocean resources.

On December 10, 1982, 117 nations signed the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, in Montego Bay, Jamaica. The convention originally was not signed by the United States, the United Kingdom, and 28 other nations, because of objections to provisions for seabed mining, which they believe would inhibit commercial development.

The convention, which went into effect November 16, 1994, claims the minerals on the ocean floor beneath the high seas as "the common heritage of mankind." The exploitation of minerals is to be governed by global rather than national authority. Production ceilings have been set to prevent economic harm to land-based producers of the same minerals. There have been continuing negotiations with the United States and other nations to resolve this issue, which is the only serious obstacle to universal acceptance of the treaty. A 1994 agreement amended the mining provisions, which led the United States to submit the treaty to the U.S. Senate for ratification. Despite this amendment and pressure to sign the treaty, the U.S. Senate has not ratified the amendment or the Constitution. As of August 2003, a total of 143 nations had signed the treaty, including the United Kingdom in 1997.

A major change under the convention is its extension of a state's territorial waters from 3 to 12 nautical miles. Foreign commercial vessels are granted the right of innocent passage through the 12-mile zone. Beyond the zone all vessels and aircraft may proceed freely. Coastal nations are granted exclusive rights to the fish and marine life in waters extending 200 nautical miles from shore. Every nation that has a continental shelf is granted exclusive rights to the oil, gas, and other resources in the shelf up to 200 miles from shore.

Any legal disputes concerning the treaty and its provisions may be adjudicated by the new Tribunal for the Law of the Sea, by Arbitration, or by the International Court of Justice.

Further readings

Buck, Eugene H. 1996. United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea: Living Resources Provisions. CRS Report. Available online at <> (accessed August 5, 2003).

Garmon, Tina. 2002. "International Law of the Sea: Reconciling the Law of Piracy and Terrorism In the Wake of September 11." Tulane Maritime Law Journal 27 (winter): 257-275.

United Nations Division for Ocean Affairs and the Law of the Sea. Available online at <> (accessed August 5, 2003).


Admiralty and Maritime Law; Environmental Law; Fish and Fishing; Mine and Mineral Law; Navigable Waters; Pollution.

References in periodicals archive ?
We have not been conscientious in assuring that we protect our basic archipelago," stated Mendoza, the only delegate who was able to attend all ten sessions of the Third United Nation Conference on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS III).
Senate not ratified the Law of the Sea Treaty as of press time?
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Today the UN awards an annual scholarship on the Law of the Sea in memory of Shirley Amerasingha.
There could be no more fitting way to commemorate World Oceans Day than for all countries that have not yet done so to ratify the Convention on the Law of the Sea.
The Law of the Sea treat has split Republicans, with pro-business forces in the party strongly backing ratification and tea party conservatives making arguments that are, as Hillary Clinton rightly observed, driven by "ideology and mythology.
But this agreement is known as LOST - the Law of the Sea Treaty - for good reason.
The Importance of Maritime Power and the Law of the Sea
Tanaka explains that the law of maritime delimitation plays an important role in the international law of the sea: the extent of legal rights is determined by the law of the sea with a certain degree of precision, and the international law of the sea regulates human activities in the ocean according to the legal category of ocean spaces.
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Possibly for the wrong reasons--the planting of a Russian flag on the seabed at the North Pole in 2007 and the upsurge starting at about the same time in piracy off the coasts of Somalia, neither of which is evidence of any inadequacy in the existing law--interest in the Law of the Sea among non-specialists in the subject is perking up significantly for the first time since several of its longstanding problems were apparently 'solved' with the adoption in 1982 of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).
On December 10, 1982, the final text of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea ("UNCLOS") was presented for signature in Montego Bay, Jamaica and was signed that day by over 115 countries.