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.

West's Encyclopedia of American Law, edition 2. Copyright 2008 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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).
The Republic of Cyprus has no doubts about its legal rights but, if Turkey has claims to the same, the way to advance these claims is not through threats and acts of gunboat diplomacy, but through negotiations, failing which, through third party settlement, procedures are available through the International Court of Justice (ICJ) or arbitration (ITLOS, the Law of the Sea Tribunal in Hamburg, which is not available since Turkey is a non-party to UNCLOS).
Turkey, it has also been noted, is the sole country that votes every year against the Omnibus Resolution of the Law of the Sea item in the General Assembly of the United Nations.
They have also stressed that Turkey cannot selectively refer to the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, a Convention to which it has chosen not to be a signatory.
CONVENTIONbrThe area in contest is about 100,000 square kilometres and there are six oil blocks, which Somalia argues Kenya has awarded contracts to foreign prospecting firms for even though they "lie entirely or predominantly on the Somali side".Somalia is basing its arguments on Articles 15, 74 and 83 of the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, which both countries ratified in 1989.But Kenya submits that the maritime border with Somalia is as was decreed in the Presidential Proclamation of 1979.
Controversial as the idea was at the time, Indonesia stuck with it despite strong international opposition which led to the defeat of the archipelago concept at the 1958 Geneva Conference on the Law of the Sea (p.
New York: Oman has submitted a formal application to extend its continental shelf to the United Nations Division for Ocean Affairs and Law of the Sea. The Sultanate's Permanent Representative to the UN, Ambassador Shaikh Khalifa bin Ali Al Harthy, submitted the application on behalf of the government on October 26.
An EEZ is a concept adopted at the Third United Nations Conference on the Law of the Sea (1982) whereby a coastal State assumes jurisdiction over the exploration and exploitation of marine resources within 200 miles from its shore.
New Delhi [India], June 15 ( ANI ): Neeru Chadha has been elected as the first Indian woman member of the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea (ITLOS), a top body which adjudicates cases related to the international law of the seas.
May 6, 2017 (KHARTOUM) - A Sudanese expert on international law and border disputes Saturday has strongly contested Sudan's ability to take Egypt to International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea (ITLOS) over the disputed Halayeb area.
Speaking at a special UN General Assembly session on "Ocean and Law of the Sea", the Third Secretary Bashar Al-Muwaizri urged the optimal use of modern technology to make the best use of marine resources and secure the sustainability of marine environment.
The newspaper said that assessment in New Delhi is that a proposed $ 4-billion deep-sea gas pipeline from Oman and Iran "would run into a diplomatic roadblock" following the March 19 decision by he United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) in favour of Pakistan.