10 December 1982
16 November 1994
Montego Bay, Jamaica
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 the international agreement that resulted from the third United Nations Conference on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS III), which took place between 1973 and 1982. The Law of the Sea Convention defines the rights and responsibilities of nations with respect to their use of the world's oceans, establishing guidelines for businesses, the environment, and the management of marine natural resources. The Convention, concluded in 1982, replaced four 1958 treaties. UNCLOS came into force in 1994, a year after Guyana became the 60th nation to ratify the treaty. As of June 2016, 167 countries and the European Union have joined in the Convention. 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 UN has no direct operational role in the implementation of the Convention. There is, however, a role played by organizations such as the International Maritime Organization, the International Whaling Commission, and the International Seabed Authority (ISA). (The ISA was established by the UN Convention.)
UNCLOS replaces 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 3 nautical miles (5.6 km) (Three-mile limit), according to the 'cannon shot' rule developed by the Dutch jurist Cornelius van Bynkershoek. All waters beyond national boundaries were considered international waters: free to all nations, but belonging to none of them (the mare liberum principle promulgated by Hugo Grotius).
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.) 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) to cover their Humboldt Current fishing grounds. Other nations extended their territorial seas to 12 nautical miles (22 km).
By 1967, only 25 nations still used the old 3-mile (4.8 km) limit, while 66 nations had set a 12-nautical-mile (22 km) territorial limit and eight had set a 200-nautical-mile (370 km) limit. As of 28 May 2008, only two countries still use the 3-mile (4.8 km) limit: Jordan and Palau. 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 Anguilla.
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:
Although UNCLOS I was considered a success, it left open the important issue of breadth of territorial waters.
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. 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.
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 was 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:
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.
Landlocked states are given a right of access to and from the sea, without taxation of traffic through transit states.
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 EEZ (Exclusive Economic Zones). 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 Socialism and the fall of Communism in the late 1980s had removed much of the support for some of the more contentious Part XI provisions.
In 1990, consultations were begun 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. 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 Republics of Nauru and 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.
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. The convention has been ratified by 168 parties, which includes 167 states (164 member states of the United Nations plus the UN Observer state Palestine, as well as the Cook Islands, Niue and the European Union).