American Oceans

What Is The Law Of The Sea Treaty?

The law of the sea refers to any customs, treaties and international agreements by which governments across the world follow in order to maintain peace, order and productivity at sea. 

Law of the sea scroll with seal stamps

The treaty is a branch of international law that concerns public order at sea, and is often described as a “constitution for the oceans”. This treaty lists laws that regard territorial waters, sea-lanes, and ocean resources on an international level. 

In 1982, there was a convention held in Montego Bay, Jamaica, which resulted in the 1982 Law of the Sea Convention (LOSC) which outlined a set of rules to be followed at sea.

According to the LOSC, each country’s sovereign territorial waters extends to a maximum of 12 nautical miles (22 km) beyond its coast. Foreign vessels are granted ‘innocent passage’ through this zone, as long as they aren’t engaging in any prohibited activities.

map of the world and oceans

These include spying, weapons testing, scientific research, pollution, smuggling, weapons testing and fishing. 

The 1982 convention also states that every coastal country has the right to establish an Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) which extends 200 nautical miles (370 km) from shore.

An EEZ allows coastal states to exploit and regulate fisheries (commercial fishing), erect artificial islands and use the zone for other economic purposes. For instance they can use the water to generate renewable energy.

In addition, they also have the right to regulate any scientific research which is carried out by foreign vessels. 

How many countries signed the Law of the Sea?

After the 1982 Montego Bay convention, 117 States signed the treaty which came into force in 1994. Since then 168 States have signed the Law of the Sea Treaty.

Amongst the States that have not signed the treaty, the most notable are Israel, Turkey, Venezuela and the United States of America. 

ocean waves

In addition, 14 UN member states have signed the agreement, but have not ratified (given formal consent) the convention.

It’s also worth noting that although individual countries like France and Italy have ratified the convention, the European Union as a UN member state has also signed and ratified the treaty (any country that is a member of the EU must abide by the Law of the Sea).

Is UNCLOS a treaty?

UNCLOS is the acronym for the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. 

Back in 1956 the United Nations (UN) held its first conference on the Law of the Sea. There was a UN convention in 1958, and again in 1982 in Jamaica.

tanker at sunset in the sea

The 1982 treaty became ratified (officially valid) in 1994 when it received the required number of signatures needed from different countries and states. 

Like stated above, UNCLOS is considered the “constitution of the oceans”, and is a means of establishing international laws that must be followed by all participating states/countries at sea. 

What is the purpose of UNCLOS?

UNCLOS was created to provide an international agreement that would regulate the uses of the seas and oceans by individual states.

illustration of what UNCLOS aggrement is
Vector schematic map of the sea areas in international rights. (Top view).

The treaty covers shipping, marine research, utilisation of resources, limits military/naval operations and the avoidance of marine pollution.

The Convention divides the sea into separate zones:

  • Territorial Sea: area of ocean which extends 12 nautical miles out to sea from a coastal region. The coastal State has full control over this area. 
  • Contiguous Zone: This extends to a maximum of 24 nautical miles from the coast. Coastal states can prevent or punish anyone breaking any of the customs, immigration, fiscal or sanitary laws in their territory.
  • Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ): This extends to a maximum of 200 nautical miles away from the coastline. This grants the coastal State rights of exploration, exploitation and management of natural resources found both in the water and on the seabed. Not only do States have rights to protect and preserve marine life, they also have the right to install any structures at sea. However, the EEZ is not a geographical area that naturally belongs to the states. Instead, it must be declared by the State in order to be legally recognized as belonging to the State. Not all coastal States have declared an EEZ.
  • Continental Shelf: This covers anything on the seabed that extends beyond a State’s Territorial Sea that is connected to their land territory underwater. The breadth can vary from State to State, but is usually limited to 350 nautical miles away from the coastline. This gives a State the right to explore and exploit any natural resources found on the seabed/subsoil of the Continental Shelf. This includes both mineral and non-living resources, as well as living organisms. According to UNCLOS, States are permitted to lay pipelines on the Continental Shelf in order to explore/exploit their natural resources. 
  • High Seas: Beyond the EEZ and Continental Shelf, the Convention recognizes a zone known as the High Seas. This is an area in which all States can enjoy the freedom of fishing. However, this freedom is limited by conservation of living resources, and prohibits exploitation of the ocean floor. No one state can claim rights to the sea in this zone as it is stated as a “common heritage of mankind.”

In addition, UNCLOS contains explicit provisions that are in place to protect the marine environment.

This means that each State is obliged to protect and preserve the marine environment in their Territorial Zone which includes preventing and reducing any pollution. 

Did the US sign the Law of the Sea Treaty?

When the treaty was originally signed in 1982, the Reagan administration refused to sign due to disagreements regarding deep seabed mining. Similarly, when UNCLOS was revised in 1994, the Senate refused to hold hearings regarding the matter. 

In 2004, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee recommended that the US government adopt the treaty, however, no further action was taken by the Senate.

Opponents of the Convention stated that they were hesitant to sign as the US was not prepared to give up any of its sovereignty. 

Although UNCLOS has been discussed numerous times within the Senate, it has not once achieved a two-thirds’ vote needed to approve it. 

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