The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, held in Montego Bay, Jamaica, was adopted in 1982 and put into full force on November 16, 1994. It established rules governing the rights a coastal nation has to the ocean along its coast, as well as establishing rights in international waters.


Beginning in the 17th century, the "freedom-of-the-seas" doctrine limited a nations rights and jurisdiction of the ocean to a traditionally 3-mile stretch of sea surrounding the coastline. The rest of the ocean was considered 'free to all and belonging to none.' Then in the mid 20th century, growing concerns about control of offshore resources such as fish, oil, etc. and fears of pollution led many countries to the conclusion that new rules governing the use of the oceans must be made. The first major challenge to the freedom-of-the-seas doctrine came in 1945 when US President Harry S Truman extended the United States rights to include all resources in the United States' continental shelf. Argentina, Chile, Peru and Ecuador soon followed suit in an attempt to control the depletion of fish stocks.

After WWII, Egypt, Ethiopia, Saudi Arabia, Libya, Venezuela and a few European countries extended the traditional 3-mile zone to 12-miles. Also, several archipelagic nations laid claim to all waters between their islands.

In 1958 the United Nations held Conventions on the Law of the Sea.

  • Convention on the Territorial Sea and the Contiguous Zone, 1958
  • Convention on the High Seas, 1958
  • Convention on Fishing and Conservation of the Living Resources of the High Seas, 1958
  • Convention on the Continental Shelf, 1958
  • Optional Protocol of Signature concerning the Compulsory Settlement of Disputes, 1958
These were insufficient, however, to solve the numerous problems emerging in the 1960s and 1970s. During this time oil exploration was rampant in the oceans, extending further into the ocean than two decades before. Fishing, mining and other industries increased their exploitation of the resources of the world's oceans. Britain, Denmark and Germany had conflicts about how to divide the continental shelf in the North Sea.

In 1967, Arvid Pardo, ambassador to the United Nations for Malta, called for "an effective international regime over the seabed and the ocean floor beyond a clearly defined national jurisdiction...It is the only alternative by which we can hope to avoid the escalating tension that will be inevitable if the present situation is allowed to continue." His request resulted in the Third United Nations Conference on the Law of the Sea held in New York in 1973. It eventually led to a 1982 "constitution" of the sea called the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.

Some key features of the convention:

  • Nations have a right to establish a territorial sea along their coastline up to 12 nautical miles. "Innocent passage" through these waters is allowed to foreign vessels.
  • Ships and aircraft may pass through straits used for international navigation. Such passage may be regulated by the territorial nation.
  • Archipelagic States have control over waters enclosed by straight lines connecting the outermost points of the islands. Foreign vessels may pass through designated sea lanes.
  • In addition to a 12 mile territorial sea, coastal states have rights to an "exclusive economic zone" (EEZ) of 200 nautical miles. In this area they may control resources, economic activities, marine research and environmental protection.
  • Foreign vessels and states may pass through the EEZ as well as lay "submarine cables and pipelines."
  • Landlocked nations are entitled to partake in a portion of the surplus living resources in the EEZ with nations in the same region.
  • Nations have the rights to the continental shelf to 200 miles.
  • Resources exploited from the continental shelf more than 200 miles offshore must be shared internationally.
  • All states have the traditional rights of navigation, overflight, scientific research and fishing on the high seas.
  • Landlocked states have the right to free passage to and from the sea.
  • States must prevent and control marine pollution.
  • A coastal state must grant another state permission to do research in the EEZ as long as the research is for peaceful purposes.
  • Disputes that arise must be resolved peacefully according to the rules of the convention regarding disputes.
  • Disputes may be submitted to the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea

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