UNCLOS, shortform of the treaty, has been around since 1994 (though published in 1982), when, after almost twenty years of effort, a United Nations committee managed to codify four existing international shipping and maritime law treaties into one.

Lawyers have different names for the treaty, some referring to it as the Law of the Sea or the Law of the Sea Treaty; others referring to it as the Law of the Sea Convention or even UNCLOS.

Necessity has been the mother of invention when it comes to UNCLOS. As the Foundation for the Law of the Sea writes in one of it's publications:

"Some 71% of the earth’s surface is covered by sea. At present almost 50,000 merchant vessels with a capacity of over 762,000,000 tonnes ply the oceans, transporting over 5,000,000,000 tonnes of cargo, which accounts for about 90% of global trade. Worldwide an average of 16% of the animal protein we consume is in the form of fish. 30,000 fishermen catch some 120,000,000 tonnes of marine creatures annually.... (A) quarter of the earth’s entire oil and gas requirements is met by exploiting seabed deposits."

UNCLOS starts of with an attempt to define the open ocean (called high seas) by a statement of uniform coastal limits:

"The sovereignty of a coastal State extends, beyond its land territory and internal waters and, in the case of an archipelagic State, its archipelagic waters, to an adjacent belt of sea, described as the territorial sea....

"Every State has the right to establish the breadth of its territorial sea up to a limit not exceeding 12 nautical miles, measured from baselines determined in accordance with this Convention. The outer limit of the territorial sea is the line every point of which is at a distance from the nearest point of the baseline equal to the breadth of the territorial sea."

high seas paintingThe treaty also defines bays and harbours and all other natural or man-made adjustments to the 12-mile territorial waters, adding that:

"Subject to this Convention, ships of all States, whether coastal or land-locked, enjoy the right of innocent passage through the territorial sea.


"The coastal State shall not hamper the innocent passage of foreign ships through the territorial sea except in accordance with this Convention. In particular, in the application of this Convention or of any laws or regulations adopted in conformity with this Convention, the coastal State shall not impose requirements on foreign ships which have the practical effect of denying or impairing the right of innocent passage, or discriminate in form or in fact against the ships of any State or against ships carrying cargoes to, from or on behalf of any State. 

"The coastal State shall give appropriate publicity to any danger to navigation, of which it has knowledge, within its territorial sea.

"In the territorial sea, submarines and other underwater vehicles are required to navigate on the surface and to show their flag."

But beyond the territorial waters, the Convention recognizes a much larger "economic zone" as well as further rights in regards to any continental shelf that may extend from the coastal state.

The rights associated with the high seas are set out as follows:

"The high seas shall be reserved for peaceful purposes. No State may validly purport to subject any part of the high seas to its sovereignty.


"The high seas are open to all States, whether coastal or land-locked. Freedom of the high seas is exercised under the conditions laid down by this Convention and by other rules of international law. It comprises, inter alia, both for coastal and land-locked States freedom of navigation, freedom of overflight, freedom to lay submarine cables and pipelines, freedom to construct artificial islands and other installations permitted under international law, freedom of fishing, (and) freedom of scientific research.

"Ships shall sail under the flag of one State only and, save in exceptional cases expressly provided for in international treaties or in this Convention, shall be subject to its exclusive jurisdiction on the high seas.

"Every State shall require the master of a ship flying its flag, in so far as he can do so without serious danger to the ship, the crew or the passengers to render assistance to any person found at sea in danger of being lost, to proceed with all possible speed to the rescue of persons in distress, if informed of their need of assistance, in so far as such action may reasonably be expected of him, and after a collision, to render assistance to the other ship, its crew and its passengers and, where possible, to inform the other ship of the name of his own ship, its port of registry and the nearest port at which it will call."

UNCLOS also houses the international definition of marine pollution, at §1.4:

"... the introduction by man, directly or indirectly, of substances or energy into the marine environment, including estuaries, which results or is likely to result in such deleterious effects as harm to living resources and marine life, hazards to human health, hindrance to marine activities, including fishing and other legitimate uses of the sea, impairment of quality for use of sea water and reduction of amenities."


The Convention remains highly ambitious and has met with a resounding level of acceptance by the international community. 154 states have endorsed it as has the European Community.

It has spawned others like the Convention for the Suppression of Unlawful Acts against the Safety of Maritime Navigation (1988), the Protocol to the Convention for the Suppression of Unlawful Acts against the Safety of Maritime Navigation (2005)

Notably, the US, Peru, Syria, Turkey and Israel have not as yet endorsed the Convention (October 2008).

Other provisions deal with seabed rights and all sorts of duties and rights of mariners in regards to shipping and other commercial exploitation of the open ocean and waters giving access to the ocean, which the Convention calls the high seas.

Since 1996, the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea has been sitting in Hamburg, Germany to hear disputes under the Convention.