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UNCLOS (United Nations Convention on Law of Seas)

  • Nigam Anand 
  • 4 min read

A commercial ship, fishing boat, or oil rigs operating at high seas follow the “Law of Seas” in the international waters known as UNCLOS. It defines the rights and responsibilities of nations in respect of their use of all the oceans. It further establishes the guidelines for businesses and the environment and manages the marine natural resources.

UNCLOS (United Nations Convention on Law of Seas)

UNCLOS basics:

  • The first conference to negotiate convention text was held in 1973.
  • Signed at Montego Bay, Jamaica, on 10 December 1982.
  • In force from 16 November 1994(Article 306).
  • 166 parties(not including the USA)
  • Secretariat at UN in New York.
  • Meetings of States Parties to the UNCLOS(i.e. COPs) occur annually.

UNCLOS structure:

320 articles are  divided into 27 parts plus 9 annexes. Parts most important to environmental management are:

PART I: territorial sea and contiguous zone

PART V: Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ)

PART VI: continental shelf

PART VII: high seas(section 2- conservation)

PART XI: seabed and ocean floor (‘the area’)

PART XII: protection and preservation of the marine environment.

What does UNCLOS include?

UNCLOS includes rules for coastal states on:

  • Territorial sea and innocent passage
  • Foreign commercial shipping
  • Contiguous (customs) zone
  • Exclusive economic zone(200 nautical miles)
  • Continental shelf

Special rules on:

  • State of archipelagos.
  • Guarantees of navigation, through international straits.
  • Rights of access to the sea for landlocked states.

And rules on:

  • Use of high-seas (including fishing and conservation)
  • Marine pollution from shipping and land.
  • Marine scientific research
  • Dispute resolution.

Why UNCLOS is necessary?


  • To avoid maritime conflict w.r.t.
  • Boundary disputes
  • For the land-locked countries to have their rights to access to seas.

 Economic usage of marine resources

Maritime Zones
Maritime Zones

From the projecting part of the land to 12 nautical miles, we have the territorial sea. It is also known as National Airspace; it means that within this region, we can deploy our Navy, custom excise, etc.

Let us understand the difference between Territorial sea and Contiguous zone:

Whenever in a continent, there are large no. of states, they have a 12 n.m. limit. That means, up to this limit they have their exclusive territorial zone. But when we talk about Australia or the western coast of Australia in particular, there is an absence of any countries or islands. As a result, their range extends up to 25 nautical miles. In the case of India, it is 12 n.m.

Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ)

It gives the country, the right to exploit the resources over there, it can be both biotic and abiotic. If any other country wants to do some activity in the region, they have to take permission from the Seabed Authority.

High Seas

It is an open area, where any country can carry out activities or exploit the resources without any permission.

Why did the US not sign the UNCLOS?

Three countries: Egypt, Sudan, USA did sign UNCLOS but have not ratified the treaty.

According to the US, the UNCLOS  was not favorable to their economy and the treaty was not friendly to free-market. Also, there was opposition from the Republicans in the Senate, where treaties must be passed by two-thirds of the vote.

Was UNCLOS successful?

Even though there are many advantages of UNCLOS, but some major flaws that it is unable to explain are:

  • Deprivation of Land-Locked countries: Land-locked nations have been given the right of access to the sea. But it largely depends on their relationship with the transit state.
  • EEZ conflict: The EEZ(Exclusive Economic Zone) concept is not able to resolve conflicts where the border(200nm) coincided.
  • Non-adherence to UNCLOS norms. Eg: Chinese expansion in the South China Sea.
  • Maritime Pollution: Marine pollution is extensive, i.e. it ranges from territorial zone up to the high sea but UNCLOS remains quiet about the responsibility of pollution.
  • Indiscriminate usage of biotic resources.

Panama Canal Locking System

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