United Nations Convention on the

Law of the sea

"an effective international regime over the seabed and the ocean floor beyond a clearly defined national jurisdiction"

- Arvid Pardo

What is UNCLOS

United Nations Convention for the Law of the Sea or the UNCLOS is an international agreement defining the international guidelines for maritime rights and responsibilities of nations.

Till now it has met three times

  • UNCLOS I - 1956

  • UNCLOS II - 1960

  • UNCLOS III - 1973

Mare Liberum

Commeandi Commercandique Libertas

by Hugo Grotius

Hugo Grotius (1583-1645) famously known as 'De Groot' in his work 'Mare Liberum' (1609) formulated the new principle that the sea was international territory and all nations were free to use it for seafaring trade.

Hugo a young self taught advocate in his late twenties caused upheaval of global proportions with his work 'Mare Liberum'.

'Mare Liberum' mainly addressed two ongoing political debates at international level.

'The first was the relationship between the United Provinces and the Spanish monarchy, from which the Dutch had broken away in 1581; the second was the Dutch right to commercial penetration in Southeast Asia. ' (Haakonssen, 2004)

The book was seen by the English and the Scottish as a direct attack on their territorial rights. It was written as a defense draft for Dutch seizure of a Portuguese vessel in the Straits of Singapore in February 1603.

Grotius defended the Dutch seizure of the Sta. Catarina on the basis of a set of natural laws, which he derived originally from the divine will. The two primary laws of nature were self-defense and self-preservation.

He defined self-preservation as acquiring and retaining anything useful for life, a process which assumed that God had bestowed the gifts of his creation upon all human beings collectively but on none particularly: Only through physical seizure (possessio) leading to use (usus) could ownership (dominium) be derived. Two further laws, of inoffensiveness (harm no one) and abstinence (do not seize the possessions of others), set limits to these primary laws; from these followed two further laws of justice: that evil deeds should be punished and that good deeds should be rewarded (De Jure Praedae, pp. 8, 10, 11, 13, 15).

He argued that God had created the world in common for all humanity but that property could be acquired through human “labor and industry,” subject to two of the primary natural laws he had set down in De Jure Praedae: “that all surely might use common things without the damage of all and, for the rest, every man contented with his portion shall abstain from another’s” (The Free Sea, p. 6, below).

Freedom of navigation and trade (commeandi commercandique libertas) exemplified those principles, whether applied to particular communities or to the universal society of humanity.

His broader framing of the argument also ensured that Mare Liberum would be understood as a general statement of the right to freedom of trade and navigation. In this way, it sparked a wider and more enduring controversy regarding the foundations of international relations, the limits of national sovereignty, and the relationship between sovereignty (imperium) and possession (dominium) that would guarantee its lasting fame and notoriety.

Hugo Grotius

UNCLOS

Father of modern 'Law of the Sea Conference'

Arvid Pardo (February 12, 1914 – June 19, 1999) was a Maltese and Swedish diplomat, scholar, and university professor. He is known as the "Father of the Law of the Sea Conference".

A Historical Perspective

'The oceans had long been subject to the freedom of-the-seas doctrine - a principle put forth in the seventeenth century essentially limiting national rights and jurisdiction over the oceans to a narrow belt of sea surrounding a nation's coastline. The remainder of the seas was proclaimed to be free to all and belonging to none. While this situation prevailed into the twentieth century, by mid-century there was an impetus to extend national claims over offshore resources. There was growing concern over the toll taken on coastal fish stocks by long-distance fishing fleets and over the threat of pollution and wastes from transport ships and oil tankers carrying noxious cargoes that plied sea routes across the globe. The hazard of pollution was ever present, threatening coastal resorts and all forms of ocean life. The navies of the maritime powers were competing to maintain a presence across the globe on the surface waters and even under the sea.

A tangle of claims, spreading pollution, competing demands for lucrative fish stocks in coastal waters and adjacent seas, growing tension between coastal nations' rights to these resources and those of distant-water fishermen, the prospects of a rich harvest of resources on the sea floor, the increased presence of maritime powers and the pressures of long-distance navigation and a seemingly outdated, if not inherently conflicting, freedom-of-the-seas doctrine - all these were threatening to transform the oceans into another arena for conflict and instability.'

Source: www.un.org


Why was it formed?

In 1945, President Harry S Truman, responding in part to pressure from domestic oil interests, unilaterally extended United States jurisdiction over all natural resources on that nation's continental shelf - oil, gas, minerals, etc. This was the first major challenge to the freedom-of-the-seas doctrine. Other nations soon followed suit.

In October 1946, Argentina claimed its shelf and the epicontinental sea above it. Chile and Peru in 1947, and Ecuador in 1950, asserted sovereign rights over a 200-mile zone, hoping thereby to limit the access of distant-water fishing fleets and to control the depletion of fish stocks in their adjacent seas.

Soon after the Second World War, Egypt, Ethiopia, Saudi Arabia, Libya, Venezuela and some Eastern European countries laid claim to a 12-mile territorial sea, thus clearly departing from the traditional three-mile limit.

Later, the archipelagic nation of Indonesia asserted the right to dominion over the water that separated its 13,000 islands. The Philippines did likewise. In 1970, Canada asserted the right to regulate navigation in an area extending for 100 miles from its shores in order to protect Arctic water against pollution.


The oceans were generating a multitude of claims, counterclaims and sovereignty disputes.

The hope was for a more stable order, promoting greater use and better management of ocean resources and generating harmony and goodwill among States that would no longer have to eye each other suspiciously over conflicting claims.

Key Provisions

  • Setting the Limits

  • Navigation

  • Exclusive Economic Zones

  • Continental Shelf

  • Deep Seabed Mining

  • The Exploitation Regime

  • Technological Prospects

  • The Question of Universal Participation in the Convention

  • Pioneer Investor

  • Protection of the Marine Environment

  • Marine Scientific Research

  • Settlement Dispute

External Resources

Maritime jurisdiction and boundary Maps of the Arctic ocean

Detailed maps of Arctic claims published by IBRU: Centers for Borders Research, Department of Geography, Durham University, UK

Full Document: Third United Nations Conference on the Law of the Sea, 10 December 1982