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United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea

Category: Event
Date: 10 December 1982
Sub Category:Convention
Subject Matter: | Economic Development | Environmental Heritage | Mining and Minerals | Research | Fishing | Law - Policy and Justice | Marine
Summary Information:
The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (the Convention) was adopted in Montego Bay on 10 December 1982. This followed nine years of negotiations between 160 sovereign states following upon the Third United Nations Conference on the Law of the Sea convened in New York in 1973. The Convention is an attempt by nations to regulate and bring stability to the use of all resources of the sea and seabed beyond the limits of national jurisdiction. The Convention came into force on 16 November 1994.

The preamble to the Convention states that the '...Convention will contribute to the strengthening of peace, security, co-operation and friendly relations among all nations in conformity with the principles of justice and equal rights and will promote the economic and social advancement of all peoples of the world, in accordance with the Purposes and Principles of the United Nations...'.

The more important features of the Convention cover the issues of navigational rights, territorial sea limits, economic jurisdiction, legal status of resources on the seabed beyond the limits of national jurisdiction, passage of ships through narrow straits, conservation and management of living marine resources, protection of the marine environment, a marine research regime and a binding procedure for settlement of disputes between nations.

The Convention was adopted as a 'Package deal', to be accepted as a whole in all its parts without reservation on any aspect. A government signing the Convention undertakes not to take any action that might defeat the Convention's objects and purposes and by ratification of, or accession to, the Convention, consents to be bound by its provisions.
Detailed Information:
Some of the main features of the Convention are as follows:

  • Territorial sea limits:
    A coastal state has the right to complete control over a belt of water along its shoreline, called its 'territorial sea'. The breadth of a state's territorial waters is limited by the Convention and is not to exceed 12 nautical miles (Part I, Section 2, Article 3).

  • Navigational rights
    Under Part I, Section 3, Article 17, ships of all states enjoy the right of 'innocent passage' through the territorial waters of coastal states. By Article 19, passage is innocent 'so long as it is not prejudicial to the peace, good order or security of the coastal State'.

    As well as the right of 'innocent passage' the Convention gives the right of 'transit passage' (Part III, Section 2, Article 38) for ships wishing to navigate through narrow straits (such as the Strait of Gibraltar being 8 miles wide and which is the only open access to the Mediterranean Sea). In such circumstances the right of 'innocent passage' over the territorial seas of coastal states does not give some powers the same unimpeded navigational access as they enjoy in the open seas. The right of 'transit passage' was a compromise between the right of 'innocent passage' and the freedom to navigate the open seas.

  • Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) (Part V)
    Under Part V, Article 56, para 1(a) a coastal state has sovereign rights for a distance of up to 200 nautical miles from its coastline 'for the purpose of exploring and exploiting, conserving and managing the natural resources, whether living or non-living, of the waters superjacent to the sea-bed and of the sea-bed and its subsoil, and with regard to other activities for the economic exploitation and exploration of the zone, such as the production of energy from the water, currents and winds'.

    The Convention contains provisions for the protection and exploitation of living resources within the EEZ.

    Where opposite or adjacent coastal states disagree in connection with the delimitation of their exclusive economic zones, Article 74 provides that 'The delimitation of the exclusive economic zone ... shall be effected by agreement on the basis of international law, as referred to in Article 38 of the Statute of the International Court of Justice...'.The Convention contains further provision for the settling of disputes where agreement cannot be reached.

    By Article 74 para 3 the Convention provides that 'Pending agreement ... the States concerned, in a spirit of understanding and co-operation, shall make every effort to enter into provisional arrangements of a practical nature and, during this transitional period, not to jeopardise or hamper the reaching of the final agreement. Such arrangements shall be without prejudice to the final delimitation.'

  • Continental shelf
    Part VI of the Convention basically sets the 200km EEC zone as the limit of the continental shelf of a coastal state. Article 76 para 1 states: 'The continental shelf of a coastal State comprises the sea-bed and subsoil of the submarine areas that extend beyond its territorial sea throughout the natural prolongation of its land territory to the outer edge of the continental margin, or to a distance of 200 nautical miles from the baselines from which the breadth of the territorial sea is measured where the outer edge of the continental margin does not extend up to that distance.'

    Where the continental shelf of a coastal state extends beyond 200 nautical miles, the extent of its shelf is limited to a distance of 350 nautical miles depending on various factors, such as the thickness of sedimentary deposits.

  • Area outside the jurisdiction of coastal states
    In Part XI, the Convention sets out provisions for the protection of, and exploitation of resources within, the seabed, ocean floor and subsoil 'beyond the limits of national jurisdiction' called 'the Area'.

    Article 136 states: 'The Area and its resources are the common heritage of mankind.'

    The Convention makes provision, in the Area, for marine scientific research; protection of the marine environment; protection of human life; regard for other activities; archaeological and historical objects; the development of resources; the formation of an International Sea-Bed Authority under which 'activities in the Area shall be organized, carried out and controlled' (Article 153 para 1); and the settlement of disputes by way of a Sea-Bed Disputes Chamber, being part of an International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea (set up under the Convention).

  • Protection and preservation of the marine environment
    Under Part XII, Article 192, states have an obligation to protect and preserve the marine environment and shall cooperate on a global basis for such protection (Article 197).

  • Marine Scientific Research
    Under Part XIII, Article 238 'All States, irrespective of their geographical location, and competent international organizations have the right to conduct marine scientific research subject to the rights and duties of other States' and 'States and competent international organizations shall promote and facilitate the development and conduct of marine scientific research' (Article 239). Article 240 sets out the general principles governing the conduct of marine scientific research.

  • Settlement of disputes
    Part XV of the Convention deals with the settling of disputes between nations concerning the interpretation or application of the Convention. States may settle a dispute by 'any peaceful means of their own choice' (Article 280), but if unable to do so may chose other means. Where a dispute is not capable of amicable resolution between the parties, the parties may have the matter dealt, amongst other means, by the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea (set up under the Convention) or the International Court of Justice Article 287).

  • Related Entries

  • TIMOR GAP TREATY between Australia and the Republic of Indonesia on the Zone of cooperation in an area between the Indonesian Province of East Timor and Northern Australia
  • Timor Sea Treaty
  • Agreement between the Government of Australia and the Government of the Democratic Republic of Timor-Leste relating to the Unitisation of the Sunrise and Troubadour fields
  • Treaty between the Government of Australia and the Government of the Republic of Indonesia establishing an Exclusive Economic Zone Boundary and Certain Seabed Boundaries

  • References

    Book Chapter
    Gillian Triggs (2004) Creative Conflict Resolution: The Timor Sea Treaty between Australia and East Timor
    Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (1982) United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea
    Dean Bialek The New Timor Sea Treaty (TST)
    (2002) Timor Sea Treaty between the Government of East timor and the government of Australia
    Australian Government Publishing Service (1995) Treaty between Australia and the Republic of Indonesia on the Zone of Cooperation in an Area between the Indonesian Province of East Timor and Northern Australia [Timor Gap Treaty]


    International Convention

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