Nautical Law: What is UNCLOS?

UNCLOS is an acronym for the United Nations Convention for the Law of the Sea. The convention is sometimes referred to as the Law of the Sea Convention or the Law of the Sea treaty.

As an international law of the sea, UNCLOS came into operation and became effective on 16th November 1982, which defines maritime zones. There are many provisions of the convention which regulate and control the functioning and claims of nations on the world’s oceans and seas.

Its legal framework and regulations are essential for the marine sector and maritime activities.

However, the first time such a proposal was announced before the United Nations was in 1973. Over nine years, with representations from over 160 countries coming forward, UNCLOS came into existence.

The background of UNCLOS can be explained in detail as follows:


Before the nautical law of UNCLOS came into force, there existed a school of thought known as freedom-of-the-seas. This doctrine had first come into operation during the 17th century.

As per this law, there were no limits or boundaries set to the aspect of marine business and commercial activities.

Over the years and centuries, a problem emerged as technology developed and the needs of the people across the world grew. Over-exploitation of the sea’s resources was immensely felt towards the middle of the 20th century, and many nations started feeling the need to protect their marine resources.

Starting with the United States in 1945, many countries across the world brought the natural resources found on their oceans’ continental shelves under their jurisdiction.

The UNCLOS defines the territorial sea as the 12-nautical mile area from the low-waterline along the coast. The coastal states’ sovereignty spans the territorial sea, seafloor, and subsoil. Article 56 of UNCLOS defines parameters for establishing a nation’s exclusive economic zone/ EEZ, which extends 200 nautical miles from that nation’s coastline.

The article offers sovereign rights for exploration, conservation, resource exploitation and resource management of living and non-living natural resources. Article 76 is important as it defines a country’s continental shelf consisting of the seabed and subsoil of its submarine regions that extend beyond its territorial sea throughout the natural spread of the land topography to the outer limits of the continental shelf or 200 nautical miles. But these parameters have given rise to disputes in semi-enclosed regions.

It also outlines the duties and responsibilities of Flag States. Some countries that exercised this power were Argentina, Canada, Indonesia, Chile, Peru, Norway, Ecuador and even countries like Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Ethiopia and Venezuela.

Since the usage of the marine reserves rose even more in the 1960s and since missile launch pads also started getting based in the oceanic bed, it became imperative that a specific regulation be placed to ensure proper protection and jurisdiction of the marine reserves.

In 1967, the Third United Nations Conference on the Law of the Sea was convened. At this conference, the UN ambassador from Malta, Mr Arvid Pardo, requested a legal power that could bring about international governance over the oceanic floor and bed.

Such a legal power would also ensure that there would not be any problems between various countries over the oceanic floor and bed space.

In a major way, this UNCLOS III paved the way for the now-existing maritime law.

The features and highlights of the same can be explained as follows:

  • UNCLOS, as the currently prevailing law of the sea, is ultimately binding.
  • Even as the name of the nautical law suggests a United Nations’ involvement, the UN does not have any major functional role in the working of UNCLOS.
  • There are 17 parts, 320 articles and nine annexes to UNCLOS.
  • The sea law provides full money rights to nations for a 200-mile zone by their shoreline. The sea and oceanic bed extending this area is regarded as an Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), and any country can use these waters for its economic utilisation.
  • The IMO (International Maritime Organization) plays a vital role in the operation of UNCLOS. Along with the IMO, organisations like the International Whaling Commission and the International Seabed Authority are vital parties in the functional areas of nautical law.

Even though it has 160 member parties, the US is a country that has still not sanctioned (ratified) the nautical law. The main reason for the US not approving the sea law arises mainly because of its disagreement about Part XI of UNCLOS.

This part deals with the aspect of the minerals found on the seabed on the EEZ. The International Seabed Authority was established based on this part of the nautical law and called for equitable distribution of the proceeds of such seabeds.

The US is opposed to this theory, which is why it has not ratified UNCLOS despite being one of the most important members of the United Nations.

It also contains specific provisions for the protection of the marine environment and to prevent the pollution of the marine environment, the world’s oceans and high seas by pollutants, practices like overfishing or deep seabed mining.

It also mentions the freedom of the high seas, especially freedom of scientific research and easy passage of merchant’s vessels.

With the help of a maritime law like UNCLOS, it can be said that marine resources can be protected and safeguarded, especially in contemporary times where the need for marine resources’ protection has increased even more during the 1960s and 70s.

Frequently Asked Questions

1. How many countries are part of UNCLOS?

The convention was ratified by 168 parties, which included 167 states and the European Union. Additional 14 UN member states have signed but not ratified the convention.

2. Are the UNCLOS verdicts legally binding on states?

Yes, its decisions are binding on its member states. However, China does not honour the 2016 verdict on the South China Sea, and many countries complain about Chinese vessels in their waters. Hence, China should follow the convention’s decision and be pressured to abide by it.

3. When was UNCLOS adopted?

The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea was adopted in 1982. It underlines a comprehensive regime of law and order in the world’s oceans and seas, establishing rules governing the international waters and their resources.

4. What is the importance of this convention?

It forms the basis for conducting maritime commerce so that one flag state does not hinge upon the rights of others and the resources of seas and oceans are fairly distributed. It codifies the laws of freedom of navigation, important for national security.

5. Why has the US not accepted the convention?

Due to opposition from Republicans in the Senate, the US has not been able to accept and ratify the convention. The Republicans disagree with Part XI of UNCLOS, which lays down the equitable distribution of minerals found on the seabed.

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Disclaimer: The author’s views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of Marine Insight. Data and charts, if used in the article, have been sourced from available information and have not been authenticated by any statutory authority. The author and Marine Insight do not claim it to be accurate nor accept any responsibility for the same. The views constitute only the opinions and do not constitute any guidelines or recommendations on any course of action to be followed by the reader.

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  1. I am from Vancouver,Canada and i wanted to say that the US Gov’t uses UNCLOS for the purpose of violating China’s sovereignty.The Taiwan Strait is NOT International Waters and US Warships got no business going through there. China got the right to do whatever it takes to stop the US Gov’t from interfering in the internal affairs of China. Taiwan is part of China and the whole world knows that. It is the US Gov’t that should be condemned not China.

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