What is the international law of the sea?

The ocean covers more than 2/3 of the earth’s surface and has allowed humanity to start trading, traveling, discovering or simply eating. With such a great importance come tremendous issues in terms of environment and preservation of resources, freedom of navigation, fishing rights, and, more recently, piracy and terrorism. How are rights regulated on the oceans? What is involved inside the International law of the sea? We explain it below from our international law firm in London.

Before the Law of the Sea Convention (1982)

Before the Convention conducted by the United Nations, oceans were subject to the freedom of the seas doctrine. Each country had rights over a narrow part of the oceans located at its coastline. The rest of the ocean didn’t belong to anyone and was, therefore, free of use. Discussions started arising because of fishing rights and after the discovery of inestimable offshore resources such as oil in the mid-twentieth century. Indeed, concerns started to rise over, big size international fishing fleets or the threat of pollution and wastes of cargoes transporting oil all over the world.

The International Law of the Sea

Countries in the United Nations organization started with the signing of a treaty banning nuclear weapons on the seabed and symbolically declared that all resources beyond the limits of national jurisdictions were the common heritage of mankind. This idea has been formalized during the Law of the Sea Convention in 1982 which is still defining the rights and responsibilities of nations with respect to their use of the world’s oceans, establishing guidelines for businesses, the environment, and the management of marine natural resources.

It resolved a number of important issues related to ocean usage and sovereignty, such as:

  • Established freedom-of-navigation rights.
  • Territorial sea boundaries. Out to 12 nautical miles from the baseline, the coastal state is free to set laws, regulate use, and use any resource.
  • Exclusive economic zones (EEZs) up to 200 miles offshore for countries with ocean coastline (It also set rules for extending continental shelf rights up to 350 miles offshore). Within this area, the coastal nation has sole exploitation rights over all natural resources but can’t prevent foreign nations from navigating or flying over the zone.
  • Creation of the International Seabed Authority to control the mineral resource exploitation.
  • Creation of other conflict-resolution mechanisms such as the UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf.

Source: United Nations