United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS III)

Since the second UN Conference on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS II) failed to resolve many outstanding concerns in 1960, discussions and negotiations continued until the third UN Conference on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS III) in 1982, which tried to address most issues of concern. Delegates submitted for ratification the Law of the Sea treaty, which formally outlines modern international policy regarding the oceans and marine resources. It was adopted by the Conference on 10 December 1982. The comprehensive document contains 320 articles and 9 annexes, and notably replaces the longstanding freedom of the sea principle, which held that nations could only hold territorial claim over coastline waters that were within the short distance of a cannon shot from shore. Instead, the treaty provides a graduated system of sovereignty in which countries can assert complete ownership of water within 12 nautical miles of their coastline. Each country can also claim an additional 200 nautical miles as an exclusive economic zone, which is an area where each coastal country can regulate scientific research and the exploitation of marine resources. However, all areas outside of these regions are immune to any nation’s control. The treaty also outlines general responsibilities towards limiting marine pollution and preserving marine resources. Additionally, it catalyzed the creation of regulating authorities, including the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea, the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf, and the International Seabed Authority.

Contributed by Katelyn Young
Course: Global Environmental History
Instructor: Andrew Stuhl, Ph.D.
Bucknell University, Lewisburg, US

Further Readings: 
  • Juda, Lawrence. International Law and Ocean Use Management. New York: Routledge, 1996.
  • Weis, Judith. Marine Pollution. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014.