The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) was adopted and signed in 1982 and entered into force in 1994. The convention frames a comprehensive set of rules governing the oceans and replaces previous U.N. Conventions on the Law of the Sea. The convention is also known as the “Law of the Seas,” which defines the rights and responsibilities of nations towards the use of the world’s oceans.  

As of 2016, 164 countries (including India), and European countries had ratified the Convention. The USA has not ratified the convention.

Maritime Zones 

The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) divides marine areas into five zones:

United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS)
  1. Internal Waters:
    • It is watered on the landward side of the baseline as mentioned in the image below.
    • A country has full sovereignty over its internal waters
    • There is no right to the innocent passage of vessels or ships through internal waters
  2. Territorial waters: 
    • Territorial waters extend up to 12 nautical miles (nm= distance equal to one minute of latitude) from its baselines towards seaward
    • Limited innocent passage of vessels
    • coastal states have sovereignty and jurisdiction over the territorial sea including ocean surface seabed, subsoil, and even airspace.
  3. Contiguous Zone: 
    • It extends seaward up to 24 nm from its baselines
    • It is an intermediate zone between the territorial sea and the high seas
    • The state has jurisdiction over the ocean’s surface and floor but not air and space rights.
  4. Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ):
    • The EEZ extends seaward up to 200 nm from its baselines.
    • The coastal state has sovereign rights for the purpose of exploring, exploiting, conserving, and managing natural resources, whether living or nonliving, of the seabed and subsoil.
    • The coastal state can use these waters, currents, and wind for energy generation.
    • The coastal state has no right to prohibit or limit freedom of navigation or overflight, subject to very limited exceptions.
  5. High Seas: 
    • waters beyond the EEZ are referred to as the high seas
    • Beyond national jurisdiction
    • It is called “the common heritage of all mankind”
    • States can conduct activities in these areas as long as they are for peaceful purposes, such as transit, marine science, and undersea exploration.
United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS)

Other key provisions of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS)

UNCLOS stipulates a framework for state jurisdiction in maritime spaces. It provides a different legal status to different maritime zones. The convention provides the backbone for offshore governance by coastal states and those navigating the oceans. It not only zones coastal states’ offshore areas but also provides specific guidance for states’ rights and responsibilities in the five concentric zones.

It also specifies detailed nautical-mile limits for maritime zones and establishes “rules of the road” for ocean management and operations at sea. UNCLOS also contains a security component, which addresses key tenets of responding to maritime threats

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