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

By K Balaji|Updated : July 12th, 2022

UNCLOS is an acronym for the United Nations Convention for the Law of the Sea. The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea was adopted in 1982 and lays down a comprehensive regime of law and order in the world's oceans and seas establishing rules governing all uses of the oceans and their resources. The Division for Ocean Affairs and the Law of the Sea (DOALOS) of the Office of Legal Affairs of the United Nations serves as the secretariat of the Convention on the Law of the Sea.

Through the article, we will be covering the essential aspects of UNCLOS important from the IAS Exam point of view. We will be discussing the history of the organization, the maritime zones under UNCLOS, India-UNCLOS, associated disputes, etc. UNCLOS is an important topic for International organizations and groupings part of the GS-2 paper of the UPSC Mains.

Table of Content

What is UNCLOS?

UNCLOS, also known as the Law of the Sea Convention or the Law of the Sea Treaty lays down a comprehensive regime of law and order in the world’s oceans and seas establishing rules governing all uses of the oceans and their resources. UNCLOS replaced the four Geneva Conventions of April 1958, which respectively concerned the territorial sea and the contiguous zone, the continental shelf, the high seas, fishing, and conservation of living resources on the high seas. The Convention was adopted and signed in 1982 and became effective in the year 1994. The Convention has become the legal framework for marine and maritime activities.

UNCLOS is the only international convention that stipulates a framework for state jurisdiction in maritime spaces. It provides a different legal status to different maritime zones. The European Union and 167 other nations are current members of the convention. In 1982 India signed the convention.

UNCLOS divides marine areas into five main zones namely- Internal Waters, Territorial Sea, Contiguous Zone, Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), and the High Seas.

Download UNCLOS Notes PDF

Maritime Zones Under the UNCLOS

UNCLOS provides clear boundaries between seabed users and coastal nations with universal norms. The UNCLOS divides marine areas into five main zones namely:

Baseline

According to the coastal states’ official recognition, the low water line along the shore is known as the baseline.

Internal Waters

Internal waters are those that are towards the shoreline side of the given baseline, which is used to gauge the width of the territorial sea. As with its land territory, each coastal state has complete authority over its internal waterways. Internal waterways include bodies of water that are connected to the ocean by rivers, lakes, ports, inlets, and bays.

Territorial Sea

From its baselines, the territorial sea reaches 12 nautical miles out towards the sea. The territorial sea is under the control and jurisdiction of the coastal states. These rights cover not just the visible earth‘s surface but also the sea floor, the subsurface, and even the air space. There is no right of innocent passage through internal waters.

Contiguous Zone

From the baseline, the contiguous zone reaches 24 nautical miles out towards the sea, that is, 12 nautical miles from the territorial sea. It serves as a transitional area between the high seas and the territorial sea. The coastal state is invested with the authority to enforce immigration, fiscal, sanitary, and customs laws inside its borders and territorial waters. They have the power to both prevent and penalise violations that might occur. The contiguous zone limits a state’s jurisdiction to the ocean's surface and floor, unlike the territorial sea where jurisdiction was up to the sea floor, the subsurface, and even the air space. Hence, it does not grant rights to the airspace.

Exclusive Economic Zone

Each coastal state has the right to an exclusive economic zone that stretches outwards up to 200 nautical miles from the business lines and is contiguous to and beyond its territorial sea. A coastal state has sovereign rights to explore, utilize, conserve and manage natural resources on the sea bed and in the subsoil inside its exclusive economic zone (EEZ). Rights include engaging in activities like wind, water, and current energy production. The EEZ solely permits the aforementioned resource rights, in contrast to the territorial sea and the contiguous zone. With very few exceptions, it does not grant a coastal state the authority to forbid or restrict the privilege of navigation or overflight.

High Seas

The high seas are the ocean's surface and the water stretch past the exclusive economic zone. Any national jurisdiction is irrelevant here. States are permitted to carry out operations in these regions so long as they serve peaceful objectives, like maritime research and undersea excavation.

Maritime Zones Under the UNCLOS

Objectives of UNCLOS

The prime objectives of UNCLOS are:

  • To promote Maritime safety.
  • To facilitate International Communications
  • To promote the peaceful use of the seas and oceans
  • To enable equitable and efficient utilization of ocean resources
  • To protect and preserve the marine environment

Features of UNCLOS

The features of UNCLOS are:

  • Transit passage is allowed for Ship through the state.
  • The foreign flag would have a right to innocent passage through the territorial waters.
  • Civil jurisdiction can only be exercised if the vessel is passing through the territorial sea after leaving the internal waters.
  • States may enact legislation concerning the safety of navigation, pollution prevention, uncontrolled fishing activities, customs, immigration, and health and sanitary arrangements.
  • Criminal jurisdiction can be exercised by the coastal state on foreign flag vessels in a territorial sea.
  • An innocent passage can be suspended temporarily in specified areas for the coastal States' security or to conduct a weapon exercise.

Initiatives Under the UNCLOS

Several initiatives were taken after the establishment of the United Nations Conference on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) which are mentioned below:

  • The International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea (ITLOS): The international tribunal of the Law of the Sea, which was constituted by the UNCLOS, is a separate judicial entity that resolves disagreements resulting from the convention. ITLOS was ratified on November 16, 1994, after being signed on December 10, 1982.
  • The International Seabed Authority (ISA):The international seabed authority was established in 1994 to control the unnecessary exploration and misuse of oceanic nonliving resources in international waters.
  • The Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (CLCS):The CLCS is in charge of easy implementation of UNCLOS with regard to the declaration of the continental shelf‘s outer borders (beyond 200 nautical miles). Hence, it was established in accordance with the needs of UNCLOS.

The Convention has also created three new institutions on the international scene, namely:

  • The Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf
  • The International Seabed Authority
  • The International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea

India and UNCLOS

India played a constructive role in deliberations leading to UNCLOS's adoption in 1982 and has been a party to the convention since 1995. India advocated and restricted trade based on the norms of international law, as exemplified particularly in the UNCLOS 1982, as well as freedom of navigation and airspace. As a State party to the UNCLOS, India promoted utmost respect for the UNCLOS, which established the international legal order of the seas and oceans.

India expanded its maritime cooperation with neighbors in line with the government‘s goal of promoting regional security and economic progress under the “Government’s Vision of Security and Growth for All in the Region” (SAGAR) program. In order to improve marine domain awareness, advanced maritime security, and prepare for potential contingencies, measures have been taken including mission-based deployments of neighbor ships and aircraft.

Italy sued India in 2015 under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) for the imprisonment of its two marines and the case (Enrica Lexie incident) was heard by the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea (ITLOS). Later, ITLOS sent the case to the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA). In July 2020, the Permanent Court of Arbitration stated in its judgment that Italy should compensate the victims’ families for the killing of the fishermen. Both countries are to jointly fix the amount of compensation. The Court also rejected Italy’s demand for compensation for India’s detention of the marines.

UNCLOS UPSC Question

Question: With reference to the United Nations Convention on the Law of Sea, consider the following statements:

  1. A coastal state has the right to establish the breadth of its territorial sea up to a limit not exceeding 12 nautical miles, measured from a baseline determined in accordance with the convention.
  2. Ships of all states, whether coastal or land-locked, enjoy the right of innocent passage through the territorial sea.
  3. The Exclusive Economic Zone shall not extend beyond 200 nautical miles from the baseline from which the breadth of the territorial sea is measured.

Which of the statements given above are correct?

  1. 1 and 2 only
  2. 2 and 3 only
  3. 1 and 3 only
  4. 1, 2 and 3

Answer: Option D

UNCLOS UPSC

UNCLOS is one of the most important topics of International Relations, covered under the UPSC Syllabus of the UPSC Exam. Both the UPSC Prelims and UPSC Mains cover this topic well in depth.

To cover UNCLOS, one should with the NCERT Books for UPSC and then move forward with the International Relations Books for UPSC. Solving UPSC Previous Year Question Papers helps in analyzing the UPSC Exam Pattern.

UNCLOS UPSC Notes PDF

UNCLOS mostly remains in news throughout the year. It is necessary that the UPSC aspirant keeps updating the notes with the Current Affairs and watch Daily Current Affairs Video to critically examine the issues of UNCLOS and if there is any dispute between or amongst countries.

The article covers the major aspects of UNCLOS well in depth. The PDF should be kept handy for all the last-minute revisions before one attempts the IAS Exam.

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

  • The Geneva agreement of 1958, which dealt with the high seas, continental shelf, fisheries, and the preservation of biological resources and open waters, was replaced by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). The UNCLOS provides distinct maritime zones with various legal rights to countries across the world.

  • The maritime zones under the UNCLOS are listed below:

    1. Baseline
    2. Internal waters
    3. Territorial sea
    4. Contiguous zone
    5. Exclusive economic zone
    6. High seas
  • The international tribunal of the Law of the Sea, which was constituted by the UNCLOS, is a separate judicial entity that resolves disagreements resulting from the convention. ITLOS was ratified on November 16, 1994, after being signed on December 10, 1982.

  • India promoted trade restrictions based on international norms, particularly those found in the UNCLOS 1982, as well as freedom of navigation and airspace. Being a state party to the UNCLOS, which established the international legal framework managing the seas and coastal waters, India promoted the highest regard for UNCLOS.

  • As provided in Section 6 (from Article 213 to 222), the enforcement of the Convention is assigned to State Parties. According to those provisions, States shall enforce laws and regulations adopted in accordance with the Convention and with international rules and standards

  • To download the UNCLOS UPSC Notes PDF, click here. Before downloading the PDF, it is suggested that the candidate should first go through the entire article to understand the basic concepts of the topic.

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