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UNCLOS – United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, Full Form, Objectives, UNCLOS UPSC

By Balaji

Updated on: May 10th, 2023

UNCLOS’s full form is 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. UNCLOS is a global agreement that sets rules for how enterprises, the ecology, and the administration of maritime natural resources should operate.

Through the article, we will be covering the essential aspects of UNCLOS relevant to the IAS Exam. The EEZ is also outlined in the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, making this topic crucial for both General Studies Paper 2 and Paper 3.

UNCLOS – United Nations Convention for the Law of the Sea

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 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 UNCLOS.

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

UNCLOS Full Form

UNCLOS Full Form is the United Nations Convention for the Law of the Sea. The UNCLOS Convention was adopted and signed in 1982 and became effective in the year 1994. The UNCLOS 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.

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 toward 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 to 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 penalize 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 stretches 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 ships 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 United Nations Convention for the Law of the Sea

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 the 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.

UNCLOS UPSC

UNCLOS is one of the most important topics of the PSIR Syllabus, essential for both Prelims and Mains. It is important to be well aware of the topic and the key aspects of the organization to make a critical assessment while writing answers.

UNCLOS mostly remains in the news throughout the year. It is necessary that the aspirant keeps updating the UNCLOS UPSC notes with the Current Affairs to critically examine the latest issues.

Questions on UNCLOS

Solving UPSC Previous Year Question Papers helps in analyzing the UPSC Exam Pattern. The questions will also assist the candidates in tracing and tracking their level of preparation. Check here the list of questions and headstart on the path of attaining perfection in the essential topics.

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 is/are correct?

a] 1 and 2 only, b] 2 and 3 only, c] 1 and 3 only, d] 1, 2 and 3

Answer: Option d

Question: Which of the following statements is/are correct about the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea(UNCLOS)?

  1. The UN has a direct operational role in the implementation of the Convention.
  2. India has signed and ratified UNCLOS.

a] Only 1, b] Only 2, c] Both 1 and 2, d] None

Answer: India has signed and ratified UNCLOS.

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