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The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) came into force in 1994, replacing several earlier treaties as the internationally recognised definition of the responsibilities and rights of nations in respect of their use of the oceans of the world. Although the UN provides support for meetings of states who are party to the Convention, it does not have a direct operational role in UNCLOS implementation. Several other organisations, including the International Seabed Authority, International Whaling Commission and International Maritime Organisation, all play a role. The short video attachment to this post provides more information about the International Maritime Organisation. In his role as Minister of Transport of Russia in 2015, Victor Olerskiy gave a speech  discussing the potential of Arctic shipping and in particular the viability of the Northern Sea Route. This route lies almost entirely in the exclusive economic zone of Russia.

UNCLOS History

UNCLOS was signed and adopted in 1982, as a replacement for the previous Geneva Conventions, of which there were four from 1958. These conventions concerned the territorial sea, the high seas, the continental shelf, the contiguous zone and the conservation of living resources and fishing on the high seas. UNCLOS replaced the even older concept of freedom of the seas, which dates back to the 17th century. Under the freedom of the seas concept, national rights to the seas were extended approximately three nautical miles from the coastline of each nation, in accordance with Cornelius van Bynkershoek’s “cannon shot” rule. All waters beyond these boundaries were considered to be international – belonging to no-one, free to everyone.

Around the start of the 20th century, several nations began to express a desire to extend their claim over the surrounding waters. Reasons for this included the protection of fish stocks, the inclusion of mineral resources and the ability to enforce controls on pollution. Under the international law principle of the right of a nation to protect its own natural resources, in 1945 the US president, Harry S. Truman, extended control beyond the customary three nautical miles to include all natural resources found on its continental shelf. More nations quickly followed and by 1967, there were only 25 nations still abiding by the traditional three-mile rule.

The infographic attachment looks at some more of these early extensions of control over the waters.


The first Conference on the Law of the Seas was held by the United Nations in 1956 in Geneva, where four treaties were laid out and concluded in 1958. These treaties came into force between 1962 and 1966 and the conference was considered to be a success. However, it did not address the issue of territorial water breadth. A second conference, UNCLOS II, was held in 1960, but no new agreements emerged after the six-week event. Third world countries and developing nations had no significant voice at UNCLOS II, but were instead only participating as dependents, allies or clients of the Soviet Union or the United States.


A third conference, UNCLOS III, was held in New York in 1973. To eradicate the issue of domination by groups of nation-states, a consensus process was adopted rather than a majority vote. There were over 160 participating nations and the conference went on until 1982. The convention that ultimately resulted from this came into force in 1994 and introduced several new provisions.

The PDF attachment looks at the UNCLOS areas of limitation as set out in the convention.