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

The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) sets up a legal regime for the sea and oceans and thus represents the attempt by the international community to regulate all aspects of the resources of the sea and uses of the ocean. In terms of the environment, UNCLOS establishes material rules concerning environmental standards and enforcement provisions regarding pollution of the marine environment. UNCLOS was adopted in 1982 in Montego Bay, Jamaica and entered into force in 1994. It currently has 149 Parties.

Objectives and approach

The major features of the Convention include navigational rights, territorial sea limits, economic jurisdiction, legal status of resources on the seabed beyond the limits of national jurisdiction, passage of ships through narrow straits, conservation and management of living marine resources, protection of the marine environment, a marine research regime and a binding procedure for settlement of disputes between States.

The Parties are to have sovereign rights in the exclusive economic zone (EEZ) for the purpose of exploring and exploiting, preserving and managing its natural resources, as well as other rights and duties (article 56). The coastal State is to exercise over the continental shelf sovereign rights for the purpose of exploring it and exploiting its natural resources (defined in article 77). Freedom of the high seas is to comprise inter alia freedom of navigation, of overflight, of laying submarine cables and pipelines, and of fishing and of scientific research, subject to the provisions of parts VI and XIII. Land- locked states are to enjoy the right of access to and from the sea and freedom of transit (articles 124 to 132). The Area (the seabed and ocean floor and subsoil thereof, beyond the limits of national jurisdiction) and its resources are to be the common heritage of mankind (article 136) while the resources of the Area are to be developed (articles 150 to 155). International rules and national legislation are to be developed for the prevention, reduction and control of pollution of the marine environment, and provisions set out concerning enforcement and responsibility and liability. Finally rules are set out to govern marine scientific research, the development and transfer of marine technology and the settlement of disputes.

Institutional structure

The Convention establishes the International Seabed Authority, through which Parties organize and control activities in the Area (see above). The principal organs of the Authority are the Assembly, the Council and the Secretariat. In addition, the Enterprise is the organ of the Authority, which carries out activities in the Area directly as well as the transporting, processing and marketing of minerals recovered from the Area.

The Secretary-General is convening Meetings of State Parties. The meetings address issues such as the election of the members of the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea and of the members of the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf as well as budgetary and administrative matters of the Tribunal. 

UNCLOS has enabled a number of agreements such as the Agreement for the Implementation of the Provisions of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea relating to the Conservation and Management of Straddling Fish Stocks and Highly Migratory Fish Stocks, which was adopted in 1995 and entered into force in 2001.