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  • Sachin Yadav

The Importance of Upholding the Law of the Sea

Written by: Sachin Yadav, LL.B, Lovely Professional University


The vast expanse of the world's oceans, encompassing over 70% of the Earth's surface, has captivated humanity for centuries. It's a realm of immense beauty, teeming with life, and holding the key to vital resources.  However, this shared maritime space necessitates a framework for order, sustainability, and peaceful co-existence. This is where the international law of the sea (LOS) comes into play.

From Ancient Customs to a Global Constitution:

 The LOS isn't a recent invention. Its roots trace back centuries, evolving from customary practices among seafaring nations. The concept of "freedom of the seas," where international waters were open to all for navigation and fishing, emerged in the 17th century. However, with advancements in technology and growing pressure on marine resources, a more comprehensive legal framework became necessary.

 A critical turning point arrived in 1982 with the adoption of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). Often referred to as the "constitution for the oceans," UNCLOS represents a landmark achievement in international law. It has been ratified by over 168 countries and the European Union, demonstrating its near-universal acceptance.

 Dividing the Seas: Zones and Jurisdictions:

 UNCLOS establishes a comprehensive regime for managing the world's oceans by dividing them into different zones with varying degrees of national jurisdiction:

Internal Waters: Imagine enclosed waters like bays, harbors, and rivers within the baseline of a coastal state. Here, the coastal state exercises complete sovereignty, similar to its land territory.

Territorial Sea: Extending 12 nautical miles (approximately 22 kilometers) from the baseline, the territorial sea remains under the sovereignty of the coastal state. This includes the right to regulate navigation, fishing, and other activities. However, the right of innocent passage – peaceful navigation that doesn't harm the coastal state – is guaranteed for foreign vessels.

 This introduction provides a foundational understanding of the LOS. In the next section, we'll delve deeper and explore the different zones in detail, along with the rights and obligations associated with each. We'll also examine how the LOS addresses resource management, environmental protection, and the challenges of the 21st century.

The Human Dimension: Actors and Stakeholders in Ocean Governance

The LOS isn't just about legal frameworks and resource management. It's about people – the various actors and stakeholders with a vested interest in the health and sustainability of the oceans.

Coastal States: As the primary custodians of their EEZs and continental shelves, coastal states play a crucial role in managing resources, enforcing regulations, and protecting the marine environment within their jurisdictions. They are actively involved in international negotiations and decision-making processes related to ocean governance.

Flag States: The flag state is the country under whose authority a vessel is registered and sails.  Flag states have a primary responsibility to ensure their vessels comply with international law, including the provisions of UNCLOS, while navigating the high seas or entering the territorial waters or EEZs of other countries.

International Organizations: Numerous international organizations play vital roles in ocean governance. The International Maritime Organization (IMO) establishes international standards for maritime safety, pollution prevention, and shipping regulations. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) works with countries to promote sustainable fisheries management. The International Seabed Authority (ISA) regulates deep-sea mining in the Area. These organizations provide platforms for cooperation, knowledge sharing, and setting best practices for ocean management.

Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs): A wide range of NGOs actively work on ocean conservation issues, advocating for sustainable fishing practices, combating plastic pollution, and raising awareness about threats to marine ecosystems.

The Scientific Community: Marine scientists play a critical role in understanding the oceans, monitoring marine life populations, and assessing the impact of human activities on the marine environment.  Their research informs policy decisions and helps develop effective conservation and management strategies.

Emerging Frontiers: Challenges and Opportunities in the 21st Century

The international law of the sea is not static. It must adapt to address evolving challenges and opportunities in the 21st century:

Climate Change and Ocean Acidification: Rising sea levels, increasing ocean temperatures, and ocean acidification pose significant threats to coastal communities, marine ecosystems, and the viability of certain marine resources. UNCLOS itself doesn't directly address climate change, but it provides a framework for international cooperation in mitigating its effects on the oceans. The development of new legal instruments specifically addressing climate change impacts on the oceans may be necessary.

Marine Spatial Planning: As competing demands for ocean space – navigation, fisheries, energy production, conservation – intensify, there's a growing need for marine spatial planning. This involves designating specific areas for different activities to ensure the sustainable use of the oceans.  While UNCLOS doesn't explicitly require marine spatial planning, it encourages coastal states to manage their EEZs to ensure compatible activities.

Emerging Technologies: Advancements in technology like autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs) and bioprospecting raise new questions about ocean governance.  The LOS needs to evolve to address the legal implications of these technologies and ensure responsible use of the oceans while maximizing the benefits for all stakeholders.


The international law of the sea forms the bedrock for a peaceful, sustainable, and equitable use of the world's oceans. It establishes a framework for managing resources, protecting the marine environment, and maintaining order at sea. However, the LOS is a living document that needs continuous adaptation to address emerging challenges in the 21st century.

International cooperation, scientific advancements, and responsible action by all stakeholders – states, flag states,  international organizations, NGOs, the scientific community, and the private sector – are essential for ensuring the health and longevity of our blue planet. By working together, we can navigate the uncharted waters of the future and secure a sustainable future for the oceans and the generations to come

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