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  • Ravi Kumar Thakur

Examining the Impact of United Nations Law of the Sea Convention (UNCLOS) on Global Maritime Disputes

Written by : Ravi Kumar Thakur , 1st year (3year LLB.) , Lovely Professional University


The body of public international law known as "international law of the sea" governs the rights and responsibilities of states as well as other subjects of international law with relation to the usage and utilization of the seas during times of peace (Brown, 1994). It can be differentiated from private maritime law, which governs private individuals' rights and responsibilities for marine issues, such as commodities carriage and maritime insurance (Churchill & Lowe, 1999).

Evolved as a component of the law of nations in the 17th century, coinciding with the establishment of the contemporary national state structure (O'Connell, 1982).

 The world's oceans have traditionally been important for two reasons: first, they have served as a channel of communication; and second, they are a vast repository of natural resources, both living and non-living. These two responsibilities have supported the creation of laws (Shaw, 1997: p. 390). The law of the sea and maritime roads are the areas of international law that have changed the most dramatically during the last forty years (Starke, 1994: p. 242). A large portion of the law pertaining to public order at sea is established in the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.


International jurisdictions may give rise to disputes between adjacent coastal states on a regular basis. These disputes may concern the delimitation of marine boundaries, the exploitation of minerals or natural resources, the commission of crimes within the territorial boundaries of another State, etc. International courts and tribunals typically settle these issues based on complaints filed by the parties involved, adhering to precedents as a key source of international law or the regulations of international law of the sea.However, the focus of this work is on the body of international law commonly referred to as "the law of the sea," and it serves as a foundation for future research in this area. The focus of this research is on the more expansive domain of sea law, which clearly includes taking into account issues related to the territorial sea, high sea, base line, inland waters, contiguous zone, Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), and continental shelf.


International Law of the Sea: Legal and Institutional Framework

It is not advisable to assume that the law of the sea can be found only in one location. Rather, the law that currently exists combines bilateral and multilateral treaty law with customary international law.


Geneva hosted the first UN conference on the law of the sea in 1958. Four multilateral treaties covering different facets of the law of the sea were adopted during this conference: The following conventions apply: 1) the High Seas Convention; 2) the Territorial Sea and Contiguous Zone Convention; 3) the Convention on Fishing and Conservation of Living Resources; and 4) the Continental Shelf Convention. All these treaties are still in effect, but the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, which is primarily applicable generally and not just to certain parts of the law of the sea, has supplanted them in many respects.


The 1982 Convention on the Law of the Sea is a complete codification and evolution of modern international law that regulates the sea during times of peace. The third UN Conference on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS III), which was held between 1973 and 1982, produced the UNCLOS, often known as the Law of the Sea Convention. This agreement, which is referred to as the "constitution of the oceans," is the product of an extraordinary endeavor to codify and advance international law that has never been done before (Treves, 2013). Today, the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea primarily governs maritime jurisdictions.


With 320 articles and nine appendices, the extensive 1982 Convention on the Law of the Sea superseded the four 1958 conventions. It was concluded in 1982. The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) is the most comprehensive treaty in public international law, covering a wide range of law of the sea topics such as delimitation of maritime boundaries, maritime zones, marine environment protection, marine scientific research, piracy, and so on. Its purpose is to regulate the use of oceans for fishing, shipping, exploration, navigation, and mining. The greatest important advancement in the history of international law concerning the high seas is represented by this convention. As a result, the majority of the convention, which contained the more important regulations therein, altered the prior legislation.



Salient Features 

The following features of the Convention's primary substantive provisions—which should be carefully considered in order to highlight those that bring about modifications or new ideas to the conventional law of the sea—seem to be included (Treves, 2013):

 A "transit passage" regime for straits used for international navigation is established; b) the maximum width of the territorial sea is fixed at 12 miles, and the maximum width of the contiguous zone is fixed at 24 miles; c) states consisting of archipelagos can be considered "archipelagic States" as long as certain conditions are met, with the outermost islands connected by "archipelagic baselines," meaning that the waters inside these lines are archipelagic waters; d) a 200-mile exclusive economic zone that includes the seabed and the water column may be established by coastal States in which such States exercise sovereign rights and jurisdiction on all resource-related activities; e) Other States enjoy in the exclusive economic zone high seas freedoms of navigation, over flight, laying of cables and pipelines and other internationally lawful uses of the sea connected with these freedoms; f) A rule of mutual “due regard” applies to ensure compatibility between the exercise of the rights of the coastal states and of those of other states in the exclusive economic zone; g) The concept of the continental shelf has been confirmed, though with newly defined external limits;

h) The International Seabed Authority being the “machinery” entrusted with the supervision and regulation of exploration and exploitation of the re-sources; i) A number of extremely specific provisions address the preservation of the marine environment, outlining broad guidelines and standards regarding the authority to enact laws, enforce them, and provide safeguards; j) Comprehensive provisions pertaining to marine scientific research, predicated on the idea that consent from the coastal state should be the standard for fundamental research and discretionary for resource-oriented research; k) The ocean floor beyond national jurisdiction is declared to be the "Common Heritage of the Mankind.


Importance of law of sea

 The Law of the Sea holds immense significance in international law, encompassing a broad spectrum of regulations governing maritime activities and the management of ocean resources. Its importance within the international legal framework is undeniable, rooted in various international conventions and agreements, with the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) being a cornerstone document.

The role of the Law of the Sea in international relations cannot be overstated, as it sets the stage for peaceful coexistence, responsible resource management, and the resolution of maritime disputes through legal mechanisms.

The relationship between the Law of the Sea and international courts highlights the integral role of judicial systems in interpreting and enforcing maritime law. Decisions by international tribunals have had a profound impact on shaping this legal regime and fostering compliance among states. Notably, UNCLOS, colloquially termed the “constitution of the oceans,” establishes a comprehensive legal framework that governs diverse aspects of maritime activities. With 168 countries and the European Union as parties to UNCLOS, its reach and influence are global in scope.

The evolution of the Law of the Sea reflects a dynamic interplay between traditional practices, international agreements, and modern challenges. Navigational rights, mineral claims, and jurisdiction over coastal waters are among the critical issues addressed by this body of law. The historical roots of maritime law trace back to debates between jurists like Hugo Grotius and John Selden, underscoring the enduring relevance of maritime sovereignty and control in international relations.

The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, adopted in 1982, serves as a beacon of legal order in the world’s oceans and seas. It consolidates existing norms while introducing new regulations to govern oceanic activities and resource utilization.

 The Convention not only delineates maritime zones and environmental protection measures but also provides a framework for international cooperation and conflict resolution in maritime disputes.

International maritime law, as codified in UNCLOS, plays a pivotal role in maintaining public order at sea. By defining territorial waters and establishing principles for maritime governance, this legal framework contributes to stability and predictability in maritime interactions

 The Law of the Sea is instrumental in addressing contemporary challenges such as climate change and sea level rise, emphasizing the need for legal mechanisms to safeguard the marine environment and maritime interests.

The participation of states in UNCLOS III marked a significant diplomatic milestone, reflecting the collective effort to consolidate rights and obligations in the law of the sea. The International Tribunal on the Law of the Sea has emerged as a crucial institution, contributing to jurisprudence and enhancing the rule of law in maritime affairs. The Convention’s ratifications underscore its status as a living document that continues to evolve and address emerging issues in the law of the sea.

The Law of the Sea also intersects with broader international legal principles, emphasizing the interconnectedness of maritime governance and the maintenance of peace and security. The regulation of marine activities by governments, guided by international customs and agreements, underscores the importance of cooperative approaches in preserving marine resources and upholding shared responsibilities at sea. Non-state actors also play a significant role in protecting community interests and promoting sustainable practices in maritime settings.

As a foundation for international cooperation in marine affairs, the Law of the Sea stands as a crucial tool for fostering order, productivity, and peaceful relations on the sea. The legal framework provided by UNCLOS guides states in navigating complex issues related to maritime boundaries, resource exploitation, and environmental conservation. By upholding the rule of law and promoting equitable practices, the Law of the Sea contributes to a rules-based international order that benefits all stakeholders in the global maritime domain.



In conclusion, the Law of the Sea’s importance in international law cannot be understated. From defining maritime rights and obligations to fostering cooperation and resolving disputes, this legal framework plays a vital role in shaping international relations and ensuring sustainable management of ocean resources. By adhering to principles of equity, justice, and environmental protection, states can uphold the integrity of the oceans and seas for present and future generations, underscoring the enduring relevance of the Law of the Sea in the 21st century.




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