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Law of Seas



The United Nations Convention on the law of the Sea is an international agreement that govern the rights and responsibilities of nations with respect to their use of the international water, establishing guidelines for business, the environment and the management of marine natural resources. It came into force in 1994.

Division of the Sea:-

Maritime definitions in the U.N law of the Sea Convention.

Territorial Sea:-

“Sovereignty of state extends, beyond its land territory and its internal waters, to a belt of sea adjacent to its coast, described as the territorial sea”.

The Geneva Convention on territorial Sea and Contiguous Zone (1958)

Breath of Territorial Sea:-


Under Convention of 1982, Article 3 provides that “every state has the right to establish the breath of its territorial sea up to a limit not exceeding 12 nautical miles measured from baseline”. Further, in those cases where the coasts of two states are opposite or adjacent to each other, neither of two states is entitled failing agreement between them to the contrary, to extend its territorial sea beyond the median line every point of which is equidistant from the nearest points on the baselines.

Rights of States over Territorial Sea:-

Rights of coastal states:-

  • Sovereignty of the coastal state extends to the territorial sea.
  • Right to appropriate natural resources of the territorial sea, including both living resources (fisheries) and non-living resources such as hydrocarbons, minerals etc.
  • Right to enact laws to regulate navigation and transport with a purpose of protecting the pipelines and cables, for conservation of the living resources of the sea, for the preservation of the environment of the coastal state and the reduction of pollution etc. The state enjoying right of innocent passage must comply with the rules and laws. In case of non-compliance, the coastal state may require the vessel of leave the territorial sea immediately.
  • The innocent passage of warships may require permission from the coastal state.

Rights of other state:- 

Territorial sea is open to merchant vessels of all the states for navigation. Ships of all states shall enjoy the right of innocent passage through the territorial sea (Article 14 of UNCLOS, 1958). No state can levy tools for the innocent passage of foreign vessels.

Contiguous Zone:- 

Contiguous zone is that part of the sea which is beyond and adjacent to the territorial waters of the coastal state. The coastal state does not exercise sovereignty over this part of the sea; however, they make take appropriate action to protect its revenue and policing jurisdiction by the convention of 1982, the breath of the contiguous zone may not extend beyond 24 miles from the baseline or 12 miles beyond the territorial sea.

Continental shelf:-

Geologically, continental shelf may be defined as the zone around the continent extending from the low water line to the depth at which there is usually a marked increase of declivity (downward slope) to greater depth.

It was not until 1982 when the breadth of the continental shelf was prescribed by the UNCLOS III. Article 76 states that “the continental shelf of coastal state comprises the sea-bed and subsoil of the submarine areas that extend beyond its territorial sea throughout the natural prolongation of tests land territory to the outer edge of the continental margin, or to a distance 200 nautical miles from the baseline”.

Those cases where the continental shelf is adjacent to the territories to two or more states, whose coasts are opposite to each other, the boundary would be median line or the principle of equi-distance from the nearest points of the baseline be applied. Continental shelf may never exceed 350 nautical miles from the baseline.

Rights of coastal states over continental Shelf ”

States cannot exercise sovereignty over continental shelf but may exercise sovereign rights over it for the purposes of exploring it and exploiting its natural resources.

Coastal states have the exclusive right to authorize and regulate drilling or other economic activities on the continents shelf.

Right of exploitation of non-living resource not beyond 350 nautical miles. Beyond 200 nautical miles, exploration by coasted states are charged or are required to make payments or contributions in kind to the international sea bed authority which distribute them to the state parties to the convention, especially to the poor or landlocked states.

Rights of other states:-

Other states have very limited rights over continental shelf like laying submarine cables and pipelines with the consent of the costal states and with conditions in the form of payments and penalties etc.

Exclusive economic Zone:-

The EEZ is an area beyond and adjacent to the territorial sea ending upto 200 nautical miles seaward from the coast baselines. The continental shelf and Exclusive Economic Zone are linked together because rights enjoyed by a state over its continental shelf would also be possessed by it over the sea-bed or subsoil of any EEZ which it might proclaim.

Rights of the coastal states over EEZ:-

  • Exploitation of living and non-living resources of the waters.
  • Production of energy from the water currents and wind.
  • Establishment and use of the artificial island, installations and structures.
  • Marine scientific research
  • Protection and preservation of the marine environment.
  • Laws and regulations or conditions to be compiled.

Rights of other states over EEZ:

other states have freedom of navigation and over flight operation of ships, aircraft and submarine cables and pipelines and freedom of scientific and marine research with consent of the coastal state.

High Seas:-

By article 86 of the UNCLOS III, 1982 “all parts of the sea that are not included in the exclusive economic zone, in the territorial sea or in the internal waters of a state or in the archipelagic waters of an archipelagic state would constitute high sea”.

Under the Customary Rule of International Law, open sea is not subject to sovereignty claimed by any state. No state has a right to exercise legislative, administrative, judicial or policing claim over the high sea.

Rights of the states:

  • Freedom as to navigation and fisheries. Freedom to lay submarine cables and pipelines.
  • Freedom of over flight.
  • Freedom of scientific research.
  • Freedom to construct artificial islands and other installations permitted under international law.
  • Right to punish piracy on the open sea. Punish environmental degradation.

Duties of the States;

  • Preservation of the marine resources and environment on high seas.
  • Punish the vessels sailing under state’s hag without authorization.


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