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

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

To prepare for INTERNATIONAL RELATIONS for any competitive exam, aspirants have to know AGREEMENTS. Here we will study about United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). It gives an idea of all the important topics for the IAS Exam and the Governance syllabus (GS-II.). United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) terms are important from International Relation perspectives in the UPSC exam. IAS aspirants should thoroughly understand their meaning and application, as questions can be asked from this static portion of the IAS Syllabus in both the UPSC Prelims and the UPSC Mains exams. Even these topics are also highly linked with current affairs. Almost every question asked from them is related to current events. So, apart from standard textbooks, you should rely on newspapers and news analyses as well for these sections.

Basics and Background:

  • The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) is an international treaty which was adopted and signed in 1982.
  • It replaced the four Geneva Conventions of April, 1958, which respectively concerned the territorial sea and the contiguous zone, the continental shelf, the high seas, fishing and conservation of living resources on the high seas.


Three new institutions created by the convention:

  • International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea,
  • International Seabed Authority,
  • Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf.


UNCLOS Features:

  • Nations are provided with full money rights by UNCLOS for a 200-mile zone along the shoreline.
  • The sea and oceanic bed extending to this area are regarded to be the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) of a country and that country can use these waters for their economic utilization.
  • Another important organization that plays a vital role in UNCLOS operations is the International Maritime Organization (IMO).
  • Other important parties involved in Nautical Law and its functioning are the International Seabed Authority and the International Whaling Commission.



  • It is an international body set up under International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling (ICRW).
  • ICRW governs the commercial, scientific, and aboriginal subsistence whaling practices of fifty-nine member nations. It was signed in Washington, D.C., United States, in 1946.
  • Headquarters — Impington, near Cambridge, England.
  • In 1986, it adopted a moratorium on commercial whaling. This ban still continues.


Maritime Zones:

  • Baseline:
    • It is the low-water line along the coast as officially recognized by the coastal state.
    • Internal Waters:
    • Internal waters are waters on the landward side of the baseline from which the breadth of the territorial sea is measured.
    • Each coastal state has full sovereignty over its internal waters like its land territory. Examples of internal waters include bays, ports, inlets, rivers and even lakes that are connected to the sea.
    • There is no right of innocent passage through internal waters.
    • The innocent passage refers to the passing through the waters which are not prejudicial to peace and security. However, the nations have the right to suspend the same.


  • Territorial Sea:
    • The territorial sea extendsseaward up to 12 nautical miles (nm) from its baselines.
    • The coastal states have sovereignty and jurisdiction over the territorial sea.These rights extend not only on the surface but also to the seabed, subsoil, and even
    • But the coastal states’ rights are limitedby the innocent passage through the territorial sea.


Nautical Mile

A nautical mile is based on the circumference of the earth and is equal to one minute of latitude. It is slightly more than a land measured mile (1 nautical mile = 1.1508 land miles or 1.85 km).

  • Contiguous Zone”:
    • The contiguous zone extends seaward up to 24 nm from its baselines.
    • It is an intermediary zone between the territorial sea and the high seas.
    • The coastal state has the right to both prevent and punish infringement of fiscal, immigration, sanitary, and customs laws within its territory and territorial sea.
    • Unlike the territorial sea, the contiguous zone only gives jurisdiction to a state on the ocean’s surface and floor. It does not provide air and space rights.


  • Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ):
    • Each coastal State may claim an EEZ beyond and adjacent to its territorial sea that extends seaward up to 200 nm from its baselines.
    • Sovereign rights for the purpose of exploring, exploiting, conserving and managing natural resources, whether living or nonliving, of the seabed and subsoil.
    • Rights to carry out activities like the production of energy from the water, currents and wind.
    • Unlike the territorial sea and the contiguous zone, the EEZ only allows for the above-mentioned resource rights.It does not give a coastal state the right to prohibit or limit freedom of navigation or overflight, subject to very limited exceptions.
  • High Seas:
    • The ocean surface and the water column beyond the EEZ are referred to as the high seas.
    • It is considered as “the common heritage of all mankind” and is beyond any national jurisdiction.
    • States can conduct activities in these areas as long as they are for peaceful purposes, such as transit, marine science, and undersea exploration.


‘Enrica Lexie’ case:

  • In Feb 2012, two Italian Marines Massimiliano Latorre and Salvatore Girone on board an Italian oil tanker “Enrica Lexie” had opened fire on a fishing St.Antony boat and killed two fishermen Ajeesh Pink and Valentine Jelastine mistaking them as pirates.
  • The incident took place in the contiguous zone waters at a distance of 20.5 nautical miles off Kerala coast and the marines were arrested on murder charges by India.
  • Italy challenged the arrest of marines before Kerala High Court stating that India has no jurisdiction to try Italian naval marines. Italy provoked Article 97 of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).
  • The matter was taken up by the Supreme Court and the apex court ruled that as per the Indian government notification issued in pursuant of the Convention on the Law of the Sea, India has jurisdiction over the entire 200-mile Exclusive Economic Zone, and thus the case can be triable in India. It mentioned that only the Indian Government can exercise jurisdiction, not the state government.
  • In 2015 Italy approached theInternational Tribunal for the Law of the Sea, an arbitral tribunal under the International Court of Justice and filed an arbitration case under Annex VII of UNCLOS.
  • A tribunal was established by the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea (ITLOS)under the provisions of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). The ITLOS ruling of 2015 asked Italy and India to suspend all prosecutions in the case. Both Italian marines returned from India to Italy in 2014 and in 2016 respectively.
  • The Permanent Court of Arbitration heard the case in July 2019.
  • Recently, India lost jurisdiction over two Italian marines who are facing charges of killing two Indian fishermen in the “Enrica Lexie” case.
  • Italy, since the beginning, has been trying for domestic trails of the marines in Italy. Now as per the new verdict the case will not stand trial in India, and the marines will face criminal proceedings in Italy.
  • This case and its progress have soured the diplomatic relations between India and Italy.


International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea

  • It is a multi-governmental establishment formed by the mandate of the 3rd UN Conference on the Law of the Sea. It was established in 1996 and has headquarters in Hamburg, Germany. It adjudicates on disputes relating to the interpretation and application of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.
  • It has jurisdiction to resolve a variety of international law of the sea disputes such as the delimitation of maritime zones, fisheries, navigation and the protection of the marine environment.


Philippines decided to resume oil exploration in its EEZ:

  • Philippine government has decided to resume oil exploration in its exclusive economic zone, a 320-km stretch of waters where a coastal state can exclusively exploit maritime resources under the 1982 N. Convention on the Law of the Sea.
  • This includes Reed Bank,which China also claims. This region is located in the disputed South China Sea.


South China Sea:

  • South China Sea is an arm of western Pacific Ocean in Southeast Asia.
  • It is south of China, east & south of Vietnam, west of the Philippines and north of the island of Borneo.
  • Bordering states & territories(clockwise from north): the People’s Republic of China, the Republic of China (Taiwan), the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, Indonesia, Singapore and Vietnam.
  • It is connected by Taiwan Strait with the East China Seaand by Luzon Strait with the Philippine Sea.
  • It contains numerous shoals, reefs, atolls and islands. The Paracel Islands, the Spratly Islands and the Scarborough Shoal are the most important.


Claims of different Countries:

  • China
    • Claims by far the largest portion of territory – an area defined by the “nine-dash line” which stretches hundreds of miles south and east from its most southerly province of Hainan.
  • Vietnam
    • hotly disputes China’s historical account, saying China had never claimed sovereignty over the islands before the 1940s. Vietnam says it has actively ruled over both the Paracels and the Spratlys since the 17th Century – and has the documents to prove it.
  • Philippines
    • both the Philippines and China lay claim to the Scarborough Shoal (known as Huangyan Island in China) – a little more than 100 miles (160km) from the Philippines and 500 miles from China.
  • Malaysia and Brunei
    • They lay claim to territory in the South China Sea that they say falls within their economic exclusion zones, as defined by UNCLOS – the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. Brunei does not claim any of the disputed islands, but Malaysia claims a small number of islands in the Spratlys.



What makes it so important?

  • This sea holds tremendous strategic importancefor its location as it is the connecting link between the Indian Ocean and the Pacific Ocean. (Strait of Malacca)
  • According to the United Nations Conference on Trade And Development (UNCTAD) one-third of the global shippingpasses through it, carrying trillions of trade which makes it a significant geopolitical water body.
  • According to the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, Philippines, this sea has one-third of the entire world’s marine biodiversityand contains lucrative fisheries providing food security to the Southeast Asian nations.
  • South China Sea is believed to have huge oil and gas reservesbeneath its seabed.


United Nations Conference on Trade And Development (UNCTAD)

  • Permanent intergovernmental bodyestablished by the United Nations General Assembly in 1964.
  • Headquartered in Geneva, Switzerland.
  • Part of the UN Secretariat and the United Nations Development Group.
  • Main UN body dealing with trade, investment and development issues.



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