The UN Convention on the Law of the Sea: A Chronology

UN Chronicle, March 1995 | Go to article overview

The UN Convention on the Law of the Sea: A Chronology


The First UN Conference on the Law of the Sea was held at Geneva in 1958 and resulted in the adoption of four conventions: on the high seas; on the territorial sea and the contiguous zone; on the continental shelf; and on fishing and conservation of the living resources of the high seas. Those conventions were based on drafts prepared by the International Law Commission.

The Second UN Conference on the Law of the Sea, also held at Geneva in 1960, made unsuccessful attempts to reach agreement on the breadth of the territorial sea and on fishing zones.

In response to growing concern over the possible militarization of the seabed and amid calls for the designation of the resources of the deep seabed as the common heritage of mankind, the General Assembly established in 1967 an ad hoc committee.

Having considered the ad hoc committee's initial report, the Assembly in 1968 established the Committee on the Peaceful Uses of the Seabed and the Ocean Floor beyond the Limits of National Jurisdiction. The Committee began work in 1969 on a statement of legal principles to govern the uses of the seabed and its resources.

Unanimous adoption of 1970 Declaration

In 1970, the General Assembly in 1970 unanimously adopted the Committee's Declaration of Principles, which stated that "the seabed and ocean floor, and the subsoil thereof, beyond the limits of national jurisdiction ... as well as the resources of the area are the common heritage of mankind", to be reserved for peaceful purposes, not subject to national appropriation and not to be explored or exploited, except in accordance with an international regime to be established.

The Assembly, recognizing that the problems of ocean space were interrelated and needed to be considered as a whole, also decided to convene a new conference to prepare a single, comprehensive treaty.

This new treaty was to encompass all aspects of the establishment of a regime and machinery for the international seabed area, as well as such issues as the regimes of the high seas, the continental shelf and territorial sea (including the question of limits), fishing rights, preservation of the marine environment, scientific research, and access to the sea by land-locked States.

The Third UN Conference on the Law of the Sea opened with a brief organizational session in 1973.

At its second session (Caracas, Venezuela, 1974) the Conference endorsed the Seabed Committee's recommendation that it work on a new law of the sea treaty as a "package deal", with no one article or section to be approved before all the others were in place. This reflected not only the interdependence of all the issues involved, but also the need to reach a delicate balance of compromises if the final document was to prove viable.

The first informal text of a comprehensive law was prepared as a basis for negotiation in 1975. Over the next seven years, in Conference committees and in special negotiating and working groups, the text underwent several major revisions.

The final text of the new convention was approved by the Conference on 30 April 1982, by a vote of 130 to 4, with 17 abstentions. When it was opened for signature at Montego Bay, Jamaica, on 10 December 1982, the new UN Convention on the Law of the Sea was signed by 117 States and two other entities, representing the largest number of signatures ever affixed to a treaty on its first day.

By the end of the period of signature, on 9 December 1984, the Convention had been signed by 159 States and several other entities--the UN Council for Namibia on behalf of Namibia, the 12-nation European Economic Community, the Cook Islands and Niue.

What the Convention covers

The Convention covers almost all ocean space and its uses, including navigation and overflight, resource exploration and exploitation, conservation and pollution, fishing and shipping.

Its 320 articles and nine annexes constitute a guide for behaviour by States in the world's oceans, defining maritime zones, laying down rules for drawing sea boundaries, assigning legal rights, duties and responsibilities to States, and providing machinery for the settlement of disputes. …

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