Convention on the Law of the Sea (1982)

views updated

Convention on the Law of the Sea (1982)

During the age of exploration in the seventeenth century, the Dutch lawyer Hugo Grotius formulated the legal principle that the ocean was free (Mare liberum ), which became the basis of the law of the sea. During the eighteenth century, each coastal nation was granted sovereignty over an offshore margin of three nautical miles to provide for better defense against pirates and other intruders. As undersea exploration advanced in the twentieth century, nations became increasingly interested in the potential resources of the oceans. By the 1970s, many were determined to exploit resources such as petroleum on the continental shelf and manganese nodules rich with metals on the deep ocean floor, but uncertainties about the legal status of these resources inhibited investment.

In 1974 the United Nations responded to these concerns and convened a Conference on the Law of the Sea, at which the nations of the world negotiated a consensus dividing the ocean among them. The participants drafted a proposed constitution for the world's oceans, including in it a number of provisions that radically altered their legal status. First, the convention extended the territorial sea from three to 22 nautical miles, giving nations the same rights and responsibilities within this zone that they possess over land. Negotiations were necessary to ensure that ships have a right to navigate these coastal zones when going from one ocean to another.

The convention also acknowledged a 200 nautical mile Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), in which nations could regulate fisheries as well as resource exploration and exploitation. By the late 1970s, over 100 nations had already claimed territorial seas extending from 12 to 200 miles. The United States, for example, claims a 200 mile zone. Today, EEZs cover about one third of the ocean, completely dividing the North Sea, the Mediterranean Sea , the Gulf of Mexico, and the Caribbean among coastal states. They also encompass an area that yields more than 90% of the ocean's fish catch, and they are considered a potentially effective means to control overfishing because they provide governments clear responsibility for their own fisheries.

The most heated debates during the convention, however, did not concern the EEZs, but involved provisions concerning seabed mining. Third World nations insisted that deep-sea metals were the common heritage of mankind, and that their wealth should be shared. After fierce disagreements, a compromise was reached in 1980 that would establish a new International Seabed Authority (ISA). Under the plan, any national or private enterprise could take half the seabed mining sites and the ISA would take the other half. In exchange for mining rights, industrialized nations would underwrite the ISA and sell it the necessary technology. In December 1982, 117 nations signed the Law of the Sea Convention at Montego Bay, Jamaica. President Ronald Reagan refused to sign, citing the seabed-mining provisions as a major reason for United States opposition. Two other key nations, the United Kingdom and Germany, refused, and 21 nations abstained. In order to become international law, 60 nations must ratify the Law of the Sea Convention, but although 159 nations have now become signatories, only 40 have actually ratified it.

See also Coastal Zone Management Act; Commercial fishing; Oil drilling

[David Clarke ]



Law of the Sea: Protection and Preservation of the Marine Environment. New York: United Nations, 1990.

Porter, G., and J. W. Brown. Global Environmental Politics. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1991.

Simon, A. W. Neptune's Revenge, The Ocean of Tomorrow. New York: Franklin Watts, 1984.

About this article

Convention on the Law of the Sea (1982)

Updated About content Print Article


Convention on the Law of the Sea (1982)