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In international law, the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, or UNCLOS, acronym of the name in English United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, is an international treaty that defines the rights and responsibilities of States in the use of the seas and oceans, defining guidelines that regulate the negotiations, the environment and the management of mineral resources.

The problem of the different claims on territorial waters was raised at the United Nations in 1967 by Arvid Pardo of Malta, therefore considered the father of the Convention on the Law of the Sea. UNCLOS was finalized during a long process of negotiation through a series of United Nations Conferences beginning in 1973 and was finally opened for signature in Montego Bay, Jamaica on December 10, 1982. It entered into force on November 16, 1994, one year after Guyana signed as the 60th Contracting State.

At the moment 164 States have signed the Convention; the European Community has signed and ratified, the United States has signed, but the US Senate has not yet ratified it.


The UNCLOS replaces the old concept of freedom of the seas, dating back to the seventeenth century according to which, in principle, national rights were limited to specific strips of sea which generally extended for three nautical miles, according to the so-called "shooting of the cannon" developed by the Dutch jurist Cornelis van Bynkershoek. All the sea space beyond this band was considered "international waters", i.e. owned by no state and therefore freely accessible to each of them.

In the twentieth century some States expressed the desire to extend their national jurisdiction especially to be able to increase the possibility of exclusively exploiting marine resources, mainly mining and fishing, beyond the three-mile limit. Between 1946 and 1950, a number of countries began to declare the extension of their territorial waters to 12 or even 200 nautical miles on an international level.

To date, only a very small part of the coastal states of the world continue to maintain a limit of national jurisdiction over a strip of sea of ​​only three miles.

The UNCLOS, among other things, defines international waters therefore no longer "no man's land" but the property of everyone; consequently it is up to the Assembly of the Parties to draw up the rules for the use or regulation of the assets.

The indications of the UNCLOS

Zoning of areas according to international marine law
The Convention lays down the rules on activities and introduces a series of specific indications of fact, transforming what up to then had been the customary use of marine spaces into a rule.

The most important topics are: marine zoning, navigation, archipelago status and transit regimes, exclusive economic zone, continental shelf jurisdiction, seabed mining, exploitation regimes, protection of the marine environment, scientific research and dispute resolution.

The Convention sets the limits of the various identified marine areas, measured in a clear and defined manner starting from the so-called baseline. The baseline, so called as the starting point for the definition of internal waters and international waters, is defined as a broken line which joins the significant points of the coast, generally remaining in shallow waters, but where the coast is particularly jagged or in cases where islands are very close to the coast, the baseline may cut through and include large areas of sea.

The areas identified by UNCLOS are as follows:

Inland waters
that is, the sea space inside the baseline. In this area the laws of the coastal state are binding and regulate the use of resources and the passage of ships.

Territorial waters
which includes the sea space included from the baseline to 12 nautical miles. In this area, however, the laws of the coastal state are in force, but within the territorial waters there is the right of every vessel to the so-called harmless passage. Innocent passage is defined as the crossing of marine areas in a continuous and expedient manner which does not prejudice the peace, good order and security of the coastal State. Fishing, dumping, armed activities and espionage are not considered harmless actions; submarines and submarines must also sail on the surface showing the flag.

The internal waters of States comprising archipelagos are identified by drawing a baseline joining the outermost points of the outermost islands where these points are reasonably close together.

contiguous area
The contiguous zone extends from the territorial sea not further than 24 nautical miles from the baseline. In this area, the coastal State can both punish violations committed within its territory or territorial sea and prevent violations of its laws or regulations on customs, taxation, health and immigration matters. This makes the contiguous area a "hot pursuit area".

Exclusive economic zone
Also known by the acronym EEZ, it is the area of ​​the sea extending 200 nautical miles from the baseline in which the coastal state can exercise the right to exclusive exploitation of natural resources. This principle was created to curb the indiscriminate exploitation of fishing even if, with the new technologies that allow drilling for oil in very deep waters, it has also recently been used for exclusive mining and extractive exploitation.

Continental shelf
The continental shelf is considered as the natural extension of the territory of a State, which can therefore exploit its mineral or in any case non-living resources in an exclusive manner. The continental shelf may exceed 200 nautical miles but not exceed 350, or may be calculated by measuring 100 nautical miles from the 2,500 meter isobath.


download here the text of the convention PDF (Italian language)

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