United Nations Conference on the Law of the Sea

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In the years following the Second World War (1939–45) it became apparent that ocean resources needed to be regulated and partitioned in some way. The 17th-century doctrines, which eventually led to the three-mile limit and territorial waters, were proving totally inadequate in the 20th century for solving international disputes over fishing rights, the regulation of navigation, the prevention of marine pollution and other environmental issues, and the exploitation of offshore oil and gas deposits. Some nations were already claiming extensions to their territorial waters and a new codification of international law was needed if international instability and conflict was to be avoided.

The first United Nations Conference on the Law of the Sea was therefore convened in 1958, and was the first conference to consider the law of the sea internationally. Eighty-six nations participated and adopted four conventions which were more or less based on existing customary law: the Territorial Sea and the Contiguous Zone; the Continental Shelf; the High Seas; and Fishing and Conservation of the Living Resources of the High Seas. Apart from the problem of the width of the Territorial Sea, the first three became legally enforceable, but the fourth failed to attract enough support, and a second conference in 1960 failed to reach agreement on it and on fishing limits. Further conferences were held in 1973 and in 1982, and after nine years of vigorous bargaining between 160 sovereign states the convention containing the concept of an Exclusive Economic Zone was finally adopted. Most importantly, it creates a procedure for the settlement of disputes that is binding. On 16 November 1994, a year after the convention had been ratified by the 60th state signing, it became international law. The convention has probably been one of the most important legal instruments formulated by the United Nations for sustaining international peace. For illus.

see exclusive economic zone.

see exclusive economic zone.


M. V. Angel

Subjects: Maritime History.

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