United Nations Law of the Sea Treaty

UNCLOS: Law of the Sea

The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) was signed in 1982 in Montego Bay, Jamaica and brought under its umbrella the maritime laws enshrined in four maritime treaties which were signed in 1958. Although it was signed in 1982, it didn’t actually come into force until twelve years later when, after seemingly endless discussions on policy that had kept the USA from signing up, modifications were made that allowed the US to give its conditional backing to the Agreement on Implementation, though to this day the US has not ratified the agreement. Up to this date it has 157 signatories and has come to be accepted as a rubber-stamping of the principles of the Customary International Law regarding maritime law.

The United Nations Connection!

Despite the name, UNCLOS is not operated by the United Nations, although the organisation does give its support to the Convention, providing premises for meetings of its representatives, and also administers the ratification of UNCLOS’s conclusions and the accession of new member states. The abbreviation by which the Convention is known was actually originally used in 1958 when it referred to the first-ever United Nations Conference on the Law of the Sea which, though it reached many helpful conclusions, left open the issue of breadth of territorial waters.

Current Scenario

UNCLOS sat again in 1960 for six weeks, reaching no conclusions and basically taking the role as a stand-off between the respective allies of the USA and the then USSR. Seven years later the Maltese diplomat Arvid Pardo raised the issue of varying territorial claims over bodies of water, but it still took another six years to convene the third and final conference.

It was at this conference that the decision was taken to ditch the idea of a majority vote thus avoiding the danger that large cabals of pressure groups would dominate proceedings, and replacing the system with a consensus process. This time around the conference sat for a total of nine years, due to the combination of the aforementioned consensus process and the vast number of nations attending. At this sitting of the Conference, it was decided that a coastal state had dominion over the waters up to twelve miles off its own coast.

Created at the same time as the UNCLOS was the ITLOS – International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea, which is the overall court of law for disputes concerning maritime matters, and has 155 members at the last count.