International law of the sea

31.08.2018 - Article

The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea governs nearly all aspects of international law relating to the sea.

Entry into force

The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea of 10 December 1982 (UNCLOS) entered into force on 16 November 1994, supplemented by an Agreement of 28 July 1994 on the implementation of the provisions on seabed mining. The vast majority of countries has acceded to this Convention. The Agreement for the Implementation of the Provisions of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea of 10 December 1982 relating to the Conservation and Management of Straddling Fish Stocks and Highly Migratory Fish Stocks of 4 August 1995 entered into force on 11 December 2001. Germany acceded to this Agreement on 19 December 2003 along with all other EU countries.

Negotiating history

The negotiations leading up to the signature of UNCLOS took over 25 years. It all started in 1967 with the call for the seabed to be declared the “common heritage of mankind”. In response, the UN General Assembly established the Seabed Committee, which led to the convening in 1973 of the Third UN Conference on the Law of the Sea. This Conference concluded in 1982 with the adoption of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. Most Western industrialised nations initially rejected the Convention because of the provisions on seabed mining contained in Part XI, in particular the rules on taxes, customs duties and mining restrictions, as well as technology transfers and decision-making processes within the International Seabed Authority. An informal consultation process under the auspices of the UN Secretary-General eventually resulted in Part XI of the Convention being modified in the form of the Implementing Agreement of 28 July 1994. This paved the way for universal acceptance of UNCLOS.

The Convention

With 320 articles in total, the Convention is the most comprehensive and important multilateral treaty developed within the UN framework. It replaces the four Geneva Conventions on the Law of the Sea of 1958 and regulates almost all spheres of the international law of the sea (demarcation of the various maritime zones, such as the territorial sea, contiguous zone, straits, archipelagic waters, exclusive economic zone, continental shelf and the high seas; use of these areas by shipping, overflight, the laying of pipelines and cables, fishing and research; protection of the marine environment; development and transfer of marine technology; seabed mining; the settlement of disputes, in particular with the establishment of the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea). The Convention both codified existing law and introduced new international rules on the law of the sea, for example in the sphere of marine environmental protection. The States Parties discuss the implementation of the Convention at annual meetings.

The UNCLOS provisions on piracy provide the basis for tackling this Problem.


UNCLOS established three new institutions: the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea (ITLOS) in Hamburg, the International Seabed Authority (ISA) in Kingston, Jamaica (comprising an Assembly, Council and Secretariat), and the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (CLCS). The Tribunal is the first significant legal institution from the broader UN sphere to have its headquarters on German territory. A total of 25 cases have been submitted to the Tribunal so far.

Germany’s territorial sea

The German statute to implement the UNCLOS regime (Act Implementing the Convention on the Law of the Sea 1982/94), which provides for the necessary adaptation of national law, entered into force on 15 June 1995. On the basis of the Convention, the Federal Republic of Germany extended the breadth of its territorial sea to a maximum of 12 nautical miles as of 1 January 1995 and proclaimed the establishment of an exclusive economic zone in the North and Baltic Seas. In particular, this created the prerequisites for more effective environmental protection and better shipping safety.

On 15 May 2018, Federal President Frank-Walter Steinmeier and Prime Minister Mark Rutte of the Netherlands exchanged the instruments of ratification in The Hague for the German-Netherlands Treaty on the Use and Management of the Territorial Sea between Three and Twelve Nautical Miles from the Coast; this is known as the Ems-Dollart Treaty. As a result, the Treaty signed by the two countries’ Foreign Ministers on the River Ems on 24 October 2014 entered into force at the start of July 2018. In the “spirit of good neighbourliness”, the necessary legal certainty for further economic use of the ports and waters (e.g. setting up offshore wind farms) will therefore be created around the Ems estuary and the territorial sea in the region. The Ems-Dollart Treaty is thus an excellent example of peaceful conflict resolution and transnational, innovative cooperation between two coastal states under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, regardless of the fact that the border has been contested for centuries.


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