What was the UN Convention on Laws of the Sea?



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    The United Nations Convention on the Laws of the Sea, commonly abbreviated as UNCLOS, refers to a set of meetings and agreements held by the United Nations in order to discuss and agree upon the rights and responsibilities different nations have in regards to the world’s oceans. Each of the meetings had its own successes and failures and each built upon the last. 

    The first UN Convention on Laws of the Sea was held in 1956 in Geneva, Switzerland. The first such gathering of its kind, the meeting was extremely productive; within two years four treaties regarding the world’s oceans had been drafted and presented. They were; the Convention on the Territorial Sea and Contiguous Zone, the Convention on the Continental Shelf, the Convention on the High Seas and the Convention on Fishing and Conservation of Living Resources of the High Seas, all of which were in effect within a decade. These treaties became the foundation for subsequent legislation regarding things like natural resource rights and fishing treaties. The second UNCLOS was also held in Geneva, this time in 1960. Due to political alliances and hostility of the building Cold War, little was accomplished at this meeting and it is generally considered a failure following the incredibly productive first convention.

    Tuna and other important fish species were a major focus of the UNCLOS

    The third gathering of the UNCLOS was held in New York, New York in 1982. The meetings grand success was in the defining of six distinct types of waters and what they mean for resource rights and jurisdiction; Internal were waters found within a state and were solely their control. Territorial Waters expanded 12 miles off the coast of each country, and were under the jurisdiction of said country. Another 12 miles, 24 total is considered the Contagious Zone and countries are given this room to enforce anti-smuggling and immigration laws. The Continental Shelf refers to 200 miles off the coast of which countries have the right to harvest non-living resources from. These newly established definitions were very beneficial to larger countries like the United States and the USSR while smaller countries did not benefit as much.

    The UNCLOS reconvened in 1994 to redraft certain parts of previous agreements that were not working out as well as they ha hoped. Under something called Part XI, the UNCLOS set restrictions on travel, navigation, seabed mining areas, fishing areas and created what are known as Exclusive Economic Zones or EEZs. These are special areas where certain countries have exclusive rights to underwater resources. The International Seabed Authority is an autonomous international organization established in 1994 to enforce Laws of the Sea regarding ownership of underwater resources. Many countries are currently exploring off their coasts looking for marine mining areas. While these provisions are a good start, more is needed to strengthen the rule of international law on the high seas.

    While 24 countries have signed but not ratified the UNCLOS, only 17 countries have refused to sign it and the majority of countries, though they may disagree with parts, respect and obey the provisions laid out. The US signed but did not ratify Part XI of the UNCLOS because they contested it would jeopardize America’s economic freedom, however the US continues to supports all the other provisions as customary international law. As recently as 2006, nations have used the law to enforce boundary disputed. Caribbean Nations Trinidad and Tobago and the nation of Barbados recently had a boundary dispute over lands just of the their coasts. China and Japan have also had disputes over boundaries within the East China Sea over who has the rights to undersea resources.

    Dark Green countries have signed and ratified Part XI while the light green have only signed but refused to ratify, as is the case with the United States.

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