convention on the territorial sea and the contiguous zone

The Convention On The Territorial Sea And The Contiguous Zone

In the vast realm of international maritime law, one of the fundamental agreements that play a pivotal role in governing the world’s oceans is the Convention on the Territorial Sea and the Contiguous Zone. This Convention, often referred to as the UNCLOS (United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea), is a complex and comprehensive framework that delineates the rights and responsibilities of nations concerning their territorial waters and the adjacent contiguous zone. In this article, we will delve into the intricacies of this Convention, exploring its history, key provisions, and its significance in today’s world.

History of the Convention

Origins of UNCLOS:Convention On The Territorial Sea And The Contiguous Zone

The roots of the Convention on the Territorial Sea and the Contiguous Zone can be traced back to the mid-20th century when concerns about the unregulated use of the world’s oceans began to mount. Before UNCLOS, there were several attempts to establish international norms governing the seas, but they often needed universal acceptance.

Convention On The Territorial Sea And The Contiguous Zone
convention on the territorial sea and the contiguous zone

UNCLOS: A Milestone Achievement

UNCLOS was adopted in 1982 and entered into force in 1994. This monumental agreement addressed the ever-increasing conflicts and ambiguities regarding maritime boundaries, resource exploitation, and environmental protection. Its adoption marked a significant milestone in the history of international maritime law.

Key Provisions of UNCLOS

Territorial Sea

One of the primary aspects of UNCLOS is the definition and regulation of the territorial sea, which extends 12 nautical miles from a coastal state’s baseline. Within this zone, coastal states have full sovereignty and jurisdiction, including the right to control and regulate activities such as navigation, fishing, and scientific research.

Contiguous Zone

Beyond the territorial sea lies the contiguous zone, extending 12 nautical miles. In this zone, coastal states have limited jurisdiction to prevent customs, fiscal, immigration, and sanitary violations.

Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ)

UNCLOS introduces the concept of the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), which extends 200 nautical miles from the baseline. Within the EEZ, coastal states have exclusive rights to explore and exploit natural resources, including fish and minerals.

Freedom of Navigation

A crucial provision of UNCLOS is the principle of “freedom of navigation.” This ensures that ships of all states enjoy the right to navigate freely through international waters, including the territorial sea, subject to certain regulations.Convention On The Territorial Sea And The Contiguous Zone

Significance in the Modern World

Resource Management

The Convention on the Territorial Sea and the Contiguous Zone is critical in resource management, especially in fisheries and mineral extraction. It provides a framework for nations to cooperate and avoid overexploitation of marine resources.

Environmental Protection

UNCLOS emphasizes environmental protection, requiring coastal states to take measures to prevent pollution and conserve the marine environment. This aligns with the global effort to combat climate change and preserve biodiversity.Convention On The Territorial Sea And The Contiguous Zone

Dispute Resolution

In a world where territorial disputes over maritime boundaries are not uncommon, UNCLOS provides a mechanism for peaceful resolution through international arbitration.

What is the difference between contiguous zones and territorial waters?

The contiguous zone and territorial waters are both maritime zones extending from a coastal state’s coastline, but they serve different purposes and have distinct legal implications:

Territorial Waters:

  • Territorial waters refer to a belt of coastal waters extending up to 12 nautical miles (22.2 kilometres) from a coastal state’s baselines, typically the low-water mark along the coast.
  • Within the territorial waters, the coastal state exercises full sovereignty, which means it has complete control over the waters, the seabed, and the airspace above.
  • The coastal state can enforce its laws and regulations in these waters, including customs, immigration, and environmental laws.
  • Ships of all states enjoy the right of innocent passage through the territorial waters, but this passage must be continuous and non-threatening to the coastal state’s security.
Convention On The Territorial Sea And The Contiguous Zone
convention on the territorial sea and the contiguous zone

Contiguous Zone:

  • The contiguous zone is an area adjacent to the territorial waters, extending from the outer limit of the territorial sea up to 24 nautical miles (44.4 kilometres) from the coastal state’s baselines.
  • In the contiguous zone, the coastal state has a more limited set of rights compared to its territorial waters.
  • Coastal states have jurisdiction in the contiguous zone to enforce specific laws, such as customs, fiscal, immigration, or sanitary regulations.
  • This zone allows coastal states to extend their legal reach beyond their territorial waters to address certain regulatory and enforcement issues without exercising full sovereignty.

The difference between the two is that territorial waters represent the area where a coastal state exercises full sovereignty and control over all aspects of the sea. At the same time, the contiguous zone is an extension of this zone where the coastal state has limited jurisdiction for specific regulatory purposes, primarily related to customs and law enforcement. The contiguous zone is an intermediate zone between the territorial waters and the high seas. It is designed to help coastal states protect their interests without infringing on the principle of innocent passage through the territorial sea by foreign vessels.Convention On The Territorial Sea And The Contiguous Zone

When did the Convention on the Territorial Sea and Contiguous Zone come into force?

The Convention on the Territorial Sea and Contiguous Zone, adopted in 1958, came into force on September 10, 1964. This international treaty established rules and regulations regarding a coastal state’s sovereignty over its territorial sea and contiguous zone. It has been an important instrument in regulating maritime boundaries and preventing conflicts at sea.

What is the Convention of landlocked countries?

The Convention on Transit Trade of Landlocked States is an international treaty that addresses the unique challenges faced by landlocked countries in gaining access to the sea for their international trade. The Convention aims to facilitate the transit of goods to and from landlocked countries through the territory of their neighbouring coastal states.

About the Convention on Transit Trade of Landlocked States:


  • The primary purpose of the Convention is to ensure that landlocked countries have unimpeded and efficient access to the sea for their import and export activities. Landlocked countries often face geographical constraints that can make trade more costly and challenging.
Convention On The Territorial Sea And The Contiguous Zone
convention on the territorial sea and the contiguous zone

Rights and Obligations: 

  • The Convention outlines the rights and obligations of both landlocked and coastal states. Landlocked states have the right to “transit” through their neighbouring coastal states, meaning they can use their territories and infrastructure to transport goods to and from the sea.
  • Non-Discrimination: 
  • The Convention emphasizes the principle of non-discrimination. Coastal states must provide landlocked states with transit facilities and services that are at least as favourable as those provided to neighbouring coastal states or other foreign countries.

Customs and Administrative Procedures: 

  • The treaty establishes provisions for simplifying customs and administrative procedures to expedite the movement of goods. This includes reducing unnecessary delays and bureaucratic barriers.

Infrastructure Development:

  •  Coastal states are encouraged to develop and improve transport infrastructure, such as roads, railways, ports, and customs facilities, to facilitate the transit of landlocked country’s goods.

Dispute Resolution: 

  • The Convention includes mechanisms for dispute resolution in case conflicts arise between landlocked and coastal states regarding transit arrangements.

The Convention on Transit Trade of Landlocked States was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on December 8, 1965, and entered into force on June 6, 1967. It is part of a broader framework of international law and agreements aimed at promoting landlocked countries’ economic development and trade interests. Landlocked countries often rely on these agreements to ensure their sea access and overcome the geographic challenges they face in conducting international trade.

What is the 200 nautical miles rule?

The “200 nautical miles rule” refers to the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) concept in international maritime law. Under this rule, coastal states have the exclusive rights to explore and exploit the natural resources within an area extending up to 200 nautical miles (approximately 370.4 kilometres) from their baselines. The EEZ is an important concept established by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

Here are the key points related to the 200 nautical miles rule and the EEZ:

Exclusive Rights: 

  • In their EEZ, coastal states have exclusive rights to the exploration and use of living and non-living resources, including fish, oil, gas, minerals, and other resources found in or beneath the seabed, water column, or ocean floor.
  • Sovereign Rights: 
  • Coastal states exercise sovereign rights over the natural resources in their EEZ, meaning they have significant control and jurisdiction over economic activities, environmental protection, and scientific research within this zone.
Convention On The Territorial Sea And The Contiguous Zone
convention on the territorial sea and the contiguous zone


  • The concept of the EEZ extends the coastal state’s jurisdiction beyond its territorial waters (typically up to 12 nautical miles). It allows it to regulate and manage economic activities in the larger area.

Rights of Navigation and Overflight:

  •  While coastal states have exclusive rights to the resources within their EEZ, the Convention guarantees the freedom of navigation and overflight for all states through these zones. 
  • This means that ships and aircraft from other countries have the right to pass through EEZs without prior authorization, subject to certain conditions, such as not conducting activities that are harmful to the environment or the coastal state’s resources.


  •  In cases where the EEZ of one coastal state overlaps with that of a neighbouring state, UNCLOS provides guidelines for delimiting these zones to avoid disputes.

The 200-nautical-mile limit for the EEZ was established to provide coastal states with an extended area of jurisdiction over marine resources while ensuring that international waters beyond the EEZ remain accessible for global navigation and use. UNCLOS, which came into force in 1994, is the primary international legal framework that defines and regulates the rights and responsibilities of states concerning their EEZs and other maritime zones. It has been widely adopted and ratified by many countries around the world.

What is the meaning of archipelagic waters?

Archipelagic waters refer to the body of water between the islands of an archipelago, a group of islands closely clustered together, often located in proximity. These waters are considered part of the territory of the archipelagic state and are subject to the sovereignty and jurisdiction of that state.Convention On The Territorial Sea And The Contiguous Zone

About archipelagic waters:

Sovereign Control: 

  • Archipelagic waters are under the sovereign control of the archipelagic state, meaning that the state has the exclusive right to regulate and enforce its laws within these waters, including customs, immigration, and environmental protection.


  • To establish the outer limits of its archipelagic waters, the archipelagic state must draw baselines connecting the outermost points of its islands and islets. The waters enclosed by these baselines are considered archipelagic waters.

Transit Rights:

  •  While the archipelagic state has sovereign control over its waters, it must allow for the right of innocent passage and transit through certain designated routes. This ensures that ships, including military vessels, from other states have the right to navigate through archipelagic waters without unnecessary interference as long as they do not threaten the archipelagic state’s peace, security, or environment.

The concept of archipelagic waters is governed by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), specifically under Part IV, titled “Archipelagic States.” UNCLOS provides guidelines for how archipelagic states should delineate their archipelagic baselines and manage their archipelagic waters to balance their sovereignty with the principles of freedom of navigation and innocent passage for international shipping. UNCLOS entered force in 1994 and is considered the primary framework for international law regulating maritime rights and responsibilities.

What are the 4 pillars of the International Maritime Convention?

The four pillars of international maritime conventions are fundamental principles and focus areas that serve as the cornerstone of the legal framework governing international maritime affairs. These four pillars are essential components of international maritime law and conventions:

Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS):

  • The SOLAS Convention is one of the most critical pillars of international maritime law. It focuses on the safety of ships, their equipment, and the safety of crew and passengers.
  • SOLAS sets forth regulations and requirements to ensure that ships are constructed, equipped, and operated safely to prevent accidents at sea.
  • The Convention addresses various aspects of ship safety, including stability, fire protection, life-saving appliances, and navigation.

Marine Pollution Prevention (MARPOL):

  • The MARPOL Convention addresses the prevention of pollution from ships and the protection of the marine environment.
  • It sets out regulations for preventing pollution by oil, noxious liquid substances, harmful substances in packaged form, sewage, garbage, and air emissions from ships.
  • MARPOL aims to minimize the environmental impact of maritime activities and promote sustainable maritime practices.
Convention On The Territorial Sea And The Contiguous Zone
convention on the territorial sea and the contiguous zone

Standards of Training, Certification, and Watchkeeping for Seafarers (STCW):

International Maritime Organization (IMO):

These four pillars collectively provide the legal framework and guidelines for worldwide safe, secure, and environmentally responsible maritime operations. They reflect the international community’s commitment to regulating and improving various aspects of the maritime industry to protect human life, preserve the marine environment, and ensure global maritime commerce’s efficient and sustainable flow.


Is UNCLOS legally binding?

Yes, UNCLOS is a legally binding international treaty. States that are parties to the Convention must adhere to its provisions.

Are there any recent amendments to UNCLOS?

While there have been discussions about potential amendments, the core provisions of UNCLOS remain unchanged since its adoption in 1982.

How does UNCLOS address piracy in international waters?

UNCLOS allows states to act against piracy in international waters and calls for international cooperation to combat this threat.

Can coastal states restrict freedom of navigation in their territorial waters?

Coastal states can regulate and control navigation within their territorial waters but must do so under international law, including UNCLOS, which upholds the principle of freedom of navigation.

How can a nation become a party to UNCLOS?

To become a party to UNCLOS, a nation must deposit its instrument of accession or ratification with the United Nations Secretary-General. It then becomes bound by the Convention’s provisions.

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