The UN Convention
on the Law of the Sea
The world has a set of rules about how to use the oceans: among them, the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (LOS Convention). Most nations have signed and ratified the treaty, and even those that have not—for example, the United States—abide by the vast majority of its rules. The LOS Convention spells out the rights and duties countries have with respect to navigational rights, ocean environmental protection, the use of living and non-living resources of the ocean, marine scientific research, piracy, and how to settle disputes arising between countries about matters governed by the treaty.
Every coastal nation has greatest jurisdiction over the waters closest to its shores, known as its territorial sea. This jurisdiction diminishes as one travels away from shore, through several zones, to the High Seas. The Convention also reserves an “Area” under the High Seas not subject to any country’s jurisdiction; its mineral resources are considered to be the responsibility and resource of all, or “the common heritage of mankind.”
The LOS Convention’s rules about the ocean’s non-living resources (think: “oil and gas”) lie at the heart of the current flurry of scientific activity to map the Arctic Ocean by all five Arctic countries with coastline above the Arctic Circle—Canada, Denmark/Greenland, Norway, Russia, and the United States. Article 77 of the Convention gives every coastal state the exclusive sovereign right to “explore and exploit” the living and non-living resources of the seabed and subsoil within a certain area that the treaty calls “the continental shelf.” This part of the treaty is concerned only with what is on or under the ocean floor; a separate part of the treaty deals with living marine resources that dwell in the water column.
Every coastal nation automatically has these exclusive rights for the seabed and subsoil that lie within 200 nautical miles of its territorial sea baseline. A party to the Convention can provide specific scientific evidence showing just how far its continental shelf extends past that 200 nm line to the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (CLCS), an expert body of geophysicists and hydrographers set up by the LOS Convention. The evidence must show that the “shelf” is a natural prolongation of the country’s continental landmass and must identify such things as where the shelf descends to meet the ocean floor. There are limits on how far beyond the 200 nm line a country can exercise its rights (350 nm from shore or 100 nm beyond where the water is 2500 m deep). These limits protect the common heritage “Area” from being taken up entirely by continental shelves of coastal countries. You can see a graphical representation of these limits in our Gallery.
The United States is the only Arctic country, and indeed one of the few countries in the world, that has not yet ratified the LOS Convention. A non-party country has the same rights in its extended continental shelf as a country that has ratified the Convention, but without ratifying, the U.S. cannot submit its scientific findings to the CLCS, which means the U.S. will not have the opportunity to receive their recommendations and set ECS limits based on them. There is an benefit to considering these recommendations: according to the LOS Convention, if a coastal country establishes its ECS limits “on the basis of” CLCS recommendations, those limits are “final and binding.”
A small handful of senators has blocked ratification in the past, notwithstanding widespread support for the Convention from all branches of the military, environmental groups and industry interests. President Clinton and both Presidents Bush supported the treaty, as does the current administration. The LOS Convention is the best hope for international cooperation towards sustainable, safe, and equitable use of the world’s oceans.