Law of the Sea Convention

Undersea forest with swimming orange fish
Undersea forest (White House report)

The 1982 Law of the Sea Convention offsite link (LOSC) sets forth a comprehensive legal framework for the use and protection of the sea, the seabed and subsoil, and the marine environment, including both natural and cultural resources. Through a wide range of provisions, the LOSC establishes clear guidelines with respect to states' navigational rights, maritime zones and boundaries, and economic jurisdiction, while also providing member states a mechanism for international cooperation and dispute resolution. Although not yet a party to the treaty, the U.S. nevertheless observes the UN LOSC as reflective of customary international law and practice. Despite the efforts of numerous government officials, organizations, and industries since its creation, the treaty has yet to gather the Congressional support necessary for U.S. accession.

U.S. Accession to the Law of the Sea Convention

U.S. accession to the Law of the Sea Convention has received support from current and past Administrations, both Republican and Democratic, military leaders, and various other high-ranking U.S. government officials. 
See Department of State Law of the Sea Convention. U.S. accession to the treaty has similarly received strong support from a wide variety of businesses, organizations, and individuals, including those in the fishing, energy, telecommunications, legal, and environmental fields. See Supporters.

Of the many benefits to be gained from U.S. accession to the UN LOSC, establishing an internationally recognized legal foundation to support U.S. rights and claims is perhaps the most commonly cited. As stated by President Barack Obama in the 2013 National Strategy for the Arctic Region, "Only by joining the convention can we maximize legal certainty and best secure international recognition of our sovereign rights with respect to the U.S. extended continental shelf in the Arctic and elsewhere." The widespread benefits are not limited to the continental shelf and its resources, however.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, alongside Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey, testified in support of U.S. accession to the Convention in a May 2012 hearing of the 
Senate Foreign Relations Committee, emphasizing that as the "world's foremost maritime power" and country with the largest Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), the United States stands to gain more from this treaty in terms of economics, security, and international influence than any other nation. That same month, while giving a speech on the national security benefits of the treaty at the Forum on the Law of the Sea Convention offsite link, General Dempsey stated, "The Convention gives us another tool to effectively resolve conflicts at every level. It provides a common language, and therefore a better opportunity, to settle disputes with cooperation instead of cannons." Department of Defense.

Secretary of State John Kerry has similarly reiterated support for U.S. accession to the Convention throughout his time in office. While acting as Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Secretary Kerry authored an article  offsite linkpublished in the Huffington Post highlighting the widespread bipartisan support for U.S. accession to the treaty, writing: "It's a treaty that boasts an unprecedented breadth of support from Republican foreign policy experts, the United States military, and the hard-nosed, bottom line American business community." See US Leaders Support Law of the Sea Treaty offsite link.

In Executive Order 13547 (July 19, 2010), President Barack Obama established a National Policy for Stewardship of the Ocean, our Coasts and the Great Lakes, commonly referred to as the "National Ocean Policy". The Executive Order identifies U.S. accession to LOSC as a key priority in implementing the National Ocean Policy, while also adopting the Final Recommendations of the Interagency Ocean Policy Task Force. The Final Recommendations reflect that the Task Force "strongly and unanimously supports United States accession to the Convention on the Law of the Sea and ratification of its 1994 Implementing Agreement."

Furthermore, while speaking with the Seattle Times offsite link in September 2009, NOAA Administrator Dr. Jane Lubchenco and Commandant of the Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen issued a statement advocating U.S. ratification of the Law of the Sea Convention, emphasizing the many ways in which the treaty will preserve "our ability to protect our domestic interests, including our extended continental shelf claims" and allow the U.S. to "address the changing realities of the global maritime environment."

For more information on U.S. accession to the LOSC, the U.S. Department of State maintains a database of LOSC Fact Sheets reflecting the benefits, support, and other recent information.

Background and History

The practice of coastal States exercising jurisdictional rights and authority over activities in their coastal waters dates back to at least the 17th century, where a three (3) nautical mile territorial sea was recognized as the limit of a coastal State's control. This recognition has been attributed to the range of a cannon in the 17th century, and is commonly known as the "Canon Shot Rule." Seaward of the territorial seas were the high seas, in which all vessels had the freedom of the seas, including the freedom of navigation and exploitation. A customs zone or belt of water adjacent to the territorial sea later developed in which states recognized the coastal States' right to enforce certain customs and trafficking laws. Centuries later, through President Harry Truman's 1945 proclamation concerning the continental shelf, the United States asserted jurisdiction and control over the natural resources of the continental shelf, recognizing the shelf as a natural prolongation of U.S. territorial lands. Shortly thereafter, as the need for a comprehensive legal framework became more apparent, the United Nations held its first Conference on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS I) in 1956, which resulted in four conventions: the 1958 Convention on the Territorial Sea and Contiguous Zone, the 1958 Convention on the Continental Shelf offsite link, the 1958 Convention on the High Seas and the 1958 Convention on Fishing and Conservation of Living Resources of the High Seas. Certified copies of the four conventions were transmitted by the President to the Senate with a view to receiving its advice and consent. In April 1960, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee favorably reported the four conventions and recommended that the Senate give its advice and consent. Resolutions on ratification were approved by the Senate in May 1960. The United Nations held a second conference regarding the Laws of the Sea in 1960 (UNCLOS II), however this conference did not result in any convention or agreement. Another UN conference was called in 1973 to address certain unresolved issues (UNCLOS III); this conference was concluded in Montego Bay, Jamaica in 1982, and resulted in the 1982 Law of the Sea Convention (LOSC). The LOSC came into force in 1994 upon receiving the necessary number of signatories.

Additional reference information: Some of these links are to external sites.

Please note: When you click on many of the links on this page you will be leaving the NOAA General Counsel web site. You may wish to review the copyright and other notices on those sites since their practices may be different.

Undersea forest with swimming orange fish
Undersea forest (White House report)