The Convention on the Law of the Sea

Aircraft carriers sail the open water.

The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) supports implementation of the National Security Strategy, provides legal certainty in the world's largest maneuver space, and preserves essential navigation and overflight rights. One hundred and sixty nations and the European Union are Party to the Convention – but not the United States, the world's leading maritime nation.

Becoming a Party to the Law of the Sea Convention would help to ensure the Navy's ability to move forces on, over, and under the world's oceans, whenever and wherever needed, and is an important asset in the Global War on Terrorism.

The Convention is in the national interest of the United States because it establishes stable maritime zones, including a maximum outer limit for territorial seas; codifies innocent passage, transit passage, and archipelagic sea lanes passage rights; works against "jurisdictional creep" by preventing coastal nations from expanding their own maritime zones; and reaffirms sovereign immunity of warships, auxiliaries and government aircraft.

Specifically, the Convention recognizes and preserves for our ships and aircraft the freedom to conduct:

Economically, accession to the Convention would support our national interests by enhancing the ability of the US to assert its sovereign rights over the resources of one of the largest continental shelves in the world. Further, it is the Law of the Sea Convention that first established the concept of a maritime Exclusive Economic Zone out to 200 nautical miles, and recognized the rights of coastal states to conserve and manage the natural resources in this Zone.

Background / History

President Ronald Reagan supported the Convention, but objected to certain deep seabed mining provisions. After reviewing an early draft of the Convention he vowed to continue to participate in further Convention negotiations to address deficiencies in the Convention's deep seabed mining provisions.

In March 1983 President Reagan issued a statement indicating that he remained dissatisfied with the deep seabed mining provisions but proclaimed the U.S. would recognize all other provisions of the Convention relating to traditional uses of the oceans.

President Reagan's Secretary of State and key advisor regarding the Convention negotiations, Mr. George Shultz, now supports accession to the Convention and states the 1994 Agreement adequately addressed President Reagan's deep seabed mining concerns.

There has been bipartisan presidential support for joining the Convention since the 1994 Agreement addressed the objections raised by President Reagan in 1983.

Statement of Admiral Jonathan W. Greenert, Chief of Naval Operations, before the Senate Armed Services Committee - March 2012:

"The Navy's ability to retain access to international waters and airspace as well as critical chokepoints throughout the world would be enhanced by accession to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). As the world's preeminent maritime power, the United States has much to gain from the legal certainty and global order brought by UNCLOS. The United States should not rely on customs and traditions for the legal basis of our military and commercial activity when we can instead use a formal mechanism such as UNCLOS. As a party to UNCLOS, we will be in a better position to counter the efforts of coastal nations to restrict freedom of the seas."

Statement of The Honorable Ray Mabus, Secretary of The Navy, before the Senate Armed Services Committee - March 2012:

"The traditional freedom of the seas for all nations developed over centuries, mostly by custom, have been encoded within the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). This important treaty continues to enjoy the strong support of the DoD and the DON. The UNCLOS treaty guarantees rights such as innocent passage through territorial seas; transit passage through, under and over international straits; and the laying and maintaining of submarine cables. The convention has been approved by nearly every maritime power and all the permanent members of the UN Security Council, except the United States. Our notable absence as a signatory weakens our position with other nations, allowing the introduction of expansive definitions of sovereignty on the high seas that undermine our ability to defend our mineral rights along our own continental shelf and in the Arctic. The Department strongly supports the accession to UNCLOS, an action consistently recommended by my predecessors of both parties."

Excerpt from President Obama's National Security Strategy - 2010:

"We must work together to ensure the constant flow of commerce, facilitate safe and secure air travel, and prevent disruptions to critical communications. We must also safeguard the sea, air, and space domains from those who would deny access or use them for hostile purposes. This includes keeping strategic straits and vital sea lanes open, improving the early detection of emerging maritime threats, denying adversaries hostile use of the air domain, and ensuring the responsible use of space. As one key effort in the sea domain, for example, we will pursue ratification of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea."

The following links provide additional information on UNCLOS:

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