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Law of the Sea: Definition & Function

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  • 0:04 The Freedom of the…
  • 0:42 Freedom of the Seas Challenges
  • 1:23 The Law of the Sea
  • 3:02 Law of the Sea Conflicts
  • 4:12 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Artem Cheprasov

Artem has a doctor of veterinary medicine degree.

How much water off of a nation's coast can be controlled by that nation? How did it become that way and how has it changed? Find out as we define the Law of the Sea and go over how it came to be and what conflicts it causes today.

The Freedom of the Seas Doctrine

Up until the mid-20th century, the basis for international laws of the sea was a book called The Freedom of the Seas, written by Dutch philosopher and juror Hugo Grotius. It established that each country could customarily lay claim to ocean up to three miles off their coast. The rest of the world's oceans could not be laid claim to by any nation and thus most of the world's maritime resources were essentially open to all.

This meant that other nations' fleets could come near another nation's coasts, take resources such as fish, and dump their waste into that same area.

Freedom of the Seas Challenges

Just as you wouldn't want your backyard looted and polluted, neither did coastal countries around the world. As technology progressed after the 19th century, nations realized that they not only had to protect their local fish stocks but other resources, such as offshore oil fields. With bigger ships and oil tankers traveling across the world, the threat of serious pollution problems increased far more than was the case hundreds of years ago.

This caused nations like the U.S., Argentina, and others to lay claim to far greater territories of water off of their coastline and challenge the Freedom of the Seas doctrine by doing so.

The Law of the Sea

In order to help settle disputes and concerns regarding the traditional three mile claim to offshore sea each nation had, the United Nations worked for 14 years with over 150 countries around the world to commission the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. The convention produced a set of international laws that seeks to maintain international order and the enforcement of rules at sea. It opened for signature on December 10th, 1982 and was put into force on November 16th, 1994.

The Law of the Sea provides rules for the use of the oceans by nations regarding topics such as how marine resources need to be managed and conserved. Most importantly under the new laws, states with coastlines now have territorial sovereignty over a breadth of sea up to 12 nautical miles away from their coast.

This does not mean, however, they can do absolutely anything they want within those 12 miles. For instance, under the law, the international community is allowed use of navigational features such as straits or canals, such as the relatively narrow Bosporus strait controlled by Turkey. However, the nation (or nations) controlling the strait regulates the way passages are made.

Coastal states also have sovereign rights to what's known as an exclusive economic zone, a 200-nautical-mile area extending from their coastline that allows these states special rights and privileges over other nations to natural resources, research, and environmental protection.

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