Law of the sea

The Division for Ocean Affairs and the Law of the Sea (DOALOS), the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea (ITLOS) and the International Maritime Organization - IMO all work with questions concerning the law of the sea.

The "freedom of the sea" principle

For centuries the "freedom of the sea" principle prevailed on the oceans. In the 20th century, however, technological breakthroughs in navigation, fishing
and ocean exploration coupled with the population explosion caused conflicting
claims such as

  • claims to the oceans and their resources
  • claims for fishing zones
  • claims for extended territorial zones
  • claims for military security zones.

The Convention on the Law of the Sea

In 1982, the Conference approved the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS - a convention to regulate all ocean space, its uses and resources. This treaty, sometimes described as "the constitution of the oceans", was, however, controversial: it took another twelve years until it entered into force in 1994.

Since the 1950s the United Nations had been the central forum for the development of the international law of the sea. The First United Nations Conference on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS I) was held in Geneva in 1958, and it was succeeded by UNCLOS II in 1960. The Third UNCLOS Conference was entrusted with the task of adopting a convention - a convention that was eventually adopted in 1994.

Organizations involved with the law of the sea

The following three United Nations organizations work with the law of the sea.


The Division for Ocean Affairs and the Law of the Sea (DOALOS)

  • provides advice on the implementation of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.
  • conducts monitoring and research in areas relevant to the Convention.


The International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea (ITLOS) has been established to settle disputes concerning the interpretation or application of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.


The Internationella sjöfartsorganisationen - IMO is responsible for international conventions and agreements concering

  • safety at sea
  • navigation
  • marine pollution
  • other legal maritime issues.

For more information on the IMO, see DagDok: section IMO.

More on UN and law of the sea

UN documents and publications in catalogues and databases

  • United Nations Digital Library offers UN documents and open access publications, UN voting data and speeches, UN maps, Content in 6+ languages. Replaces the traditional online catalogue UNBISnet.
  • UN iLibrary UN publications online covering different topics.
  • ODS full-text UN documents published from 1993 onward and scanned documents published between 1946 and 1993 in the official languages of the UN.
  • Daily list of documents (ODS). Documents published for the day, with full text links, can be found in the United Nations full text database ODS.
  • UNBIS Thesaurus a multilingual database of the controlled vocabulary used to describe UN documents.
  • Index to proceedings is an annual bibliographic guide to the proceedings and documentation of the major UN organs. The index includes:
    • a list of all documents
    • a comprehensive subject index
    • an index to speeches
    • a voting chart of resolutions
  • United Nations Documents Index (United Nations Digital Library) References to all documents by subject area are published. A collection of indexes is held by the Dag Hammarskjöld and Law Library, Uppsala, and the Libraries at UN Headquarters in New York and Geneva.
Last modified: 2024-02-15