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The U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) is an international treaty that regulates all aspects of the oceans, preserving the seas as “commons” for all humanity and bringing a stable order to 70% of the world’s surface. 

What is the Law of the Sea?

The U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea is an international treaty. It serves as a critical instrument for preventing violent conflict and protecting the earth’s resources. It is sometimes described as a “constitution for the oceans,” governing activities on, over, and under the world’s oceans. The U.N. explains

The 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea provides, for the first time, a universal legal framework for the rational management of marine resources and their conservation for future generations. Rarely has such radical change been achieved peacefully, by consensus of the world community. It has thus been hailed as the most important international achievement since the approval of the United Nations Charter in 1945.

The treaty defines the territory of countries 200 miles from the coastline as the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) and includes provisions concerning: navigational rights, territorial sea limits, economic jurisdiction, protection of the marine environment, a marine research institution, and a binding procedure for settlement of disputes between states. Also included is an important international dispute resolution tool to manage conflicts on the high seas peacefully.

Global climate change and increasing competition for natural resources in and under the seas are increasing the potential for both violent conflict over and permanent damage to the oceans. The oceans serve as a vital source of food and fuel, means of trade and commerce, and regulator of global climates. In order to preserve and restore the oceans, safeguard international trade, and peacefully manage conflicts that may arise, a comprehensive framework for governing humanity’s use of the seas is vitally important.

Why should the U.S. ratify the Law of the Sea?

As the Arctic becomes more navigable, the increasing competition for natural resources in and under the seas is a growing potential for both violent conflict over and permanent damage to the oceans. The oceans serve as a vital source of food and fuel, means of trade and commerce, and regulator of global climates.

Disputes about the use of these maritime goods, for example in the South China Sea, will be negotiated within the comprehensive framework of the Law of the Sea, as the main players involved in these disputes ratified the treaty decades ago. U.S. engagement cannot wait until an attack is launched and conflict breaks out in the South China Sea. The United States has commitments to peacefully manage conflicts, preserve and restore the oceans and safeguard international trade. Ratification of the Law of the Sea is necessary now. 

Although most of what is included in the Convention is covered by existing customary international law, it is important for the law to be enshrined in treaty form. Customary international law may be changed by the practice of states over time and does not offer the stability that comes with a treaty.

The Navy is a strong proponent for the ratification of the law of the Sea. Six former secretaries of state and 8 former Chief of Naval Operations have expressed support for U.S. ratification of the treaty.

What is the U.S. history of the treaty?

The Law of the Sea Convention (UNCLOS) was opened for signature at the United Nations in 1982 and entered into force on November 16, 1994, one year after it received its 60th ratification accession. To date, 162 countries have signed and ratified the treaty while 21 nations, including the United States, Libya and North Korea, have signed but not ratified it.

Presidents George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama have supported the convention and the U.S. abides by all of its provisions, with the exception of deep-sea mining provisions.

Although the Reagan Administration did not sign or ratify the Convention due to Provision XI, all subsequent U.S. Administrations have been in voluntary compliance with the convention - both Republican and Democrat. Successive U.S. administrations have concluded that a comprehensive legal framework governing the use of the world’s oceans would help stabilize the geopolitical environment and benefit national as well as global security. 



The first conference of the United Nations Council on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) convenes.


The second U.N. Council on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS II) convenes.


The third and final conference concludes. UNCLOS III produces a number of treaty agreements and culminates in the adoption of a comprehensive treaty.


Ronald Reagan directed U.S. agencies to comply with all of the provisions in UNCLOS except for Provision XI, which concerns deep-sea mining and was considered contrary to U.S. interests. 


The Clinton Administration actively participated in consultations on outstanding issues hindering universal accession to the treaty of UNCLOS. These consultations led to an agreement which satisfied the concerns of U.S. negotiator.


The United States signed the treaty on October 6, 1994.  


The Obama Administration announced that ratification of the UNCLOS would be a priority and Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry (MA) indicated that a strategy to ratify UNCLOS was being crafted. *


Secretary of State Hillary Clinton reaffirmed U.S. interest in ratifying UNCLOS.


Senate leadership attempted to bring the treaty to a vote, but 34 senators spoke against ratification, making the needed 2/3 majority vote impossible.

Congress and the Law of the Sea

The U.S. signed the treaty on October 6, 1994. However, U.S. ratification of the treaty, which requires a two-thirds Senate vote, then stalled.

On February 25, 2004, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee approved U.S. ratification of the U.N. Law of the Sea Convention by a unanimous vote of 15-0. However, a ratification vote by the full Senate was blocked by a few ardent opponents. In 2007 the Foreign Relations Committee again voted favorably (17-4) sending the treaty forward for a full Senate vote again. Although President Bush urged the Senate to ratify UNCLOS, a vote was not scheduled. In July 2012, 34 senators went on record opposing ratification, making a 2/3 vote for ratification impossible.

Read the full text of the treaty.

What is the Quaker Connection?

FCNL and Quakers have a long history of advocacy for the Law of the Sea Treaty. Sam and Miriam Levering, Friends from North Carolina, labored for more than a decade to help develop and advance negotiations for the Law of the Sea. During the 1970s, Sam and Miriam worked out of FCNL’s office as they diligently and patiently advocated to keep the oceans part of “the common heritage of mankind” and negotiated with governments on the treaty’s final language.

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