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United Nations Global Issues

Oceans and the Law of the Sea

The United Nations has long been at the forefront of efforts to ensure the peaceful, cooperative, legally defined uses of the seas and oceans for the individual and common benefit of humankind. Its groundbreaking work in adopting the 1982 Law of the Sea Convention stands as a defining moment in the extension of international law to the vast, shared water resources of our planet.  The United Nations Office of Legal Affairs, through its Division of Ocean Affairs and the Law of the Sea, plays a major role in supporting those efforts.

The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), particularly through its Regional Seas Programme, acts to protect oceans and seas and promote the environmentally sound use of marine resources.  The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), through its Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission, coordinates programmes in marine research, observation systems, hazard mitigation and better managing ocean and coastal areas.

The International Maritime Organization (IMO) has developed and/or administers a wide range of treaties, focusing, in particular, on preventing the pollution of the oceans and seas. These include the landmark International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships of 1973 (MARPOL), as modified by a 1978 Protocol (MARPOL), and the 1954 International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution of the Sea by Oil (the “OILPOL Convention”).

And in the years since the adoption of the Law of the Sea Convention, additional agreements have been adopted, to further expand the legal regime governing the oceans and seas.  Among these is the 1995 United Nations Agreement on Straddling Fish Stocks and Highly Migratory Fish Stocks, which provides a regime for the conservation and management of these stocks, with a view to ensuring their long-term conservation and sustainable use.  The state of the world highly migratory, straddling and other high seas fishery resources and associated species, an online publication of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), defines and reports on the status of these fish stocks internationally as of 2006.

As for the Law of the Sea Convention itself, its provisions are implemented with the assistance of several bodies.  Among these, the International Seabed Authority enables states parties to organize and control activities relating to mineral resources in the international seabed area.  The International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea adjudicates disputes on the interpretation or application of the Convention.  And the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf applies specific scientific and technical formulas to delineate the outer limits of the continental shelf, when that submerged portion of the land territory of a coastal state extends farther than 200 nautical miles beyond its coastline.

“Human activities are taking a terrible toll on the world's oceans and seas. Vulnerable marine ecosystems, such as corals, and important fisheries are being damaged by over-exploitation, illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing, destructive fishing practices, invasive alien species and marine pollution, especially from land-based sources. Increased sea temperatures, sea-level rise and ocean acidification caused by climate change pose a further threat to marine life, coastal and island communities and national economies.

Oceans are also affected by criminal activity. Piracy and armed robbery against ships threaten the lives of seafarers and the safety of international shipping, which transports 90 per cent of the world's goods. Smuggling of illegal drugs and the trafficking of persons by sea are further examples of how criminal activities threaten lives and the peace and security of the oceans. ...

The theme of World Oceans Day, ‘Our oceans, our responsibility’, emphasizes our individual and collective duty to protect the marine environment and carefully manage its resources. Safe, healthy and productive seas and oceans are integral to human well-being, economic security and sustainable development.”

— Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s message on the first
observance of World Oceans Day, 8 June 2009