Law of the Sea: United Nations convention

Official title: United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS)

Subject category:
Marine / Oceans
Type of agreement / instrument:
Legally-binding treaty
  • Opened for signature and signed by Canada on: December 10, 1982.
  • In force: November 16, 1994.
  • Ratified by Canada: November 7, 2003.
  • In force for Canada: December 7, 2003.
  • Number of parties as of June 16, 2016: 168
Lead & partner departments:
Global Affairs Canada
Environment and Climate Change Canada, Fisheries and Oceans Canada, Transport Canada, Parks Canada, Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Canada, and Natural Resources Canada
For further information:
Web links:
Text of the Convention
GAC Inquiry Centre
Compendium edition:
January 2020
Reference #:

Plain language summary

The Convention governs relations among countries on oceans-related issues. It outlines the rights and responsibilities countries have related to the use of the oceans, the seabed and their resources, and the protection of the ocean environment. It defines the parts of the ocean where that belong to countries with coastlines have sovereignty, rights or jurisdiction, including and those zones where these countries have the right to use and manage resources through activities such as fishing or oil exploration. It also sets out the rights of countries have in other countries’ zones, including rights related to navigation, conducting research and laying cables, and the rights all countries enjoy in the parts of the ocean that are beyond the legal control of any specific country.


UNCLOS sets out the legal framework within which activities in the oceans and seas are carried out. The Convention governs many aspects of oceans affairs, from navigation and fisheries to scientific research and the rights of coastal states to explore, exploit, conserve, and manage resources within 200 nautical miles of their shores and on their continental shelves beyond 200 nautical miles (where applicable). Most of UNCLOS is now generally considered to be a reflection of customary international law, applicable to all states whether they are parties to the Convention or not.

Key elements

Establishes 12 nautical miles as the breadth of the territorial sea, with a right of innocent passage through these waters by other states.

Secures for coastal states sovereign rights for the purpose of exploring and exploiting, conserving and managing the natural resources of their waters in a 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ).

Provides coastal states with the right to prevent, reduce, and control marine pollution from vessels in ice-covered areas within the limits of the EEZ.

Confirms coastal state jurisdiction over the living and non-living resources of the seabed and subsoil of the continental shelf up to, and, in some instances, beyond the 200-nautical-mile EEZ.  Defines the process to delineate and achieve international recognition for the outer limits of the continental shelf where they lie beyond the 200 nautical mile limit.

Establishes a regime for the development of the mineral resources of the deep seabed and sharing of the benefits, for the area located beyond coastal state jurisdiction.

Sets out rules for the conduct of marine scientific research.

Imposes duties on all states to ensure, through proper conservation and management measures, the long-term sustainability of fish resources.

Contains comprehensive rules for the protection and preservation of the marine environment and imposes duties on states to protect the oceans from all sources of pollution.

Expected results

The Convention’s success lies in balancing the rights of coastal states to manage watersover under their sovereignty, sovereign rights or jurisdiction with the demands rights of maritime other states in these waters, for freedoms on the high seas, particularly those related to navigation for military and shipping purposes. It promotes the peaceful settlement of disputes relating to the oceans by establishing mechanisms and compulsory procedures for the settlement of disputes arising from the interpretation and application of the provisions of the Convention.

Canada’s involvement

Canada participates in the work of various bodies created under UNCLOS, including the International Seabed Authority (ISA), an organization created to administer the mineral resources of the Area (the seabed beyond national jurisdiction).

Canada supports the work of the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (CLCS), an expert body established by UNCLOS to review submissions from coastal states and make recommendations on the location of the outer limits of their continental shelves beyond 200 nautical miles from their baselines.

In keeping with its commitments under the UN Fish Stocks Agreement, which applies to straddling and highly migratory fish stocks, Canada is also a member of a number of regional fisheries management organizations (RFMOs), including the Northwest Atlantic Fisheries Organization (NAFO) (1979), and has been an active participant in promoting reforms in these RFMOs based on the UN Fish Stocks Agreement.

Results / progress


ISA: At the 2016 session, Canada was re-elected to the Council, which is the executive organ, and for the first time, a Canadian representative was elected to the Finance Committee. The ISA is in a crucial phase of its existence as it is currently developing, and hopes to soon finalise the regulatory regime for the exploitation of deep-sea mineral resources in areas beyond national jurisdiction. This will include the defining royalty rates and the benefits sharing regime, reflecting the Common Heritage of Mankind principle expressed in UNCLOS

CLCS: A Canadian was elected to serve on the Commission for the 2017-2022 term.   

A submission defining the outer limits of Canada’s continental shelf in the Atlantic Ocean was filed with the CLCS in December 2013. Canada’s submission for the Arctic Ocean was filed in May 2019. As a number of countries filed their submissions before Canada, it could be several years before the CLCS reviews Canada’s submissions. .

Canada participates actively in elaborating the annual Oceans and the Law of the Sea, and Sustainable Fisheries resolutions at the UN, and the annual meeting of states Parties to UNCLOS, including the triennial election of judges to the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea (ITLOS).

Environment and Climate Change Canada’s Environmental Stewardship Branch and enforcement offices provide advice on environmental policy to GAC and to DFO, to support Canada’s participation in the annual meeting of the United Nations Open-ended Informal Consultative Process on Oceans and the Law of the Sea (UNICPOLOS or ICP).

Canada was an active participant in the Preparatory Committee established by General Assembly resolution 69/292 “Development of an international legally binding instrument under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea on the conservation and sustainable use of marine biological diversity of areas beyond national jurisdiction (BBNJ).” Since then, the United Nations General Assembly convened an Intergovernmental Conference that, as of January 2020, had held three negotiating sessions to develop the text of a legally binding agreement on BBNJ.  Canada maintains an active participation in this process, and was elected as one of its 15 Bureau members.



UNCLOS provides a predictable and stable legal regime applicable to oceans globally, including a framework for shipping, delineation of maritime boundaries and the outer limits of the continental shelf, environmental protection, marine scientific research, and deep seabed mining. It establishes mechanisms and compulsory procedures for the peaceful settlement of disputes related to the oceans arising from the interpretation and application of the provisions of the Convention.

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