Updated: November 3, 2009 09:55 IST

Aspects of international ocean law

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It deals with key aspects of the law of the sea, starting from the ‘Freedom of The Seas’ right up to ‘Future Directions’

Freedom to use the ocean space was not controlled until, in 1493, a Papal Bull ordained that the sea would be divided between Portugal and Spain. The Treaty of Tordesillas, signed by the two countries on June 7, 1494, appears to be the first agreement related to the usage of ocean space and ownership of islands.

By the end of 18th century, maritime countries determined their territorial waters as three miles from their countries’ shoreline — the distance a canon ashore could fire into the sea! After World War II, the international community wanted the United Nations to codify the norms through the International Law Commission. Though the work started in 1949, it was only in 1982 that a convention brought about a code generally accepted by all the member countries and it came into force on November 16, 1994.

Books are legion on marine insurance laws, shipping laws, and laws relating to carriage of goods: but not much literature is available on the laws of the ocean per se, and therefore this book is a welcome effort by one eminently qualified to write on the subject. Admiral Sharma has not only been associated with the UNCLOS 82 during its evolution and took part in most of the deliberations, but he has also served as the Judge Advocate-General of the Indian Navy.


In an elaborate introduction, the author sets forth the principles involved in putting together a set of rules for the nations to follow in usage of the sea space, starting from the Hague codification of the law of the sea of 1930 through 1958 and 1960 U.N. conferences, to the 1982 convention. Aptly, the introduction ends with a quotation from B.N. Cardozo, a well-known American lawyer, on the changing nature of law.

The eight chapters in the volume deal with different aspects of the law of the sea, from the ‘Freedom of The Seas’ (as given by Hugo Grotius’ m are liberum where the basic premise was that sea is a common property) right up to ‘Future Directions.’ Flag State and Port State jurisdictions are elaborated together with the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), the Continental Shelf, Naval Missions and Ocean Governance. The chapter on the ‘Contiguous Zone’ is interesting as it records the differing approaches of the nations to the concept.

Concept of EEZ

The new concept of EEZ is discussed right from its genesis to its strategic significance. Sharma says, “EEZ claims have subtracted from the traditional high seas, a total area of 35.81 per cent of the world oceans,” which caused serious concern to the major naval powers as their mobility would be restricted. The concept was an attempt at creating a framework to resolve conflicts between the developed and the developing countries in the utilisation of the seas. Frank Njenga of Kenya points out that the developed countries with less than a third of the world’s population have taken 60 per cent of the world catch of the fish. The author explains the need to have equality of opportunity and to solve the classic dilemma of choosing between m are clausam (law of the sea under a particular country) and mare liberum (law of freedom of the sea), to which the EEZ is an answer. The response of the international community to the concept “initially varied from warm support through qualified interest to downright opposition.” But, the author affirms, “ironically the beneficiaries would be mostly developed countries, though the concept itself is a psychological gain for the developing countries.”

The chapter on ‘Continental Shelf’ makes interesting reading; the definition and delineation of the outer limit of the legal continental shelf remained one of the most vexatious issues at the third UNCLOS. It is understandably so because of the mineral resources the shelf contains. India’s views have been well explained in the penultimate chapter, highlighting the change in the threat perception and the need to have better security laws, under the ISPS code. Some of the important articles of the UNCLOS have been provided in the annexure.

THE INTERNATIONAL LAW OF THE SEA — India and the UN Convention of 1982: O. P. Sharma; Oxford University Press, YMCA Library Building, Jai Singh Road, New Delhi-110001. Rs. 795.

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