Closed Waters

Monuments with a Horizon Line II

Berlin, DE
Type: Research

Commissioned by Buchmann Galerie

  • Project by Markus Miessen & Bettina Pousttchi
    Photography by Bettina Pousttchi

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The Freedom of the Sea (Mare Liberum, 1609) is a book on international law written by the Dutch jurist and philosopher Hugo Grotius, formulating the new principle that the sea was international territory and all nations were free to use it for seafaring trade.

Territorial waters, as defined by the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), is a belt of coastal waters extending at most twelve nautical miles from the baseline (low-water mark) of a coastal state. The territorial sea is regarded as the sovereign territory of the state, although foreign ships (both military and civilian) are allowed innocent passage through it. This sovereignty also extends to the airspace over and seabed below. The Convention entered into force on November 16, 1994, and established the limits of national jurisdiction.

The term “territorial waters” is also sometimes used informally to describe any area of water over which a state has jurisdiction. A coastal nation has total control over its internal waters, slightly less control over territorial waters, and ostensibly even less control over waters within the contiguous zones.

During incidents such as nuclear weapons testing and fisheries disputes, some nations arbitrarily extended their maritime claims to as much as 50 or even 200 nautical miles. Since the late 20th century the “12 mile limit” has become almost universally accepted. The United Kingdom extended its territorial waters from 3 to 12 nautical miles in 1987. Distances measured in nautical miles are exact legal definitions, while those in kilometres are approximate conversions that are not stated in any law or treaty.

Article 111 states that: “The hot pursuit of a foreign ship may be undertaken when the competent authorities of the coastal State have good reason to believe that the ship has violated the law and regulations of that State. Such pursuit must be commenced when the foreign ship or one of its boats is within the international waters, the archipelagic waters, the territorial sea, or the contiguous zone if the pursuit has not been interrupted…The right of hot pursuit ceases as soon as the ship pursued enters the territorial sea if its own State or of a third State.”

Complications arise when authorities such as a navy or coast guard wishes to intercept vessels suspected of carrying out illegal activities, such as piracy, smuggling or there is potential for an act of terrorism. If a suspect vessel is flagged with a state other than the state of the pursuing authorities, then in most cases the pursuing authorities must gain the permission of the ‘flag’ state prior to boarding. If the suspect vessel crosses into the territorial waters of another state, possibly a third state, which is not the home state of the pursuing authorities, then permission must be sought from the territorial state prior to intercepting or boarding.

While UNCLOS is only one of many regimes, or sets of rules, laws, codes and conventions that have been created to regulate the activities of private, commercial and military users of our seas and oceans, it provides the framework for further maritime security cooperation.

To date, the United States is the only state not to ratify UNCLOS. While the Secretary General of the United Nations receives instruments of ratification and accession and the UN provides support for meetings of states party to the Convention, the UN has no direct operational role in the implementation of the Convention. And no one else has either.

Download United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea as PDF (957 kb)