International waters

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Areas outside of exclusive economic zones in dark blue.

The terms international waters or trans-boundary waters apply where any of the following types of bodies of water (or their drainage basins) transcend international boundaries: oceans, large marine ecosystems, enclosed or semi-enclosed regional seas and estuaries, rivers, lakes, groundwater systems (aquifers), and wetlands.[1]

Oceans, seas, and waters outside of national jurisdiction are also referred to as the high seas or, in Latin, mare liberum (meaning free sea). The Convention on the High Seas, which has 63 signatories, defines "high seas" to mean "all parts of the sea that are not included in the territorial sea or in the internal waters of a State."[2]

Ships sailing the high seas are generally under the jurisdiction of the flag state (if there is one);[3] however, when a ship is involved in certain criminal acts, such as piracy,[4] any nation can exercise jurisdiction under the doctrine of universal jurisdiction. International waters can be contrasted with internal waters, territorial waters and exclusive economic zones.

International waterways

Komárno in Slovakia is an inland port on the Danube River which is an important international waterway.

Several international treaties have established freedom of navigation on semi-enclosed seas.

Other international treaties have opened up rivers, which are not traditionally international waterways.

Disputes over international waters

Atlantic Ocean - the main zone of sea transport in 15th-20th centuries.

Current unresolved disputes over whether particular waters are "International waters" include:

  • The Arctic Ocean: While Canada, Denmark, Russia and Norway all regard parts of the Arctic seas as national waters or internal waters, most European Union countries and the United States officially regard the whole region as international waters.[citation needed]
  • The Southern Ocean: Australia claims an exclusive economic zone (EEZ) around its Antarctic territorial claim. Since this claim is only recognised by four other countries, the EEZ claim is also disputed.
  • Area around Okinotorishima: Japan claim Okinotorishima is an islet and thus they should have an EEZ around it, but some neighboring countries claim it is an atoll and thus should not have an EEZ.
  • South China Sea: See Territorial disputes in the South China Sea. Some countries [like Japan, India, the United States] consider (at least part of) the South China Sea as international waters, but this viewpoint is not universal.[5]

In addition to formal disputes, the government of Somalia exercises little control de facto over Somali territorial waters. Consequently, much piracy, illegal dumping of waste and fishing without permit has occurred.

Although water is often seen as a source of conflict, recent research suggests that water management can be a source for cooperation between countries. Such cooperation will benefit participating countries by being the catalyst for larger socio-economic development.[6] For instance, the countries of the Senegal River Basin that cooperate through the Organisation pour la Mise en Valeur du Fleuve Sénégal (OMVS) have achieved greater socio-economic development and overcome challenges relating to agriculture and other issues.[7]

International waters agreements

Sea areas in international rights, seen from a top-down perspective.[citation needed]
Limits of national jurisdiction and sovereignty
Outer space (including Earth orbits; the Moon and other celestial bodies, and their orbits)
national airspace territorial waters airspace contiguous zone airspace[citation needed] international airspace
land territory surface internal waters surface territorial waters surface contiguous zone surface Exclusive Economic Zone surface international waters surface
internal waters territorial waters Exclusive Economic Zone international waters
land territory underground Continental Shelf surface extended continental shelf surface international seabed surface
Continental Shelf underground extended continental shelf underground international seabed underground
  full national jurisdiction and sovereignty
  restrictions on national jurisdiction and sovereignty
  international jurisdiction per common heritage of mankind

Global agreements

Regional agreements

File:Barcelona Convention.png
Map showing the parties of the Barcelona Convention.

At least ten conventions are included within the Regional Seas Program of UNEP,[16] including:

  1. the Atlantic Coast of West and Central Africa;[17]
  2. the North-East Pacific (Antigua Convention);
  3. the Mediterranean (Barcelona Convention);
  4. the wider Caribbean (Cartagena Convention);
  5. the South-East Pacific;[18]
  6. the South Pacific (Nouméa Convention);
  7. the East African seaboard;[19]
  8. the Kuwait region (Kuwait Convention);
  9. the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden (Jeddah Convention).

Addressing regional freshwater issues is the 1992 Helsinki Convention on the Protection and Use of Transboundary Watercourses and International Lakes (UNECE/Helsinki Water Convention)[20]

Water-body-specific agreements

International waters institutions

Freshwater institutions

Marine institutions

See also


  1. International Waters, United Nations Development Programme
  2. Text of CONVENTION ON THE HIGH SEAS (U.N.T.S. No. 6465, vol. 450, pp. 82-103)
  3. UNCLOS article 92(1)
  4. UNCLOS article 105
  8. "International Freshwater Treaties Database". Retrieved 2011-11-08.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  9. Yearbook of International Cooperation on Environment and Development
    Marine Environment
    Marine Living Resources
    Freshwater Resources Archived February 12, 2009 at the Wayback Machine
  10. London Convention 1972[dead link]
  11. "United Nations Convention on Law of the Sea". Retrieved 2011-11-08.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  12. "CIW" (PDF). Retrieved 2011-11-08.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  13. "Bellagio Draft" (PDF). Retrieved 2011-11-08.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  14. "Text of Ramsar Convention and other key original documents". Retrieved 2011-11-08.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  15. Text of the Convention on Biological Diversity especially Articles 12-13, as related to transboundary aquatic ecosystems
  16. "Regional Seas Program". Retrieved 2011-11-08.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  17. "Convention for Co-operation in the Protection and Development of the Marine and Coastal Environment of the West and Central African Region; and Protocol (1981)". Retrieved 2011-11-08.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  18. Lima Convention, 1986)
  19. Nairobi Convention, 1985);
  20. "Convention on the Protection and Use of Transboundary Watercourses and International Lakes". Retrieved 2011-11-08.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  21. "Convention on the Protection of the Marine Environment of the Baltic Sea Area". Retrieved 2011-11-08.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  22. Bucharest Convention, 1992), see also the Black Sea Commission
  23. Framework Convention for the Protection of the Marine Environment of the Caspian Sea, 2003
  24. Convention for the Sustainable Management of Lake Tanganyika, 2003

External links