International waters

Areas outside 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]

International waters (high seas) do not belong to any State's jurisdiction, known under the doctrine of 'Mare liberum'. States have the right to fishing, navigation, overflight, laying cables and pipelines, as well as scientific research.

Oceans, seas, and waters outside national jurisdiction are also referred to as the high seas or, in Latin, mare liberum (meaning free sea). The Convention on the High Seas, signed in 1958, which has 63 signatories, defined "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" and where "no State may validly purport to subject any part of them to its sovereignty."[2] The Convention on the High Seas was used as a foundation for the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, signed in 1982, which recognized Exclusive Economic Zones extending 200 nautical miles from the baseline, where coastal States have sovereign rights to the water column and sea floor as well as the natural resources found there.[3]

The high seas make up 50% of the surface area of the planet and cover over two thirds of the ocean.[4]

Ships sailing the high seas are generally under the jurisdiction of the flag state (if there is one);[5] however, when a ship is involved in certain criminal acts, such as piracy,[6] 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. The Northwest Passage through the Canadian Arctic Archipelago is one of the more prominent examples, with Canada claiming it as internal waters, while the United States and the European Union considers it an international strait.[7]
  • 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 claims 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[1] consider (at least part of) the South China Sea as international waters, but this viewpoint is not universal. Notably, China, which opposes any suggestion that coastal States could be obliged to share the resources of the exclusive economic zone with other powers that had historically fished there, claims historical rights to the resources of the exclusive economic zones of all other coastal States in the South China Sea.[8]

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.[9] 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.[10]

International waters agreements

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

Global agreements

Regional agreements

Map showing the parties of the Barcelona Convention.

At least ten conventions are included within the Regional Seas Program of UNEP,[19] including:

  1. the Atlantic Coast of West and Central Africa;[20]
  2. the North-East Pacific (Antigua Convention);
  3. the Mediterranean (Barcelona Convention);
  4. the wider Caribbean (Cartagena Convention);
  5. the South-East Pacific;[21]
  6. the South Pacific (Nouméa Convention);
  7. the East African seaboard;[22]
  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)[23]

Water-body-specific agreements

International waters institutions

Freshwater institutions

Marine institutions

See also