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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.
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." 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.
The high seas make up 50% of the surface area of the planet and cover over two thirds of the ocean.
Ships sailing the high seas are generally under the jurisdiction of the flag state (if there is one); however, when a ship is involved in certain criminal acts, such as piracy, 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.
Several international treaties have established freedom of navigation on semi-enclosed seas.
- The Copenhagen Convention of 1857 opened access to the Baltic by abolishing the Sound Dues and making the Danish Straits an international waterway free to all commercial and military shipping.
- Several conventions have opened the Bosphorus and Dardanelles to shipping. The latest, the Montreux Convention Regarding the Regime of the Turkish Straits, maintains the straits' status as an international waterway.
Other international treaties have opened up rivers, which are not traditionally international waterways.
- The Danube River is an international waterway so that landlocked Austria, Hungary, Moldova, Serbia and Slovakia can have secure access to the Black Sea.
Disputes over international waters
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.
- 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 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.
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. 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.
International waters agreements
|Outer space (including Earth orbits; the Moon and other celestial bodies, and their orbits)|
|national airspace||territorial waters airspace||contiguous zone airspace||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|
- International Freshwater Treaties Database (freshwater only).
- The Yearbook of International Cooperation on Environment and Development profiles agreements regarding the Marine Environment, Marine Living Resources and Freshwater Resources.
- 1972 London Convention on the Prevention of Marine Pollution by Dumping of Wastes and Other Matter (London Convention 1972).
- 1973 London International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships, 1973 MARPOL
- 1982 United Nations Convention on Law of the Sea (United Nations Convention on Law of the Sea, United Nations; especially parts XII–XIV).
- 1997 United Nations Convention on the Law of Non-Navigational Uses of International Watercourses (CIW) – not ratified.
- Transboundary Groundwater Treaty, Bellagio Draft – proposed, but not signed.
- Other global conventions and treaties with implications for International Waters:
- the Atlantic Coast of West and Central Africa;
- the North-East Pacific (Antigua Convention);
- the Mediterranean (Barcelona Convention);
- the wider Caribbean (Cartagena Convention);
- the South-East Pacific;
- the South Pacific (Nouméa Convention);
- the East African seaboard;
- the Kuwait region (Kuwait Convention);
- the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden (Jeddah Convention).
- Baltic Sea (Helsinki Convention on the Protection of the Marine Environment of the Baltic Sea Area, 1992)
- Black Sea (Bucharest Convention)
- Caspian Sea (Framework Convention for the Protection of the Marine Environment of the Caspian Sea)
- Lake Tanganyika (Convention for the Sustainable Management of Lake Tanganyika)
International waters institutions
- The UNESCO International Hydrological Programme (IHP)
- The International Joint Commission between Canada and United States (IJC-CMI)
- The International Network of Basin Organizations (INBO)
- The International Shared Aquifer Resource Management project
- The International Water Boundary Commission (US Section) between Mexico and United States
- The International Water Management Institute (IWMI)
- The IUCN Water and Nature Initiative (WANI)
- The International Maritime Organization (IMO)
- The International Seabed Authority
- The International Whaling Commission
- The UNEP Regional Seas Programme
- The UNESCO Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission (IOC)
- The International Ocean Institute
- The IUCN Global Marine and Polar Programme (GMPP)
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