Where Are International Waters?

International waters, also known as the high seas, represent a vast expanse of the ocean that lies beyond the jurisdictional reach of any single nation. These waters, which cover about 64% of the world’s oceans, are governed by a complex web of international laws and agreements, primarily outlined in the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). This article delves into the definition, location, and legal significance of international waters, offering insights into the rights and responsibilities of nations and individuals navigating these open seas.

Understanding International Waters

The Definition of International Waters

International waters are defined as areas of the sea that are not included within the territorial sea or the exclusive economic zone (EEZ) of any country. According to UNCLOS, which is the cornerstone of maritime law, the territorial sea extends up to 12 nautical miles from a nation’s baseline, while the EEZ stretches up to 200 nautical miles. Beyond these boundaries, the high seas begin, free from the sovereignty of any state.

Location and Scope

The high seas encompass vast areas of the ocean, from the deep waters of the Pacific, Atlantic, and Indian Oceans to the remote expanses of the Arctic and Southern Oceans. These regions are crucial for international navigation, overflight, scientific research, and fishing, underscoring the importance of shared governance and the freedom of the seas.

Legal Framework Governing International Waters

The Role of UNCLOS

The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, ratified in 1982, serves as the “Constitution for the oceans,” providing a comprehensive legal framework that regulates all aspects of ocean space. UNCLOS establishes guidelines for navigation, overflight, resource exploitation, and environmental protection in international waters, balancing the freedoms and rights of the international community with the responsibility to protect the marine environment.

Freedoms of the High Seas

Under UNCLOS, the high seas are open to all states, whether coastal or land-locked, granting several fundamental freedoms, including:

  • Freedom of Navigation: Ships of all nations may traverse international waters without interference from other states.
  • Freedom of Overflight: States have the right to fly their aircraft over the high seas without jurisdictional restrictions.
  • Freedom to Fish: While fishing on the high seas is permitted, states must cooperate to conserve marine living resources.
  • Freedom to Lay Cables and Pipelines: States may install undersea cables and pipelines, subject to certain conditions to protect the marine environment.
  • Freedom of Scientific Research: International waters are open to scientific investigation, promoting knowledge and conservation efforts.

Challenges and Enforcement

Governing international waters presents unique challenges, including piracy, illegal fishing, and pollution. Enforcement of maritime law in the high seas relies on the cooperation of states and international bodies, such as the International Maritime Organization (IMO) and the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea. Despite these efforts, ensuring compliance and protecting the global commons requires ongoing international collaboration and vigilance.

Territorial Sea: The Extension of Sovereignty

Territorial seas are defined by international law as a 12 nautical mile stretch of water adjacent to a state’s coastline, over which the coastal state exercises sovereignty. This sovereignty extends not only to the water’s surface and airspace but also to the seabed and subsoil beneath. Within this zone, the coastal state has the authority to enforce laws related to navigation, conservation of resources, and the regulation of customs, immigration, and pollution.

The Right of Innocent Passage

A key principle governing the territorial sea is the right of innocent passage, which allows foreign vessels to navigate through these waters provided their passage does not threaten the peace, good order, or security of the coastal state. Activities such as fishing, pollution, and unauthorized research are deemed to compromise this innocence, granting the coastal state the right to take necessary measures to prevent such actions, including requesting the departure of offending vessels.

Beyond the Territorial Sea: International Waters

Seaward of the territorial sea lies the high seas, areas not subject to the jurisdiction of any state and governed by the principle of freedom of the seas. UNCLOS delineates several zones within this domain, including the contiguous zone, the continental shelf, and the exclusive economic zone (EEZ), each conferring specific rights and responsibilities on coastal states.

The Contiguous Zone

Beyond the territorial sea, up to 24 nautical miles from the baseline, lies the contiguous zone. Here, a coastal state may exercise control to prevent infringement of its customs, fiscal, immigration, or sanitary laws within its territory or territorial sea.

The Exclusive Economic Zone

The EEZ extends up to 200 nautical miles from the coastal baseline, allowing states sovereign rights over the exploration and exploitation of marine resources. While freedom of navigation and overflight are preserved for other states, the coastal state has exclusive rights to natural resources within this zone.

The Continental Shelf

The continental shelf comprises the seabed and subsoil of the submarine areas that extend beyond a state’s territorial sea, up to the outer edge of the continental margin or 200 nautical miles from the territorial sea baseline, whichever is greater. Coastal states have sovereign rights for the purpose of exploring and exploiting natural resources in this area.

Navigating International Waters

International waters, or the high seas, represent the areas of the ocean where no single state’s sovereignty applies. Governed by the principles of freedom of navigation, overflight, fishing, and scientific research, these waters are open to all states, ensuring the global nature of maritime navigation and trade.


The delineation of maritime zones under international law, particularly the distinctions between territorial seas and international waters, is fundamental to maintaining order and cooperation on the high seas. By balancing the rights of coastal states with those of the international community, UNCLOS facilitates the peaceful use of the world’s oceans, promoting navigation, trade, and conservation for the benefit of all.

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