Legal status of various maritime zone

  1. Territorial Sea

The breadth of the territorial water always created a lot of controversies and debates. The attempts to define it in 1930, 1958, 1960(UNCLOS II) all failed. The breadth of the territorial water varied from three and six nautical miles (1nm=1,852meters). Before the modern rule for measuring the breadth of the territorial water, the cannon shot rule was followed. According to the cannon shot rule, the belt within the range of a cannon at the sea shore would define the breadth of the territorial water.

The coastal state exercises sovereignty over the territorial water, seabed, subsoil and the airspace above the water. However, international law has defined a number of non-exhaustive limitations to the exercise of sovereignty of a coastal state in territorial water. For example, right of innocent passage.

  • The Baseline For Measurement of the Territorial Water

The baseline is measured normally from the coastal low-water line.

However, when the coast is indented or non-uniform then a straight line drawn between two outermost lines can form the baseline. See, Anglo-Norwegian Fisheries Case, ICJ 1951. Article 7 of the UNCLOS.

  • Breadth of the Territorial Water

12 nm.

  • Legal Regime of the Territorial Sea

The coastal state has all the powers generally associated with a sovereign in a territory. Powers relating to security, customs, fiscal regulation and sanitary and health controls etc.

Other states however, have right to innocent passage through territorial water.

See articles 17, 18 and 19 of the UNCLOS

Article 18:

  1. Passage means navigation through the territorial sea for the purpose


(a) traversing that sea without entering internal waters or calling at a roadstead or port facility outside internal waters; or

(b) proceeding to or from internal waters or a call at such roadstead or port facility.

  1. Passage shall be continuous and expeditious. However, passage includes stopping and anchoring, but only in so far as the same are incidental to ordinary navigation or are rendered necessary by force majeure or distress or for the purpose of rendering assistance to persons, ships or aircraft in danger or distress.


Article 19

Meaning of innocent passage

  1. Passage is innocent so long as it is not prejudicial to the peace, good order or security of the coastal State. Such passage shall take place in conformity with this Convention and with other rules of international law

Under article 25(1) coastal states may take necessary steps in its territorial water to prevent passage which is not innocent.

The applicable law in the territorial water is the national law of the coastal state.

The Coastal state may temporarily suspend the right to innocent passage if it is “essential for the protection of its security.”

No charge can be levied to foreign vessels for passing through the territorial water.

The coastal state cannot exercise criminal jurisdiction over foreign ships while in the innocent passage. Unless:

  1. The consequence of the crime extend to the coastal state
  2. The crime is of such a nature as to disturb the peace of the coastal state of the good order of its territorial water
  3. The assistance of the coastal state has been requested by the master of the foreign ship or a diplomatic or consular official of its flag state
  4. Such measures are necessary for the suppression of illicit traffic in narcotic drugs or other psychotropic substances.

See article 28 for the grounds for exercising civil jurisdiction.

  1. The Contiguous Zone

Water contiguous to the high sea. (article 33)

The contiguous zone is superimposed upon the EEZ. (article 55)

Coastal states do not have sovereignty over the contiguous zone.

Article 33 provides for the creation of contiguous zones within the maximum limit of 24 nm from the territorial sea baselines.

Article 33 also provides purposes for which a contiguous zone may be maintained. They are, to prevent infringement of customs, fiscal, immigration or sanitary regulations within the territory or territorial sea of the coastal state.

Under international law the coastal state may take steps necessary to enforce compliance with its laws in the prescribed zone. The power is one of police and control, and transgressors cannot be visited with consequences amounting to reprisal or summary punishment.

  1. The Continental Shelf

Submarine areas may be classified as follows:

  1. The seabed of the internal waters and territorial seas of coastal states, which are under territorial sovereignty
  2. The seabed and subsoil of the EEZ, which is part of that zone
  3. The continental shelf area, which overlaps with the EEZ within 200nm but may extend further, and
  4. The seabed and ocean floor beyond the outer limits of the continental shelf and EEZ, which come within the legal regime of the high seas.

Continental shelf is the area extended from the continent (land). It is geographically part of the continent itself overlain by relatively shallow water. The end of the shelf is marked by the steep descent to the ocean floor.

The shelf areas are rich in natural resources, including gas and oil.

Article 77 of the UNCLOS provides for the “sovereign rights for the purpose of exploring [the shelf] and exploiting its natural resources.” However, the water above the shelf remain as high seas.

In absence of the EEZ or in case of shelf beyond 200nm the water above the shelf is considered high sea.

The Coastal state has obligation not to infringe or unjustifiably interfere with navigation and other rights and freedom of other states over the continental shelf.

All states have right to lay down submarine cables and pipelines on the continental shelf.

However, the coastal state has exclusive right regarding drilling on the shelf.

See for the outer limit of the shelf article 76 of the UNCLOS.

  1. The Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ)

Up to 200nm of the baseline.

Covers the exploitation and management of living or non-living resources.

Article 56 provides sovereign rights of the coastal state ‘with regard to other activities for the economic exploitation and exploration of the zone.’

Apart from the freedom of fishing, the freedoms of high seas apply in the EEZ.

See the various facets of legal regime of the EEZ in article 56 -61 of the UNCLOS.

Unlike the continental shelf, EEZ is optional. That is EEZ should be claimed and be operated by the application of law.