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What Is Freedom of the Seas?

U.S. President Woodrow Wilson sought to legalize the concept of freedom of the seas during World War I.
The United Nations, which is headquartered in New York City, expanded the freedom of the seas concept with its UNCLOS convention.
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  • Written By: Ray Hawk
  • Edited By: E. E. Hubbard
  • Last Modified Date: 21 March 2014
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Freedom of the seas is a general legal concept regarding the rights and responsibilities of nations in internationally designated waterways. Dating back to the colonial 17th century, the original demarcation line for territorial waters surrounding a nation was 3 nautical miles (5.6 kilometers), or the range of a cannon shot. The main point behind the freedom of the seas proposal was that, beyond the 3 nautical mile (5.6 kilometers) limit, international waters were to remain open to peaceful navigation by all ships, regardless of whether the nations they originated from were at peace or at war.

The Dutch jurist Hugo Grotius is credited as being the first to compose the underlying concept of freedom of the seas in 1609. The idea that the oceans of the world are not subject to the authority of any one nation over another was a lofty principle at the time. The later discovery of rich natural resources in the ocean environment and their frequent use by commercial and scientific interests has delayed international legal adoption of freedom of the seas standards. Strategic military interests in using the high seas to project national power has impacted such agreements as well.

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US President Woodrow Wilson attempted to formally legalize the freedom of the seas concept during World War I. Despite US promotion of freedom of the seas principles during World War I, major naval powers such as France, Germany and Great Britain all rejected the idea. The idea later came to be incorporated into the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which was finalized in 1982, but did not come into full force until 1994. Over 160 nations have ratified the UNCLOS treaty convention, including the European Union. The United States was instrumental in shaping UNCLOS, but has not itself ratified the convention.

The UNCLOS convention expands upon the freedom of the seas concept in several key areas. For most signatories to the convention, the territorial nautical mile limit has been extended to 12 nautical miles (22.2 kilometers). An Exclusive Economic Zone for the exploitation of natural resources is now set to 200 nautical miles (370.4 kilometers) out from a nation’s coastline.

Aside from sovereign and economic considerations, UNCLOS expanded on protecting international waters as initially established by freedom of the seas. This includes obligations for signatory nations to protect the marine environment while simultaneously allowing for open scientific research to be conducted beyond territorial limits. Any exploitation of natural resources in international waters was deferred to the International Seabed Authority.

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