What is Freedom of the Seas?

Ray Hawk

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 United Nations, which is headquartered in New York City, expanded the freedom of the seas concept with its UNCLOS convention.
The United Nations, which is headquartered in New York City, expanded the freedom of the seas concept with its UNCLOS convention.

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.

U.S. President Woodrow Wilson sought to legalize the concept of freedom of the seas during World War I.
U.S. President Woodrow Wilson sought to legalize the concept of freedom of the seas during World War I.

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.

You might also Like

Readers Also Love

Discussion Comments


@clintflint - The problem with the economic zone as established here is that it's very difficult to do anything in the ocean without it affecting wide regions elsewhere. There have been a lot of cases where a country has completely over-fished their own zone and it has led to the collapse of fisheries in other countries because the overall population of species dropped so much.

Pollution is a similar problem. So I'm inclined to think that the oceans should have more stringent international protection, considering that they are a global resource and don't have physical barriers to contain mistakes or greed.


@Fa5t3r - I'm just glad the world has this kind of agreement set out already and at least there is some sort of legal structure to fall back on when these issues become more urgent.

I'd never really thought about the economic ramifications of this law, to be honest. I had always thought of it in terms of thriller plots, where someone is trying to escape from the law and so heads out into "International Waters" to avoid capture and arrest.

I'm sure it's not that simple, as most of the time countries are fairly willing to assist each other in bringing people to justice and they probably have provisions about criminals in these areas.

Still, it does have a kind of romantic vibe about it that they always seem to exploit in a certain kind of movie or book.


I wonder how this is going to work once the polar ice caps melt and more resources become available to different countries. I know they are already gearing up to be able to mine some of the potential oil finds under the North Pole and there has already been some squabbling over who is going to be allowed to exploit which areas.

I guess climate change could end up affecting this rule in more ways than one, as it could change coastlines quite profoundly in some cases, and make some smaller countries disappear altogether.

Post your comments
Forgot password?