The earth is essentially a liquid planet, with more than 70% of its surface covered by water. Although geographically divided and labeled as continents, islands, seas, and oceans, the earth, when viewed from outer space, appears as one large body of water interspersed with lesser land masses. The world's oceans thus provide a common link for the more than 110 nations whose shorelines are washed by their waters. Despite these universal characteristics, however, this last earthly frontier had become an arena for disputes over such matters as fishing rights and varying claims of national jurisdiction, exploitation of deep sea mineral resources, responsibility for the protection of the environment, the right of innocent passage of ships, and free access to the sea for landlocked countries.
For centuries the doctrine that governed ocean space and resources was "freedom of the seas"; coastal state claims were restricted within narrow limits. The first change in this regime came with the emergence of the doctrine of the continental shelf, spurred by the development of offshore oil and gas fields. The US, in 1945, was the first to proclaim jurisdiction over the natural resources of its continental shelf "beneath the high seas" (that is, beyond US territorial limits). Other nations were quick to follow suit, many of them seeking to extend their jurisdiction over fisheries. In order to clarify accepted norms and codify state practice, the UN, in 1958, convened the First Conference on the Law of the Sea. Working on the basis of drafts prepared by the International Law Commission (see the chapter on International Law), the conference adopted the Convention on the Continental Shelf, thus establishing the new doctrine in international law. The conference adopted three other conventions—on the territorial sea and contiguous zone, the high seas, and fishing and conservation of living resources. A further attempt made in 1960, at the Second Conference on the Law of the Sea, failed to define the limits of the territorial sea.
A sense of urgency was again given to problems connected with the deep seas in 1967, when Malta warned the General Assembly that there was a danger that advanced, industrialized countries who were so equipped might wish to appropriate the ocean floor for their national use, not only to develop its immense resources but also for defense and other purposes. Malta's delegate, Arvid Pardo, remarked that the "dark oceans" were "the womb" of life: life had emerged from the protecting oceans. Man was now returning to the ocean depths, and his penetration "could mark the beginning of the end for man, and indeed for life as we know it … it could also be a unique opportunity to lay solid foundations for a peaceful and increasingly prosperous future for all peoples."
Reacting to the Maltese call for international solutions, the General Assembly set up the Committee on the Peaceful Uses of the Seabed and the Ocean Floor Beyond the Limits of National Jurisdiction, called the Seabed Committee, to study various aspects of the problem and to indicate practical means to promote international cooperation. The principal results of the committee's work were embodied in a Declaration of Principles, adopted by the General Assembly in 1970, proclaiming that the seabed and ocean floor and its resources beyond the limits of national jurisdiction "are the common heritage of mankind" and that no nation should exercise sovereignty or rights over any part of the area. The declaration also called for the establishment of an international regime to govern the exploration and exploitation of the sea's resources for the benefit of mankind.
Recognizing that the problems of ocean space are interrelated and need to be considered as a whole, the General Assembly also decided, in 1970, to convene a new UN Conference on the Law of the Sea to prepare a single comprehensive treaty. The Seabed Committee, in preparation for the conference, thus had to deal not only with the international seabed area but also with such issues as the regime of the high seas, the continental shelf and territorial sea (including the question of limits), fishing rights, preservation of the marine environment, scientific research, and access to the sea by landlocked states.