The convention covers almost all human uses of the seas—navigation and overflight, resource exploration and exploitation, conservation and pollution, fishing, and shipping. Its 321 articles and nine annexes constitute a guide for behavior by nations in the world's oceans, defining maritime zones, laying down rules for drawing boundaries, assigning legal duties and responsibilities, and providing machinery for settlement of disputes. Some of the main provisions of the convention are the following.
Territorial Sea. Coastal states would exercise sovereignty over their territorial sea of up to 22.2 km (12 naut mi) in breadth, but foreign vessels would be allowed "innocent passage" through those waters for purposes of peaceful navigation.
Straits Used for International Navigation. Ships and aircraft of all countries would be allowed "transit passage" through straits used for international navigation, as long as they proceeded without delay and without threatening the bordering states; states alongside the straits would be able to regulate navigation and other aspects of passage.
Archipelagic States. Archipelagic states, consisting of a group or groups of closely related islands and interconnecting waters, would have sovereignty over a sea area enclosed by straight lines drawn between the outermost points of the islands; all other states would enjoy the right of passage through sea lanes designated by the archipelagic states.
Exclusive Economic Zone. Coastal states would have sovereign rights in a 370-km (200-naut mi) exclusive economic zone with respect to natural resources and certain economic activities and would also have certain types of jurisdiction over marine science research and environmental protection; all other states would have freedom of navigation and overflight in the zone, as well as freedom to lay submarine cables and pipelines. Land-locked and other geographically disadvantaged states would have the opportunity to participate in exploiting part of the zone's fisheries when the coastal state could not harvest them all. Highly migratory species of fish and marine mammals would be accorded special protection.
Continental Shelf. Coastal states would have sovereign rights over the continental shelf (the national area of the seabed) for the purpose of exploring and exploiting it; the shelf would extend at least 370 km (200 naut mi) from shore and 648 km (350 naut mi) or more under specified circumstances. Coastal states would share with the international community part of the revenue that they would derive from exploiting oil and other resources from any part of their shelf beyond 370 km (200 naut mi). A Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf would make recommendations to states on the shelf's outer boundaries.
High Seas. All states would enjoy the traditional freedoms of navigation, overflight, scientific research, and fishing on the high seas; they would be obliged to adopt, or cooperate with other states in adopting, measures to conserve living resources.
Islands. The territorial sea, exclusive economic zone, and continental shelf of islands would be determined in accordance with rules applicable to land territory, but rocks that could not sustain human habitation or economic life would have no economic zone or continental shelf.
Enclosed or Semien closed Seas. States bordering enclosed or semi-enclosed seas would be expected to cooperate on management of living resources and on environmental and research policies and activities.
Landlocked States. Landlocked states would have the right of access to and from the sea and would enjoy freedom of transit through the territory of transit states.
International Seabed Area. A "parallel system" would be established for exploring and exploiting the international seabed area. All activities in this area would be under the control of an International Seabed Authority, to be established under the convention. The authority would conduct its own mining operations through its operating arm, called the "Enterprise," and would also contract with private and state ventures to give them mining rights in the area, so that they could operate in parallel with the authority. The first generation of seabed prospectors, called "pioneer investors," would have guarantees of production once mining was authorized.
Marine Pollution. States would be bound to prevent and control marine pollution from any source and would be liable for damage caused by violation of their international obligations to combat marine pollution.
Marine Scientific Research. All marine scientific research in the exclusive economic zone and on the continental shelf would be subject to the consent of the coastal state, but coastal states would in most cases be obliged to grant consent to foreign states when the research was to be conducted for peaceful purposes.
Development and Transfer of Marine Technology. States would be bound to promote the development and transfer of marine technology "on fair and reasonable terms and conditions," with proper regard for all legitimate interests, including the rights and duties of holders, suppliers, and recipients of technology.
States would be obliged to settle their disputes over the interpretation or application of the convention by peaceful means. They would have to submit most types of disputes to a compulsory procedure entailing decisions that would be binding on all parties. Disputes could be submitted to an International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea, to be established under the convention; to the International Court of Justice; or to arbitration. Conciliation also would be available, and, in certain circumstances, submission to conciliation might be compulsory.
The new legal regime for the seas is now firmly established throughout the world: by September 1998, 133 states had established 12-nautical-mile territorial limits and 106 states had declared exclusive economic zones. Nineteen states had declared fishing zones of 200 nautical miles. Most such national legislation is derived directly from the provisions of the convention. The General Assembly is concerned with ensuring maximum conformity in state practice and each year examines the status of the convention and reviews developments relating to its application.