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Are there no laws in international waters?

International waters, also known as the high seas, are areas of the ocean that do not fall under the jurisdiction of any single country. Instead, international waters are governed by international agreements and treaties. So contrary to popular belief, there are laws and regulations that apply in international waters, although they are not as extensive as within a country’s territorial waters.

What are international waters?

International waters refer to parts of the ocean that are not included in any country’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). A country’s EEZ extends up to 200 nautical miles from its coast. Beyond the EEZs of various countries lie international waters. International waters cover nearly half of the planet’s surface and a majority of the oceans.

Unlike a country’s territorial waters, no single country has sovereignty over international waters. Instead, international waters are considered a “global commons” and all countries have certain rights and responsibilities in international waters.

What laws apply in international waters?

The main laws governing international waters originate from the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). UNCLOS was established in 1982 and defines the rights and responsibilities of nations regarding the use of the world’s oceans. Some of the key laws that apply in international waters under UNCLOS include:

  • Freedom of navigation – Ships of all countries have the right of innocent passage through international waters. This allows for open navigation and trade.
  • Freedom of fishing – All countries have equal access to fish in international waters, with some limitations.
  • Environmental protection – Countries are responsible for preventing pollution that spreads beyond their own EEZ.
  • Conservation of resources – Overfishing and extractive activities are restricted to ensure sustainability.
  • Marine scientific research – Countries must promote scientific research and share findings internationally.

In addition to UNCLOS, international waters are also governed by the regulations of various intergovernmental organizations such as the International Maritime Organization (IMO) and regional fisheries management organizations.

Who has jurisdiction in international waters?

While no single country has sovereignty in international waters, ships are still subject to the jurisdiction of the country whose flag they fly. The flag state is responsible for enforcing regulations on its vessels including labor laws, environmental standards, and safety requirements.

Jurisdiction is also often determined by special agreements among countries. For example, if a crime is committed aboard a ship in international waters, the authorities of the flag state typically have primary jurisdiction. But the victim’s home country may also have jurisdiction if their citizen was involved.

In cases of illegal activities like piracy, any nearby warships can intervene based on the concept of universal jurisdiction. Universal jurisdiction allows third party countries to pursue punishment of certain international crimes even if they did not directly affect that country.

How are disputes handled in international waters?

Because no single national authority governs international waters, disputes that arise are typically resolved through arbitration and mediation between countries. For example, if two ships collide in international waters, responsibility is determined based on international maritime law regarding issues like negligence.

If countries are engaged in a dispute over the extent of EEZ boundaries or freedom of navigation in a certain area, they may submit the issue to the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea. This UN judicial body makes legally binding rulings related to the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.

In some cases, countries may also agree to take a dispute to the International Court of Justice (ICJ). The ICJ can provide non-binding advisory opinions related to law of the sea issues when requested by authorized UN bodies.

What rules regulate fishing in international waters?

Fishing in international waters is governed by the 1995 UN Fish Stocks Agreement, which aims to ensure responsible and sustainable fishing practices. The agreement requires cooperation between countries to conserve fish populations that migrate across EEZ boundaries into the high seas.

Key regulations for fishing in international waters include:

  • Countries must collect data on fish stocks and set quotas based on the best scientific evidence available.
  • Certain destructive fishing techniques like driftnet fishing are prohibited.
  • Overfished populations must be allowed to recover by reducing catch levels.
  • All vessels must take steps to avoid bycatch of non-target species.

The Fish Stocks Agreement also calls for establishment of Regional Fisheries Management Organizations (RFMOs) to coordinate conservation policies in specific areas. RFMOs like the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT) set catch limits, restrict fishing seasons, and enforce other rules.

What environmental regulations apply in international waters?

Preventing marine pollution is a major priority in international waters. Key regulations include:

  • MARPOL – The International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships (MARPOL) imposes strict limits on vessel discharges including oil, chemicals, sewage, and garbage.
  • London Convention – The 1972 London Convention regulates dumping of wastes at sea. Dumping harmful material like plastics requires special permits.
  • UNCLOS – The UN Law of the Sea Convention gives countries the responsibility to prevent pollution that spreads beyond their EEZ. It also requires environmental impact assessments before offshore construction.

In addition, bilateral and regional agreements between neighboring countries help coordinate pollution prevention efforts across boundaries.

What restrictions apply to mining in international waters?

Mining the deep seabed in international waters is regulated by the International Seabed Authority, an intergovernmental body established under UNCLOS. Their regulations aim to ensure protection of the marine environment from mining and establish a system for sharing resources.

Key mining restrictions in international waters include:

  • Environmental impact assessments must be conducted before mining occurs.
  • Areas with unique biological diversity are set aside as protected from mining activities.
  • Technology must be used to prevent harms from mining waste and tailings.
  • Mining in disputed areas requires approval of the International Seabed Authority.

Currently commercial deep sea mining has not yet commenced, but several companies have exploration contracts through the Authority as technology continues to develop.

What rules apply to laying cables and pipelines?

UNCLOS protects the right to lay submarine cables and pipelines in international waters. But it also imposes rules to prevent environmental harm. Key regulations include:

  • Cables and pipelines must avoid areas of sensitive habitat like coral reefs.
  • Countries must establish safety zones to protect cables and pipelines from damage by ships.
  • If cables or pipelines are out of service, they must be removed entirely.
  • Ships have a duty to avoid damaging existing cables and pipelines from their anchors.

The International Cable Protection Committee helps facilitate cooperation between countries and cable operators to share information on cable routes and avoid accidents.

Can pirates be prosecuted in international waters?

Yes, piracy is one of the few crimes subject to universal jurisdiction meaning any country can capture and prosecute pirates in international waters. UNCLOS defines piracy as illegal acts of violence, detention, or depredation committed by ships or occupants for private gains.

Merchant vessels are authorized to defend themselves against pirates. Naval vessels also commonly patrol areas prone to piracy like the Gulf of Aden off Somalia. Countries have cooperative agreements that allow the transfer of captured pirates for prosecution by the flag state of the naval ship or by regional states like Kenya or the Seychelles.

Are there laws governing human rights abuses in international waters?

Yes, flag states have a responsibility to prevent human rights abuses on ships in international waters. Some key laws and regulations include:

  • The Maritime Labour Convention sets minimum requirements for work conditions and living standards aboard ships.
  • The 1958 Law of the Sea Convention obliges countries to help ships in distress.
  • Ships are subject to laws prohibiting slavery, human trafficking and forced labor.

If human rights abuses occur aboard a ship on the high seas, the flag state has primary responsibility to investigate and prosecute the crime. Port states may also intervene when a ship voluntarily enters their waters.

What laws apply to artificial islands in international waters?

Under UNCLOS, countries have the right to construct artificial islands and installations in international waters for economic purposes.

However, artificial islands do not have the status of territory and cannot be claimed as sovereign. They do not have territorial waters or exclusive economic zones extending beyond 500 meters.

The closest neighboring coastal states can establish safety zones around artificial islands to ensure navigational safety and pollution prevention.

But in general, artificial islands and structures still fall under high seas freedoms allowing ships of all states to navigate nearby.


In conclusion, while no single nation governs international waters, they are still governed by international laws and agreements. The UN Convention on the Law of the Sea provides the overarching framework enforced through mechanisms like the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea. Supplementary regional and bilateral agreements between neighboring coastal states help coordinate standards for fishing, environmental protection, resource extraction, navigation, and other uses. So international waters remain a shared global commons with certain regulations against overexploitation and pollution.