What are international waters?

The International waters , Also known as high seas, are all parts of the sea that are not included within the exclusive economic zone, territorial sea or inland waters of a state or an archipelago.

These waters have no sovereignty and are not controlled by any state. All countries have the freedom to perform different activities such as navigation, overfishing, fishing, scientific research, among others.

International waters Map of international waters in the world.

This term can be applied to all large watercourses that transcend the sovereign borders of a nation such as marine ecosystems, estuaries, seas, lakes, oceans, wetlands, rivers, among others.

Characteristics of international waters

International waters are defined as all parts of the seas that are not included in the territorial sea or in the inland waters of a state.

Waters on the high seas are free for all states, have access to the sea or not. In international waters, all the nations of the world have several rights, including:

  • Freedom to implement submarine pipelines and cables.
  • Freedom to construct artificial installations, such as islands, which are permitted under international law.
  • Freedom for navigation.
  • Freedom for fishing, with some conditions.
  • Freedom to carry out scientific research.
  • Freedom to fly offshore waters.

Thus, there is no jurisdiction of a particular nation over this water. The only laws governing these areas are defined by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea and are contained in the multilateral treaty known as the Constitution of the Oceans, established in 1982 and currently ratified by more than 150 states.

Not being within the sovereignty of any state, ships that sail on the high seas usually ascribe to the jurisdiction their own flag, if they have any. However, for illicit acts, such as piracy, it is where the laws established by the United Nations Convention on Maritime Rights are considered.

Location and limits

International waters account for 40% of the Earth's surface and almost 95% of the volume of all the world's oceans.

Being related to important areas of complex marine ecosystems, therefore one of the main concerns is their conservation as common goods of humanity and a sustainable management of the natural resources that are in them.

Thus, while international waters may represent a crucial point for disagreements and conflicts between nations, they also provide a great opportunity for cooperation and promotion of peace in the regions, in addition to ensuring social, economic and sustainable growth.

Laws governing International Waters

One of the most important points of this Constitution of the Oceans is that international waters will be used exclusively for peaceful purposes.

According to Article 2 of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, the waters on the high seas comprise absolute freedom of navigation. Also in Article 4 it is specified that all states have the right to navigate their ships, under the sovereignty of their flag on the high seas.

These States, for their part, should have control of ships sailing in international waters, keep their maintenance up-to-date and ensure that they are manned by qualified personnel both in handling the vessel and its instruments, as well as in laws and regulations Applicable to you.

Article 6 of the same Convention states that when a ship is sailing with the flag of a state, it will be subject to its exclusive jurisdiction while sailing on the high seas. It is important to note that a boat can not carry two flags, or change them at your convenience while sailing in international waters.

Article 11 indicates that there will be no arrest or detention of the ship, not even as a measure of investigation, may be ordered by authorities other than the flag of the state that has jurisdiction over the ship.

Article 22 states that if a warship encounters a foreign merchant ship in high seas waters, an attack or approach is not justifiable, but there is a reasonable degree of suspicion. This is about:

  • A ship that is carrying out piracy actions.
  • A ship that is related to the slave trade.
  • A ship that is of the same nationality as the warship, even if it carries a foreign flag or does not agree to identify itself.
  • A boat that does not have nationality.
  • A boat that transmits transmissions directed to the general public without counting the authorization.

It is worth considering that an action is considered piracy if it is an illegal act of violence, depredation or detention of the passengers of another boat.

In relation to the warships, it is emphasized that they have complete immunity while in international waters, in front of any other boat of different nationality.

It is also pointed out in Article 98 that all ships sailing on the high seas have the obligation to render assistance to any person or ship that is in danger or risk during navigation.

Conservation of resources in international waters

The oceans are the basis of human life, and water is one of the most valuable heritages of all humanity. That is why sustainable exploitation of resources and conservation of marine ecosystems in international waters is the fundamental concern of all states.

That is why international regulations establish that all states will cooperate in the administration and care of living resources that are in high seas areas.

If fishing is carried out, it shall be carried out taking into account the most up-to-date and reliable scientific data on the number of stocks in the area to be exploited and the subsequent possibilities for re-establishment. This applies to all living organisms in the sea, fish and mammals.

For this, there are important conservation programs promoted by the United Nations, which seek the preservation of ocean ecosystems, especially those on the high seas, considering the biodiversity of flora and fauna, conservation policies and sustainable use of these elements .


  1. Areas Beyond National Jurisdiction. Global Environment Facility. Retrieved from thegef.org
  2. International Waters. Wikipedia. Retrieved from Wikipedia.com
  3. Transboundary Waters: UN-Water Thematic Paper Sharing Benefits, Sharing Responsibilities, 2008; UNESCO, 2013. Retrieved from unwater.org
  4. Law of the Sea- Encyclopaedia Britannica. Retrieved from global.britannica.com
  5. Law on International Waters. International State Crime. Retrieved from statecrime.org
  6. United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. Retrieved from un.org.
  7. Task Force on Marine Biodiversity beyond national jurisdictione. Un-Oceans. Retrieved from unoceans.org.

Loading ..

Recent Posts

Loading ..