International law of the sea developed historically from the base of two main principles, the right of the coastal state to execute control of a narrow water territory along the coast and the right of free passage and fishing in the high seas beyond that controlled area. Maritime powers have also long battled over control of essential waterways as an economic and political stronghold against other states. Over the years, the unspoken laws that governed navigation and commercial enterprise on the high seas became custom.


In 1956, the United Nations held its first Conference on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS I) in Geneva, establishing four Conventions including: the Convention on the Territorial Sea and Contiguous Zone, the Convention on the Continental Shelf, the Convention on the High Seas and the Convention on Fishing and Conservation of Living Resources of the High Seas. The second Conference, UNCLOS II, took place in 1960, but did not result in any new legal instruments. UNCLOS III, which began in 1973, led to the creation of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. This Convention established the legal framework for a range of issues from navigation, exclusive economic zones, continental shelf jurisdiction, environmental safeguards, scientific research and the settlement of disputes. For political and economic purposes, baselines were established to identify areas known as internal waters, territorial waters, the contiguous zone, the exclusive economic zone and the continental shelf. Each zone is defined specifically along with the legal and economic rights it encompasses. The Convention also established the International Seabed Authority, to regulate seabed exploration and mining and to supervise the equitable distribution of mining royalties.


In 1994, the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea was created after the entry into force of the Law of the Sea Convention. The Tribunal was created to oversee disputes arising out of the Convention and although it is not strictly a body of the United Nations, it works closely with United Nations entities to administer this legal framework.